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Blizzard’s complicated history with China looms over BlizzCon 2019

BlizzCon is Blizzard Entertainment’s biggest event of the year — and in 2018, it didn’t go as planned.

Fan backlash to Blizzard’s Diablo: Immortal mobile game announcement overshadowed the rest of the show. Everyone expected Diablo 4, and when it didn’t come, people were furious, accusing Blizzard of trying to appeal to a large Chinese mobile market. Blizzard needed 2019 to be different.

It appeared to be going well. Leaks and rumors suggested a big year for BlizzCon attendees, whether that would be announcements of Diablo 4 or an extension of Overwatch. Then it all changed. In the past few weeks leading up to BlizzCon, Blizzard managed to pull itself into an international controversy, with players, politicians, and its own staff furious at the company.

During an official broadcast on Oct. 6, Chung “blitzchung” Ng Wai, a Hearthstone pro from Hong Kong, appeared on screen wearing a gas mask — a symbol of ongoing protests in the region — and shouted “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time,” a phrase associated with the protests. Blizzard reacted quickly, punishing Chung for violating the Hearthstone league’s rules, specifically, a rule against doing anything that’ll bring “you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard’s image.”

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Blizzard punished Chung and the two broadcasters hosting the interview. At first, Chung forfeited his prize money and was suspended from Hearthstone esports for a year. The two Taiwanese casters were fired. Blizzard later reduced its punishments, handing $10,000 in prize money back to Chung but still suspending him for six months, a suspension the two casters got, too.

Blizzard president J. Allen Brack wrote a letter to the Hearthstone community to explain the company’s decision: Though Chung had played fair in the Hearthstone event, Brack said the broadcast is not “a platform for divisive social or political views.”

For many, the damage was already done. Ahead of Blizzard’s punishment reversal (and after it, too), fans, Blizzard staff, and politicians criticized the company’s move. “This decision is particularly concerning in light of the Chinese government’s growing appetite for pressuring American businesses to help stifle free speech,” a bipartisan group of U.S. Congress members wrote in a letter to Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick.

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Hong Kong has been the scene of protests since June, when its local government proposed an amendment that would allow extradition of Hong Kong citizens to mainland China. Demands from protesters have since expanded to include full democracy for Hong Kong, as well as an investigation of police brutality during the protests.

Hongkongers are protesting for human rights — and Chung was using his time on the Hearthstone broadcast to show support for that fight, and for free speech. Blizzard’s decision to punish him for that was a sign to fans that the company valued its Chinese market over its companies’ values, like “Think Globally” and “Every Voice Matters.”

Brack addressed these concerns in the letter to fans, saying that Blizzard “absolutely” is still committed to its values — that Chung can express “divisive and deliberate” viewpoints, but not on Blizzard’s official channels.

Brack continued: “The specific views expressed by blitzchung were not a factor in the decision we made. I want to be clear: our relationships in China had no influence on our decision.”

Critical response

People expressed their anger at Blizzard in different ways. Some started organizing protests at BlizzCon, scheduled to begin tomorrow, Nov. 1 in Anaheim, Calif. Others posted screenshots of themselves uninstalling Blizzard games and canceling their World of Warcraft subscriptions. Protesters began using Chinese Overwatch hero Mei as a symbol of the Hong Kong protests, an image that’s consistently been spammed in response to anything Blizzard’s posted on social media since the incident.

All of this is running in parallel to a similar, even wider controversy with the NBA. On Oct. 4, two days before Chung’s Hearthstone appearance, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted (and then deleted) a message in support of protests in Hong Kong. In response, Chinese media refused to air NBA exhibition games in the country, and streaming partner Tencent “reduced its schedule,” according to ESPN. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said that the Chinese government asked him to fire Morey.

Last week, a group of protestors greeted the NBA’s opening day outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

The pressure looming over Blizzard goes way beyond player unrest over a game announcement, as the game studio is now under international scrutiny. The show floor for BlizzCon 2019 is expected to be uncomfortable, as players and staff weigh tensions between excitement over the annual convention and anger over Blizzard’s perceived fold to Chinese investment. You can see this already through Blizzard’s social media channels, even down to responses to Blizzard stories on Polygon’s social media — there’s a mixture of messages in support of Hong Kong, as well as excitement over upcoming announcements.

Blizzard Entertainment via Polygon

A Blizzard spokesperson told Kotaku the company welcomes “open, constructive, and civil discussion of different perspectives at the show,” noting that it will “have fan Q&A at certain panels as we normally do.”

Blizzard declined comment to Polygon regarding its plan for the show.

The anger the community feels toward Blizzard is complex, intertwined with the company’s long, complicated history with China — it ties into last year’s announcement of Diablo Immortal, tangles up with language that often veers into xenophobia, and is knotted in real distress over human rights violations. Technically, the tension goes all the way back to when World of Warcraft entered a beta period in China in 2005, a year after the game was released in North America.

