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Blitzchung: Blizzard’s PR rock bottom

DreXxiN 2019-10-09 12:45:55
Written by Radoslav "NYDRA" Kolev
The period between the last and the upcoming Blizzcon will go down in history as Blizzard’s worst year in terms of public perception. In the last twelve months, the company shut down an entire esports ecosystem, laid off close to 800 people in a single sweep while bragging about their quarterly profits, saw their long-standing CEO Mike Morhaime step down, fired multiple high execs, and announced a mobile game nobody asked for with the most audacious and arrogant rhetoric question a company representative has ever said to its community. The latest in their PR sins is the story of Ng "blitzchung" Wai Chung. On Monday, Blitzchung was punished with a year-long ban from competitive Hearthstone, expelled from the Hearthstone Grandmasters tour and had his prize money reduced to $0. The punishment came as a response to the player shouting “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age” during a post-game interview on official Blizzard stream, raising awareness of the political protests that’s been going on in the city since June. The video that has since been taken down, but InvenGlobal’s Twitter has preserved it.   As we’ll see, Blitzchung’s is a controversy where the right move is not clear, but the wrong one is. To understand why the player said what he did and why Blizzard acted the way they acted, however, we have to look at the full context first. What’s happening in Hong Kong? Why did Blitzchung call for the liberation of Hong Kong in the first place, however? What’s happening in the city state that has made gamers like him to speak out from such public podium? In short, the citizens of Hong Kong walked to the streets in June in protest of a controversial bill that would allow extradition of convicted criminals to mainland China and Taiwan. The reason people are not happy with this decision is that while Hong Kong’s sovereign state is China, it operates under the so called “one country, two systems”. The latter allows Hong Kong (and other similar regions like Macau, to have their own government, laws, and internal and foreign policies, independent from those of Mainland China. A former British colony, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, but until 2047, it is allowed to operate under the “one country, two systems” rule. The Hong Kong people fear that if passed, a law that would allow criminals to be extradited to China erodes the entire point of the system and is a sign of China meddling into the affairs of the city long before the 50-year period is over. While the bill has since been withdrawn by Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam, the protests have also evolved to be about more than just the extradition law. Hong Kongese are now asking for a more democratic election of their leaders, which are currently voted in by a 1,200-member committee, which is in turn elected by a tiny minority of the eligible voters. In Lam’s case, she was elected by a pro-Beijing committee, which would mean stronger influence from China onto Hong Kong politics. With the protests heating up, often ending with physical altercations between protesters and the police, China has responded with hostility towards the people on the streets of Hong Kong, standing behind Lam and the local police. Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, also said that “Hong Kong is part of China, and its affairs are entirely China’s internal affairs.” The other problem is that it’s not clear what happens to Hong Kong after 2047. Will it become fully independent, will it fully adopt the government of Mainland China and become assimilated? Will it keep the “one country, two systems” government? For Hong Kongese, the second option is the least desirable one, and although 2047 is still far away in time, they see China’s influence so early before the deadline as a warning sign. To wrap it up once again: while the protests initially opposed an extradition bill, they have since changed to call for more independent, democratic Hong Kong — just as the sovereignty transfer promised. Hence, the “Liberate Hong Kong” call out from Blitzchung. Why did Blizzard react this way? The reason behind Blitzchung’s censorship, ban, and prize money take-away (and the firing of the two casters who encouraged it) is simple — Blizzard cannot afford to come in conflict with China over something like this. First, Blizzard is partly owned (5%) by Tencent, one of the largest tech companies in China. Another Chinese tech giant, NetEase, is the official distributor of Blizzard games on the Chinese market. And finally, there’s the very size of the aforementioned market. According to reports from this May, China’s domestic gaming market is expected to hit $41.5 billion in revenue by 2023. The projected number of gamers by that year is also in the high nine figures: more than 767 million, Venture Beat reports. And even if the numbers are not exact or exaggerated, they are still massive — so massive that a for-profit organization like Blizzard cannot afford to neglect. That’s more so when one of your next releases is a mobile Diablo game, a product whose announcement was so hated by the western community that China is likely to be its sole safe heaven, especially given that market’s affinity towards mobile gaming. What is allowed on the Chinese market, however, is of course controlled by the local government, which has the power to dictate how the products of western private businesses are released. Take Valve, for example, who recently partnered with Perfect World to launch Steam China. In the West, Steam is a platform that allows basically anything to be published on it, as long as it doesn’t cross some very extreme boundaries. In China, however, the Steam client won’t offer the same library of games, because many products, including popular titles like PUBG, are banned and even replaced by “patriotic” clones. Now, many of Blizzard’s titles are already on thin ice in mainland China. Overwatch, Diablo, and World of Warcraft are listed as needing “corrective actions”, and that’s another reason why nobody at Blizzard wants to shake the tree. For them, the math is simple: one player’s career is far less important than billions of potential revenue. Blizzard’s only move (as