So how ’bout that BlizzCon?
Let me dedicate some space to the The Apology. Or, rather, “apology.” A lot of my fellow bloggers seemed surprised that one was offered right in the opening ceremony, but it seems unthinkable that Blizzard would have tried to not address the one thing that threatened to overshadow their whole trade show. Can you imagine the headlines all weekend if Brack said nothing?
Which is amusing to think about, because he did say nothing:
Before we start the opening ceremony, I want to say a few words. Y’know uh Blizzard had the opportunity to bring the world together in a tough Hearthstone Esports moment about a month ago and we did not. We moved too quickly in our decision making and then to make matters worse, we were too slow to talk with all of you. When I think about what I’m most unhappy about, there’s really two things. The first one is we didn’t live up to the high standards that we really set for ourselves and the second is that we failed at our purpose. And for that I’m sorry and I accept accountability.
I’m going to pause here, as it is a bit of a pet peeve of mine whenever someone says “I accept accountability” when there aren’t any consequences to account for. Imagine a parent saying that to the store manager when their child knocks over a display case, but then just leaving without, you know, paying for the shit that got broke. Brack “accepts accountability” and that means… what? Nothing. Is he going to take a pay cut? Resign? Maybe this will be filed in his Permanent Record?
[…] We will do better going forward. But, our actions are going to matter more than any of these words as we walk around this weekend. I hope it is clear how committed we are to everyone’s right to express themselves in all kinds of ways and all kinds of places. I’ve actually seen and heard many of you expressing yourselves this morning.
This is likely a reference to the protesters outside, the people wearing Hong Kong tshirts, and possibly the person walking around in a Winnie the Pooh costume. Which SynCaine sees as a huge deal, for Blizzard allowing someone to do. Because allowing them through the door is surely more potentially damaging than ejecting someone for an obscure reference to China’s president.
Give me a break.
What this apology did was give enough cover for those that were only reluctantly boycotting Blizzard to go back playing games guilt-free. As Brack clarifies in this PCGamer interview, the 6-month ban on Blitzchung (and the casters!) is staying. Would people have boycotted at all if this was the initial punishment? I don’t know – you tell me. The prize money confiscation was especially egregious in my mind, but the whole thing kind of reeks. At the same time, having no policy at all regarding non-Hearthstone speech during a Hearthstone victory interview seems untenable as well.
But, whatever. If an apology with nothing behind it is good enough to allow you to have fun playing videogames again, then have at it. I never joined the boycott myself, because half the items in my house come from China so it all seemed kind of hypocritical. Yes, Blizzard said the quiet part out loud. But if you think the makers of your George Foreman grill would not have also done the same thing in a hypothetical grilling tournament scenario, you are naive to the extreme. Same with the people flocking to Final Fantasy 14 after the controversy, as if Square Enix made some kind of heroic stand against China. You know, what with their partnership with Tencent and all.
I have nothing against principles. I love’em, in fact. But they only ever mean anything when you actually stick with them. If what Brack said at BlizzCon was enough to move your needle, well… maybe you were better off in the peanut gallery with the rest of us.
To recap: Blizzard banned blitzchung on Tuesday for 1 year and took away his prize money.
Late in the day on Friday, Blizzard reverses course… a little bit. Basically, J. Allen Brack releases a non-apology hitting on Core Values and mission statements like it was co-authored by a guy desperately applying to the last open position in Human Resources. The brass tacks are that Blitzchung gets his prize money and he and the shoutcasters are only banned for six months.
Blizzard also very much wants you to know that while “the process wasn’t adequate, and we reacted too quickly,” that this speedy, inadequately processed response was not due to China:
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.
We have these rules to keep the focus on the game and on the tournament to the benefit of a global audience, and that was the only consideration in the actions we took.
If this had been the opposing viewpoint delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted the same.
That’s certainly in line with the Official Blizzard-China social media account of the incident back on Thursday (translated by IGN):
“We express our strong indignation [or resentment] and condemnation of the events that occurred in the Hearthstone Asia Pacific competition last weekend and absolutely oppose the dissemination of personal political ideas during any events [or games]. The players involved will be banned, and the commentators involved will be immediately terminated from any official business. Also, we will protect [or safeguard] our national dignity [or honor].”
Oh, wait, no it’s not.
The broader context of the drama is also instructive. Specifically, the General Manager for the Houston Rockets tweeted a pro-Hong Kong message that threatened to upend billions of dollars in NBA deals and merchandise in China. That tweet went out on October 4th, and the Chinese backlash – including banning broadcasts of Rockets’ games – started on October 6th.
The NBA sent out this tweet on October 7th:
“While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them,” NBA said in a statement, adding: “We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”
Then on October 8th, after considerable domestic backlash, the NBA basically said “just kidding, we’re totes in favor of free speech.” To which China responded by immediately halting all NBA preseason broadcasts and issuing this statement:
“We express our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to Silver’s stated support of Morey’s right to free speech. We believe any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability do not belong to the category of free speech,” the network said. “We will also immediately examine all other cooperation and exchanges with the NBA.”
Then, October 9th, all official Chinese partners with the NBA suspended ties.
…only to reverse course on October 10th, per the New York Times. The speculation is China started to realize how visible its hand up the asses of these puppets had become, and started to worry maybe things were becoming a bit too counter-productive. Indeed, China’s insane overreaction certainly has brought Hong Kong protests and China’s ethnic cleansing of Muslims into greater awareness, if only for a little while.
So, to summarize:
- Oct 4th: Pro-Hong Kong tweet by Rockets’ General Manager
- Oct 6th: Chinese backlash | blitzchung’s pro-Hong Kong interview statement
- Oct 7th: NBA apologizes to China
- Oct 8th: NBA takes it back, China angry | Blizzard apologizes to China, bans blitzchung
- Oct 9th: China suspends relationship with NBA
- Oct 10th: China unsuspends relationship with NBA
- Oct 11th: Blizzard lessens ban on blitzchung
Funny how that all works out.
In fairness to Blizzard, it is possible that everything is just a big coincidence. I doubt it was Brack himself who decided on the punishment – whomever made the call did already have a set of rules in black & white to follow, including the bit about zeroing out prize money. Beyond the bullshit, Blizzard also has a vested interest in not having the winner’s interview becoming a political podium. Imagine a parade of “Make America Great Again” and “Black Lives Matter” and “But Her Emails!” After seeing the wide-ranging backlash, it’s also entirely plausible to need a few days to properly vet a review and response.
The deeper concern here is how much American companies and institutions may have internalized Chinese (government) values along the way. It is one thing for China to threaten to shut down access if a punishment is not meted out. It is a far more pernicious thing if the NBA and Blizzard preemptively overreacted on behalf of China, in anticipation of the belt. Their behavior this time has been very visible. What is less visible is when they change rules, company culture, and otherwise align themselves in subtle ways such that it becomes impossible to offend China in the first place.
No amount of free speech will overcome self-censorship, the Great Firewall in your mind.
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.
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. #freegaming
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:
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.