Blizzard’s history in China

World of Warcraft was immediately popular in China; more than 100,000 people signed up for Blizzard accounts in hopes of participating in the closed beta. World of Warcraft officially launched in June 2005, and the player base ballooned to 1.5 million active players in China, Engadget reported.

Stories out of China began to influence how the country was perceived in the gaming industry. The game’s economy became actual business in China, as thousands of Chinese workers “farmed” for gold in World of Warcraft that could be sold for real money. Gold farms in World of Warcraft garnered global media attention — some called them “virtual sweatshops,” manned by low-wage workers and even prisoners, that critics said disrupted the game’s economy.

A 2007 NPR story reported that an “anti-gold farmer, anti-Chinese sentiment” started to emerge “in a small vocal minority.” A University of California researcher, Ge Jin, told NPR that the narrative contributes to xenophobia towards Chinese people. “I feel American public imagination that China is the threatening force, [that] many jobs are taken away from the U.S. and outsourced to China,” Jin said. “I think many gamers see it as that, too. They see gold farmers as someone who takes away resources from them and intrude into their spaces.”

Media also reported hacking in World of Warcraft, mainly in China and Russia, where hackers installed keylogging software on player computers.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government implemented laws that control just how much players could play games like World of Warcraft. Engadget reported a new system was implemented in 2006 that restricted how long players could access World of Warcraft in an effort to “prevent addiction,” reportedly “mandatory to install in every online game.” World of Warcraft still grew to 4 million active players in China by 2009, according to the report.

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That year, though, World of Warcraft expansion Wrath of the Lich King was rejected by the government at its initial launch due to its content, like skeletons. Skeletons aren’t outright banned in China — there’s tons of media that features them. But the government has a strict approval process that limits content. After a struggle, the expansion was released in China in September 2009, albeit censored. Publication was handed over to NetEase for the Wrath of the Lich King launch, and it remains Blizzard’s Chinese publishing partner to this day. Its 2009 launch sparked an interdepartmental conflict within the Chinese government over which department oversaw the control and release of video games in the country — the Ministry of Culture or the General Administration of Press and Publication.

The game went offline again, and relaunched in 2010, though only with The Burning Crusade. Wrath of the Lich King came back online in August 2010, two years after its U.S. release. World of Warcraft expansion Mists of Pandaria was released in September 2012, shortening the release delay from North America to just a few days. The expansion was hugely popular in China, with a high point of one million concurrent players.

NetEase is Blizzard’s Chinese publisher, which handles all releases in the region. (NetEase also owns an Overwatch League franchise, the Shanghai Dragons.) Elsewhere at Blizzard, Chinese mega-company Tencent owns a 4.9 percent stake in the company — a fraction of the company, but still worth a lot of money. Critics, including the members of congress who wrote to Kotick, have highlighted these relationships as evidence of Blizzard’s apparent desire to capitalize on the country’s gaming market.

These narratives are buzzing in the background of Blizzard’s ongoing controversy regarding China and Hong Kong heading into BlizzCon 2019, blurring the lines between anger at the Chinese government, and misplaced anger at the country and its people.

Preparing for BlizzCon

Two protests are planned over the coming weekend at BlizzCon — one scheduled the morning of Nov. 1, the other in the afternoon. On Facebook, more than 2,000 people have marked themselves interested or attending. On Discord, the “Gamers for Freedom” group has thousands of members, as does the Protest BlizzCon subreddit.

The subreddit itself is a mix of protest planning, pro-Hong Kong art, and support for Hongkongers. Organizers have printed thousands of fliers. Others, like a Mei cosplayer who goes by “zephronica” online, printed more than 100 T-shirts to hand out to protesters. She told Polygon that she didn’t originally intend to go to BlizzCon, but supporters crowdfunded her trip to California after she posted photos of her Hong Kong Mei cosplay.

“I have family in Hong Kong and I have been watching the protest for months now, and there was nothing I could really do to help those in Hong Kong,” zephronica told Polygon. “When the internet decided to make Mei the symbol of democracy, I knew that my chance has finally come to make a difference.”

It’s not entirely clear how the controversy will impact the event itself, whether protests will spill out from the convention entrance and into the show floor.

During the Overwatch World Cup, which will be held at BlizzCon, Hong Kong’s national Overwatch team will likely see a lot of support. In mid-October, the team raised more than $11,000 to attend the event. The team’s support page opened in August, but received a massive influx of donations following Chung’s suspension. (Blizzard is only funding the top 10 teams participating in the Overwatch World Cup — and all others are on their own.) At the very least, there will be a lot of “Free Hong Kong” in Twitch chat.

Blizzard declined to comment to Polygon on the protests planned at the event. BlizzCon begins Nov. 1 at the Anaheim Convention Center.

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