we’ll outline below) is to stay as neutral as possible and distance itself from political arguments. But as it’s been the case many times in the past year, they had the right idea and the wrong execution. Blizzard too tone deaf to see the correct response As the article established at the beginning, Blitzchung’s act of protest has caused a controversy where identifying the right play is difficult, but seeing the wrong one is very, very easy. Let’s start here: there is a valid argument that a game tournament — especially one like Hearthstone, whose purpose is to be light-hearted entertainment for people of all ages — is not the place to bring up politics. As a private company that operates on many different markets, Blizzard are in their right to want to keep such activism away from their streams. By allowing it, they not only stand to hurt their business, but also set up a dangerous precedent where other players can use the platform to spread their own political ideologies. If the Hong Kong protests are a permitted topic, then so should be the likes of the 2020 US elections, the Russia-Ukraine tension, social and political movements of any kind, and so on. And while I don’t necessarily abide by that reasoning, I can see why a company like Blizzard, whose business is to sell as many copies of their products to as many people as possible, would understandably not want to indulge political talk, given the controversy it can generate. However, even if we accept Blizzard did the right thing for themselves (whether or not there was any Chinese influence at all), there is no denying that their handling of the situation has been atrocious. If this was their first offense, one could pen it down as a misguided judgement, but the truth is, Blizzard has been handling issues like these poorly for the past year. What’s ironic is that in many of these past cases, Blizzard’s core actions can be justified. They make sense. Heroes of the Storm esports needed to shut down, because it was a failure from day one and was oozing money year after year. The massive layoffs in February needed to happen so that the company could go back to actively developing games again, and not just rehashing 20-year-old franchises and lying to investors that the Overwatch League is the bomb. Blizzard’s crime, however, is how these actions were “explained” to the public. In Heroes of the Storm’s case, people were fired ahead of the Christmas holidays, with no forewarning and weeks of silence and uncertainty from HQ. The February layoffs, on the other hand, were put in the context of Blizzard’s most successful quarter yet, creating a massive PR dissonance that naturally caused a worldwide hatred for the company. Even if these were the correct decisions for Blizzard’s business, its executives could not find a better way to explain it to their community. Instead of a discourse, all fans heard was the sound of the greedy getting greedier at the expense of everyone else. Blitzchung’s controversy is not at all different. While taking down his interview is a defendable standpoint, his career execution is not. A year-long ban in a game like Hearthstone — especially in its current, closed-off competitive climate — is unrecoverable from. His expulsion from Grandmasters and the taking away of his money pile even more on an already harsh sentence. Blitzhchung should’ve been given a warning, or a monetary fine, or at the very extreme a temporary suspension. He should’ve been scolded but educated that there’s a place and time to bring up the complicated issue of Hong Kong/China politics and a game tournament is not it, because the tournament organizer stands to lose a lot. At the very least, he should’ve been given an appeal process, but of course Blizzard don’t have to extend any of this courtesy. After all, the player was banned based on this clause: “Engaging in any act that, in Blizzard’s sole discretion, brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damage’s Blizzard image will result in removal from Grandmasters and reduction of the player’s prize total to $0 USD, in addition to other remedies which may be provided for under the Handbook and Blizzard’s Website Terms.“ The same punishment is issued to literal criminals, a per Clause 6.1.(n) of the same rulebook. Yes, technically, Blitzchung got the punishment the rulebook dictates (well, mostly, because the clause does not dictate a year-long ban). It’s also likely that Blitzchung would’ve been punished if he had expressed any other political stance, but Blizzard gave the most of their PR incompetence to send the wrong message. “[Blitzchung’s] is individual behaviour which does not represent Blizzard or Hearthstone Esports,” the statement said, before citing the aforementioned, purposefully vague rule. By ending Blitzchung’s career, Blizzard did not stay neutral in the eyes of the public. They came out as being controlled by their Chinese investors and swaying to the tune of the Yuan, even if all they (perhaps) wanted to do is distance themselves from political controversy. And then there was the official Weibo post by Hearthstone China announcing Blitzchung's ban, which also actively hurts the stance of neutrality the English announcement so desperately wanted to promote. For now, at least, the public response has been justifiably harsh towards Blizzard and #BoycottBlizzard is trending worldwide on Twitter. Once again, the company’s image is endangered ahead of their most important event of the year. And while the community hopes that the upcoming Blizzcon will be an act of redemption for the company, the thought process in Irvine, while making no statement whatsoever on the Blitzchung ban, is likely different: “It will all pass. They will soon forget and forgive, like they did with all our previous mistakes and will flock to the stores to buy the next microwave re-heated game we ‘release’.” Will it? Will you? __________ EDIT: It would appear based on Slasher's Twitter that Blizzard have issued a controversial statement on Chinese social media platform Weibo. See below. EDIT2: The article has been modified based on recent discoveries of the below tweet affecting the neutrality of the English announcement.
If you enjoyed this piece, follow the author on Twitter at @GGNydrA. Image via modified logo of Blizzard Entertainment.    
 

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