Censorship comes to e-sports as Blizzard disqualifies Hong Kong supporter
While protests of historic proportions rage on in Hong Kong, I sit on my couch and play Overwatch.
As tragic as this is to admit, I’ve played Overwatch nearly every day of my life for the last two years. It’s a supremely fun game, with compelling characters, immersive battle mechanics, and just enough infuriating setbacks to make you say “okay, I’ll play for ten more minutes and then I’m done — for real this time.”
And while one might think it would take loss of limb to keep me from the game that motivated me to write fanfiction for the first time in ten years (whatever you do, do not search AO3 for “Moira”), earlier this week, Overwatch’s parent company, Blizzard, did just that.
The controversy began at the Asia-Pacific Hearthstone Grandmasters tournament. Hong Kong native and Hearthstone pro Chung Ng Wai (otherwise known as “Blitzchung”) was stripped of his title and his winnings rescinded.
His crime? Calling to “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time,” during the tournament’s live broadcast. According to Blizzard Chung’s actions were in clear violation of tournament rules.
I looked up the rule in question, expecting to find some sort of reference to “political speech.” Instead, the 2019 Hearthstone Grandmasters Official Competition Rules section 6.1 prohibits any action that “brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard image.”
In expressing support for Hong Kong and its people, Chung was allegedly sullying the good name of Blizzard — by rejecting the Chinese government censorship that increasingly controls the video game industry.
Blizzard’s actions against Chung may have spawned a larger online movement calling for gamers to “#BoycottBlizzard” (my Xbox controller is currently gathering dust as I write this), but the culture that led to the incident is certainly nothing new.
PlayUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) is one of the most popular titles in existence today. Late last year, the game’s creators, South Korean company Bluehole, made it impossible for anyone to use the word “Taiwan” in the game’s text chat.
Earlier this week, Riot Games seemingly censored use of the phrase “Hong Kong” during a live broadcast of a League of Legends international tournament. Though they attempted to clarify and say that interpretation is mistaken, the well-documented evidence is damning.
Game manufacturers from around the world are continuing to cave to the pressure of Chinese government censorship requirements in order to cater to one of the biggest gaming markets in the world.
This pressure is so severe and so consistent, it’s beginning to spill over into other forms of entertainment: after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The now-deleted post resulted in the NBA losing 11 partnership deals with Chinese companies.
Somehow, the fallacy persists that these types of professional competitions — be they sports or video games — are somehow “apolitical” and that participants are to remain perfectly neutral entities, vapid and existing for our amusement only.
In the case of Colin Kapernick, who effectively blacklisted himself from the NFL after kneeling during the national anthem and speaking out on inequality in the United States, the backbone of the backlash against him was clearly racist to its core. It doesn’t require much imagination to see why a league comprised of millionaire team owners (95% of whom are white) would take issue with their players (68% of whom are Black) asserting their political consciousnesses.
The logic justifying the censorship of support for Hong Kong in the world of e-sports isn’t much different, but the latest case with Blizzard and Chung points to just how much of a political platform e-sports has become, and how the West has remained largely ignorant of this fact. Blizzard’s attempt to silence Chung and others is another step taken on this dangerous path.
Video games are one of the few mediums that have genuine international appeal. It’s always a bit of a thrill to put on a headset and realize your teammates are comprised of individuals from a handful of countries: maybe someone in Europe who is staying up past their bedtime, or someone in Asia who is logging on from their local gaming cafe. It’s such a typified part of the gaming experience that there are memes about it.
Yet, in their pursuit of wealth and meaninglessness infinite growth, video game companies have consciously decided to favor Chinese money — and international capitalism as a whole — rather than listen to their players, who are crying out for them to support freedom over greed.
It may feel funny or unnatural to some to anoint video game companies with such power, but the fact is that these multinational brands have been amassing political power since their very creation. Now that they are taking the opportunity to flex that power, it’s clear they have learned little about the “good vs. evil” narrative that dominates their industry.
Of course, not every company has taken such a stance. In an interview with The Verge, a representative from Fortnite-maker Epic Games said that the company, “supports everyone’s right to express their views on politics and human rights. We wouldn’t ban or punish a Fortnite player or content creator for speaking on these topics.” While Fortnite and its players happen to be very annoying, this is the stance that all gaming companies should be taking, and it’s shameful to see just how many other brands are unwilling to take such a (ultimately benign) stance.
Yet, as they saying goes: there’s one thing we’ve got that they don’t have, and that’s the numbers. While gamers may get stereotyped for having conservative or extreme views (and in the case of Pewdiepie-style human trash those stereotypes may be warranted), the community has found a rallying cry in the cause of Hong Kong.
Twitter and Reddit are both rife with #BoycottBlizzard discourse. Individuals are sharing their stories of what games like Overwatch and World of Warcraft have contributed to their lives, and the sadness that departing with those games has brought them — and yet they are departing nonetheless. Blizzard employees staged a walkout earlier this week, and developers who have worked with the studio are going their separate ways.
Whatever happens next in terms of Blizzard’s response (their annual convention, BlizzCon, is on the horizon and sure to be interesting), this community unification and global awareness is not something we should let get away from us easily. The video game industry itself may prove to be a pawn of international money and politics, but the players themselves may prove to be an international force of their own.