After causing an international political uproar, video game giant Activision Blizzard has reduced the suspension of a Hong Kong-based pro player of the Blizzard game Hearthstone to six months and will restore his prize money.
The same six-month suspension goes to the two casters whom Blizzard initially fired after they ducked their faces out of the camera’s view as Ng “blitzchung” Wai Chung expressed support for the protests in Hong Kong.
“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,” said Blizzard Entertainment President J. Allen Brack in a Friday evening statement. “If this had been the opposing viewpoint delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted the same.”
Blizzard’s actions sparked a furor, even within Congress, for appearing to bend a knee to China. Tencent, a Chinese entertainment conglomerate, owns a 5 percent stake in Activision Blizzard, and China is a sought-after market in the entertainment world, particularly in gaming.
Brack said blitzchung “played fair,” and that the company now believes he should receive his prize money of $3,000. He was initially banned from competing for one year.
All this comes weeks before a planned protest at the company’s popular annual gathering of fans BlizzCon. Fight for the Future, an online freedom activism group, called for an umbrella protest of companies that cater to China’s interests. And online chatter of Blizzard’s community across various social media platforms showed they fully intended to participate.
It will take some time to see whether Blizzard’s statement would quell the furor. Prominent YouTube industry critic Jim Sterling remained unconvinced.
The Hong Kong protests have been a common rallying point for social activists in recent months. A proposal by Hong Kong to allow extraditions to China sparked the movement, as it was seen by some as an attempt by Beijing to pick apart the autonomy and liberties promised when the former British colony returned to Chinese control in 1997.
The NBA is also dealing with political fallout from a Houston Rockets executive’s tweet in support of the protesters. All of this is set against President Trump’s ongoing trade war with China and its economic fallout.
Blizzard has invested in China’s esports scene through its Overwatch League, placing franchises in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Chengdu. Tencent, a Chinese entertainment giant, owns a 5 percent stake in Blizzard’s parent company, Activision Blizzard, and serves as the NBA’s rights holder in China.
Activision Blizzard is also seeking Chinese approvals for its “Call of Duty Mobile” game, according to the Wall Street Journal. That game saw a record-breaking 100 million downloads in its first week. Releasing it in China, where mobile gaming is a larger phenomenon, would reap even more financial rewards for the largest gaming company of the West.