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China’s Overwatch League teams end boycott of South Korean player who criticized ‘One China’ policy

Jongyeol “Saebyeolbe” Park shown while competing with his former team. (Robert Paul/Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment)
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The Overwatch League today issued a statement announcing that the league’s four China-based teams will no longer boycott the Seoul Dynasty in any competitions or events. The Hangzhou Spark, one of the the teams involved, released their own statement Thursday afternoon, confirming the end of the boycott and the league’s involvement in bringing about a resolution.

“The Overwatch League is a global community, one made stronger by the diverse backgrounds and perspectives of our players and fans,” a league spokesperson wrote in an email to The Post. “In the spirit of sportsmanship and continuing to deliver amazing competition for our fans around the world, the teams have agreed to resume normal activities with one another.”

The statements come after the Overwatch League teams based in China said they would refuse to participate in any scrimmages or marketing events that include Jongyeol “Saebyeolbe” Park, a South Korean player with the Seoul Dynasty, after Park vented on a Twitch stream about Chinese Internet censorship and how he wasn’t allowed to say Hong Kong or Taiwan is independent from China.

Park’s statements are at odds with the Chinese government’s view that both Hong Kong and Taiwan are part of China. While most countries recognize that Taiwan is part of China, a handful of countries globally acknowledge Taiwan as an independent country. The U.S. has purposefully never made clear its view on Taiwan, but has engaged in a long-standing, unofficial relationship with the Taiwanese government.

China is a key market for the Overwatch League and its owner Activision Blizzard. The esports league recently signed a multiyear broadcasting and strategic partnership with Bilibili, the video-sharing site that owns the Hangzhou Spark. In a quarterly investors call on Tuesday Activision Blizzard touted that the Overwatch League has a “passionate and growing” fan base in China.

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Earlier this week, managers for the Chengdu Hunters, Guangzhou Charge, Hangzhou Spark and Shanghai Dragons released statements on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, lambasting Saebyeolbe for his comments, vowing to boycott any events he was participating in. Those teams all compete with the Dynasty in the league’s East Region, along with American-based franchises, the Los Angeles Valiant, Philadelphia Fusion and New York Excelsior, which have temporarily relocated to Asia during the covid-19 pandemic.

This is the second time Chinese nationalism and the Chinese government’s stance on Hong Kong and Taiwan has embroiled Activision Blizzard in an international debate over censorship and free speech. Back in 2019, the company suspended a “Hearthstone” player who spoke in support of Hong Kong independence during a postgame interview. The suspension drew protests from employees within Blizzard, including former Blizzard vice president and “Overwatch” game director Jeff Kaplan, as well as from people standing outside the company’s annual BlizzCon event.

“We know around the world, there are many different viewpoints. Even within Blizzard, there are many different viewpoints. And so part of what we hope to do is to keep our communities and our platforms free from those types of conversations as best we can, and focus everybody on having a good time together, inclusively playing games,” Blizzard Senior Vice President Allen Adham told The Post in February.

On a Twitch stream that’s no longer available through Saebyeolbe’s profile, the South Korean player said he got in trouble with his team, the Dynasty, when he talked about Hong Kong and Taiwan while on Douyu, a Chinese live-streaming site that’s similar to Twitch.

“I got into a lot of trouble because I talked about Hong Kong,” Saebyeolbe said in a clip from the Twitch stream. “China is going on about things that make no sense. What are you talking about, ‘One China?’”

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Saebyeolbe then said a manager told him “if you want to earn China’s money, then you have to become China’s dog.” It’s unclear whether Saebyeolbe was referring to a team manager or a personal manager. The Seoul Dynasty did not respond to multiple inquiries regarding the boycott and the comments.

On April 14, Saebyeolbe apologized for what he said in a handwritten note posted on Instagram, writing “I want to apologize again for the inappropriate remarks made in my personal live broadcast.”

“I understand that what I said at that moment hurt the hearts of many fans,” Saebyeolbe said. “I will keep this lesson in mind and strive to become a professional player who can be responsible for my words and deeds in the future.”

The Chinese Overwatch League teams announced their boycotts more than two weeks after Saebyeolbe’s apology, starting with a note from the Chengdu Hunter’s manager Yiheng “Luke” Qin, who said that he has many Korean friends who respect that Hong Kong and Taiwan are part of China. Qin said that although he can’t discipline or educate Saebyeolbe on why his views are incorrect, he will avoid competing alongside him.

“We are going to resist all competitions and events of any form in which Saebyeolbe will participate,” Qin wrote on Weibo. “As a professional player, Saebyeolbe should focus on the competition itself.”

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The Seoul Dynasty aren’t scheduled to play one of the four Chinese franchises in an official league match for another three weeks. They will face the Shanghai Dragons on Sunday, May 30.

On Twitter and Reddit, some fans had posted “I stand with Saebyeolbe” as a show of support for the South Korean player. Others discussed using the fan chat during upcoming Overwatch League matches to spam supportive messages to Saebyeolbe, who will not be competing in the tournament scheduled for this weekend.

“Looks like Free Hong Kong is back on the menu boys,” one reply read.

The Post’s Joyce Lee contributed reporting for this story.

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