…And Then Blizzard Lost It

These are interesting times we live in. And ones that seem to, on occasion, move very quickly.

The context, for posterity’s sake, is Blizzard confiscating the prize money from a recent Hearthstone event winner and banning him for a year due to a pro-Hong Kong Live interview statement. No, really. Here’s a link to the official Blizzard blog post, for however long that stays up:

Upon further review we have found the action has violated the 2019 Hearthstone Grandmasters Official Competition Rules section 6.1 (o) and is individual behavior which does not represent Blizzard or Hearthstone Esports. 6.1 (o) is found below.

2019 HEARTHSTONE® GRANDMASTERS OFFICIAL COMPETITION RULES v1.4   p.12, Section 6.1 (o)

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 damages 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 Hearthstone and WoW subreddits have since erupted into a roiling boil.

HS_Boil

At least two prominent bloggers on my roll have said they will be canceling their subscriptions. If posts on Reddit can be believed, there are thousands of others doing likewise. Not a particularly good bit of PR right as patch 8.3 previews are making the rounds and Blizzcon is less than a month away.

Of course, none of it is likely to matter. Blizzard made a completely rational business decision.

Tencent owning a 5% stake in Activision Blizzard is almost wholly irrelevant in the broader truth that China is an insanely large market for games. Like $31 billion and growing to $41.5 billion in five years kind of big. By 2023 there will be more PC gamers in China than the entire population of the US. The latest news is that the US pulled ahead this year in terms of market size, but that is attributed to the fact that China freezed approval of new game licenses for almost a year and put restrictions on screen time for children. Even with zero investment from Tencent, losing access to that “second place” market would be a significant setback for any gaming company.

Don’t get me wrong, I consider China to be one of the most repressive, authoritarian regimes on the planet. But… up to this point, that didn’t seem to matter to anyone. It could be that this was just a particularly egregious example that shocked people into wakefulness, similar to certain phone calls to Ukraine. And that’s fine! Whatever it takes to get people to pay attention to the fact that corporations are not your friend, and that if it were profitable, these men and women board members would have a fiduciary obligation to their shareholders to destabilize the United States and/or any other country.

Canceling your subscription and deleting Blizzard games is one way to protest. I hope you don’t close Battle.net and boot up League of Legends (100% Tencent owned), anything on the Epic Games launcher (48.4% owned), PUBG (11.5%), Path of Exile (80%), Clash of Clans/Royale (84.3%), or any of the other games on the list though. Perhaps that is unfair, as I don’t think the Path of Exiles devs have banned pro-Hong Kong players for interviews. On the other hand, I don’t think these other companies were forced to let go of the tiger’s tail just yet. Nevermind any non-Tencent companies that would be willing to walk the same road for access to hundreds of millions of Chinese customers.

Incidentally, the makers of Gods Unchained (another digital card game) came out with this statement:

.@Blizzard_Ent just banned @blitzchungHS and stripped his Hearthstone winnings because they care about money more than freedom. We will pay for ALL his lost winnings and a ticket to our $500k tournament: no player should be punished for their beliefs.

Cool, huh? I suppose it’s a bit easier to stand up to China when you build your card game around one-time printings of cards, including Mythic-rarity ones of which only four are printed per year, one of which just sold for $62,000:

GU_62k

A bargain at twice the price!

Ultimately, I do hope that Blizzard reverses course. I hope that all the negative PR and boycotting is effective enough at providing change. I hope that American companies will stop bending over backwards to appeal to oppressive regimes.

I had also hoped in the last election that people who would have literally died without Preexisting Conditions protections would not have voted for politicians expressly running to remove said protections, but here we are. This is the world in which we inhabit… until it bursts into flames.

Posted on October 9, 2019, in Hearthstone, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Maybe I’m wrong, but wouldn’t Tencent NOT want to lose non-Chinese customers? So while they are China-based and if pressed would need to conform to any government demands (unless of course Tencent has enough gov pull to make its own demands), at the same time maybe they let some stuff slide (like Pooh references in games they own) outside of China? Yes China is a huge market, but its also a very risky one, with one random act from the gov basically shutting you down. Look at the NBA situation; how much has the NBA lost in terms of investment now, and who is going to go and invest again in growing something in China when one tweet can effectively get you banned? China has always been high risk / high reward, but are we seeing the risk overtake the reward now?

