Blizzard's reaction to an on-air call for the liberation of Hong Kong by a Hearthstone Grandmaster has resulted in a backlash that has put the company between a rock and hard place.
During an Asia-Pacific Grandmasters broadcast, Hearthstone Grandmaster, Chung 'blitzchung Ng Wai appeared wearing a gas mask, and declared "Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age!"
Blizzard has since issued a 12 month ban and revoked his winnings, citing a rule violation that prohibits players from "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."
In addition, the company also fired both casters that appeared in the stream.
The resulting fallout has seen prominent Hearthstone streamers quit, the suspension of the Blizzard subreddit, as well as an online movement that saw "#BoycottBlizzard" trending with more than 21,000 mentions.
Fans are now using Blizzard characters to voice support for the Hong Kong Protests, with Overwatch's Mei being a prominent figure in memes and online material. The hope for many is for China to ban the character or possibly the game, as they did previously with Winnie the Pooh – resulting in a significant loss of revenue for the publisher.
Some Blizzard employees are also voicing their disagreement over the decision, using the company's Orc statue as a rallying point for protest. The statue features Blizzard's core values, of which "Think Globally" and "Every Voice Matters" were covered over. Other employees staged a walkout, rallying at the statue with umbrellas – an item used in the Hong Kong protests to counteract teargas.
Ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong have taken place since March this year. They began in opposition to extradition legislation, but have since grown to encompass police misconduct, and call for the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
While Blizzard has cited the rule violation as cause for Blitzchung's ban, it's hard to ignore what the Chinese market represents for western publishers with more than 312 million PC gamers. The country's history of censorship against those that speak out in opposition to its government is another factor that can't be ignored in this situation.
Support for the Hong Kong protests has seen backlash from China before, with the NBA's Houston Rockets having to apologise for general manager Daryl Morey's Twitter statement of "Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong." The apology came after the Chinese Basketball Association suspended all cooperation with the team.
Blizzard's annual convention is just weeks away and is expected to contain a number of big announcements, including a new expansion reveal for World of Warcraft and potential news on Diablo 4. Regardless of whether the publisher addresses public concern, BlizzCon 2019 is likely to see Q&A panels more heated than last year.