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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Blizzard won’t ban American players after Hong Kong protest, but team plans to forfeit over boycott

American University esports athletes hold up a sign of protest during the Hearthstone Tespa Collegiate Champs Fall Season Tuesday night. (YouTube)
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*Update (4:41 p.m., Oct. 10): Tespa, the collegiate esports organization partnered with Blizzard that operates the Hearthstone events, scheduled the team’s next match, but the team tells The Post they plan to forfeit and no longer participate in tournaments.

A statement in support of Hong Kong protesters during a live-streamed esports match earlier this week led to the gaming ban heard around the world. As the firestorm of outrage grew, 19-year-old American University student Casey Chambers woke up wondering what his own team could do.

Chambers wasn’t happy with Blizzard’s response to ban “Hearthstone” pro player Ng “Blitzchung” Wai Chung and take away both his previously won prize money and cut off a source of his income via the ban. Chambers was similarly dismayed that the two casters who claimed ignorance of the statements were fired by Blizzard.

Chambers was going to meet his team at their scheduled 2 p.m. practice before their game against Worcester Polytechnic Institute during the American Collegiate Hearthstone Championship. He wondered what his teammates thought of making a statement.

“We all had the same idea,” teammate Corwin Dark, 19, told The Washington Post from Chambers’s dorm room. “None of us wanted to push it on the others. We were all just feeling like Blizzard betrayed us. We care about the company and the game, and wanted to do something.”

When the AU students lost, they saw their moment: They held up a sign that read, “Free Hong Kong, Boycott Blizz." The Twitch stream, which was operated by Blizzard, immediately cut away to the winners, and the casters ignored what happened. Winner interviews ended for the night. And the cameras showing the players were turned off, replaced by characters from the game.

“We just wanted to keep the pressure on them,” Dark said. “If you’re going to censor that message, use those same rules to an American audience and see how that goes.”

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 evolution of Hong Kong's protests

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.

BlizzCon, Blizzard’s annual gathering for fans and the setting for numerous high-profile company announcements, looms at the beginning of November. Last year, Blizzard faced huge backlash over announcing the next game in the legendary Diablo franchise was going to be a mobile-only game, co-created by NetEase, a China-based studio.

On the Hearthstone subreddit, many of its users are expecting more outrage. As one comment predicted, “Y’all just KNOW BlizzCon will be nothing but Hong Kong signs.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, the AU Hearthstone team had not heard from Activision Blizzard. On Thursday, Tespa, the collegiate esports organization partnered with Blizzard that operates the Hearthstone events, scheduled the team’s next match without any other communication, Chambers said, but the team plans to forfeit and no longer participate in tournaments.

The student protest was just one of a few public displays of dismay toward the company since Blizzard’s actions. Respected pro card player and streamer Brian Kibler announced he will not be casting the Grandmasters finals at Blizzard’s annual BlizzCon event.

“I will not be a smiling face on camera that tacitly endorses this decision,” Kibler said in a blog post, calling the punishments unwarranted and unfair. “Unless something changes, I will have no involvement in Grandmasters moving forward.”

In an interview on Kibler’s Twitch stream Wednesday, he said the decision to take a stand didn’t come lightly and that he could “realistically never work with Hearthstone again.”

He also added that other members of the Hearthstone community support his stand but also don’t feel they could comment publicly. Kibler said he was willing to risk the blowback but can respect others for not speaking out due to other circumstances. Kibler is a pro “Magic: The Gathering” player and has worked as a designer for similar trading card games.

Meanwhile, Blizzard’s Overwatch character Mei has been quickly adopted on the Internet as a symbol of Hong Kong resistance.

Activision Blizzard has not responded to multiple requests comment as of Wednesday afternoon.

“I think they thought it was just going to be a quiet response and a little bit of anger,” Chambers said of Blizzard. “Honestly we thought it was the best-case scenario that we were going to get Twitch chat to go crazy during the match.”

The Twitch stream’s chat for the AU match indeed went wild, exploding with pasted comments of “SPAM THIS PONG TO FREE HONG KONG."

Chambers said the team wants to remind people that Blitzchung risked far more than he and his teammates did to make a point.

“He risked real things,” Chambers said. “We risked getting banned from a tournament structure we don’t intend to compete in anymore. He lost his permanent Grandmasters spot, which is a money printer. He risked getting arrested by security services in Hong Kong. He actually is the hero here."

AU Game Lab director and professor Andrew Phelps is also president of the Higher Education Video Game Alliance, which works with many education gaming and esports programs across the nation. He said Blizzard’s actions are a flash point for the group’s long-standing debate and research around the role of private game companies.

“Blizzard really stepped in it in a profound way, and are really facing some backlash,” Phelps said. “It highlights this ongoing tension between values and corporate practice, and the ways they intersect around technology platforms.”

For now, Dark said he doesn’t plan on supporting Blizzard.

“Just the idea that Blizzard would use the money and tournaments we support actively for this,” Dark said. “It’s a clear signal they were trying to send to certain authorities.”