    Also, if I create a LoL account today called Xi the Pooh, would I instantly be banned? If the winner of Worlds in LoL made a pro-HK statement, would Riot act the same way as Blizzard? Maybe its just wishful thinking and they would, but I’m not sure. I think the way Blizzard reacted was way over the line, either because that’s what they really thought they needed to do, or because thats what China demanded and they flatly agreed.

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    • The thing is that China has always been risky, and American companies have fallen over themselves to set up shop for decades. Hell, there are tech companies that had to give away their trade secrets as a condition to do business, and still did so anyway. Maybe that is finally turning a corner with all the “trade war” shenanigans, but the bottom line is money, not morals. And in the gaming sphere, it’s not as though they can shift things over to Vietnam or wherever like commodity producers – the warm bodies are in China.

      As for LoL, I have zero doubt that if the next team World championship winners said something about Hong Kong, they would be shut down in similar fashion. It might be up to debate whether China specifically told Blizzard to jump and Blizzard jumped, or if Blizzard simply anticipated the belt and jumped on their own. But Tencent owns LoL 100% and there is really no such thing as a private Chinese company, regardless of appearances.

      I am extremely cynical when it comes to boycotts, especially when the economic incentives are still aligned towards whatever bad behavior is being boycotted. Changing said incentives is the purpose of the boycott, of course, but such things are rarely sticky unless codified in law. Even if Blizzard does an aboutface, can we really say anything has changed unless we see how these other game devs react when placed in similar circumstances? Or maybe we only really care about Blizzard here because they did it in the sunlight instead of behind closed doors.

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      • I’d really love to see a HK reference in LoL, because I’m not as sure it would end up like this situation. This was a minor tournament for a game much smaller than LoL, and look at the backlash. If a major pro team in LoL got banned or lost millions of winnings, the blowback would be a LOT bigger, and how much money is Tencent (and by connection the Chinese gov) ok to lose?

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      • Reddit seems to say no as far as “Riot is different” is concerned…

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  2. I’m going to have to side with Blizzards actions. While I may disagree, and am in favor of freedom of speech, they are bound by the laws of that country. It isn’t a case of a minority stake holder pressuring them. China has strict rules concerning speaking out against the country. I’m sure they are not happy about being tossed into this situation, but rules of conduct are in place just to make sure everyone knows what the repercussions are. If you check Overwatch you will find pages of players banned for comments about other players. This is only getting attention because of the protests in Hong Kong. If he had said something about Trump I doubt anyone would have cared. But criticizing the country you are in, where you are firmly aware of the laws of that country, and where he has admitted he knew what he said was going to have penalties. It’s not just an oops, I didn’t mean to say that. He did it knowing what the outcome would be.

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    • I mean… they aren’t “bound by the laws” of China. Blizzard just knows that if they didn’t take decisive action, that China would have pulled their license and they would lose X% of their current and future revenue forever. It’s perhaps a distinction without a practical difference, but is kinda shocking to Western sensibilities when done so visibly (and topically).

      I’m not sure if we’ll ever know for sure, but it would be good to know whether China actually threatened Blizzard to take action or else, or whether this is Blizzard trying to anticipate China’s reaction and taking action on their own. The latter is infinitely worse than the former, IMO.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, they are.

        U.S. Employees
        The U.S. national employees of a U.S. company abroad must observe the laws of the land wherever they are working and living and typically do not enjoy any type of diplomatic immunity or protection from observing such laws; they are subject to the penalties applied to local citizens if laws are breached. Many countries forbid taking pictures of government or military structures; others, such as Singapore, have strict laws against spitting on the pavement in public places.

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      • From the description it’s a tournament participant who talked about Hong Kong and not a Blizzard employee, so I don’t see why your text is relevant.

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  3. I think Blizzard still makes the vast majority of its money from western markets. This whole thing seemed more like they misjudged things, thinking no one would really care that much about what goes on in China. Whoops. You know you messed up when someone as level headed as Brian Kibler has bowed out of any further involvement with the GM tournament.

    I think what has gotten people stirred up is a combo of sympathetic movement against repressive government, capitulation to direct pressure by the Chinese government, the total overkill of the punishment, and the cited rule being entirely arbitrary.

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