Once a fan-favorite spectacle tradition for gamers, the 2019 BlizzCon was under jeopardy due to Hong Kong’s massive protest. Controversy erupted when a professional Hearthstone player (Chung Ng Wai) was suspended from the event as well as stripping him of his prize winnings at the Asia-Pacific Grandmasters for wearing a mask and saying “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age.” Although, controversy is nothing new to the BlizzCon event because in 2018 the announcement of the mobile game Diablo Immortal was announced when gamers were anticipating a long-awaited reveal for Diablo 4.
On July 1, 2019, in the community of Hearthstone another controversial subject was announced from BlizzCon that as part of its update to prepare for the new Saviors of Uldum expansion, they would be changing the artwork of several classic cards, cards that have been around for years. These cards were once showed with graphic violence, especially blood, and sexual images in their original form. The community of Hearthstone believed that these changes were in favor of the heavily censored Chinese market–a theory that Blizzard quickly denied.
The first day of the two-day event took place on November 1st, 2019 in which protesters gathered outside of the Anaheim Convention Center where many held up signs that read messages such as “Free Hong Kong,” “Shame on Blizzard” and “Blizzard = China’s bitch.” Some protesters dressed in Winnie the Pooh costumes, which has been banned in China over jokes that the portly character resembles President Xi Jinping. One of those protesters wore a Xi mask in addition to his Pooh costume, asking passersby, “Would you like to commit some genocide?” while holding out dollar bills.
In response to the protest, Blizzard stated in an interview, “We understand this is an important issue, and it’s one of many community members and employees feel strongly about. We deeply value personal expression, and support everyone’s rights to make their voices heard peacefully and lawfully.”
A proud gaming industry that created rememberable games such as Warcraft, StarCraft, Diablo, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm and Overwatch will continue to work with their fanbase and not allow politics to destroy its value. Blizzard’s president J. Allen Brack offered an apology for the way the company handled the controversy, stating,
“We moved too quickly in our decision and then to make matters worse, we were too slow to talk with all of you,” Brack said at the event. “I am sorry, and I accept accountability.”
It was nothing more than a peaceful protest with zero injuries or arrests. It was clear that this wasn’t a protest on blizzard’s political speech policy at all, but instead a “liberate Hong Kong” protest. The protesters were mainly giving out stickers and t-shirts to those who attended the event. T-shirts and stickers that read, “Mei with Hong Kong” (“Mei”, as in the video game hero in OverWatch.) In the end, Blizzard still stands by their policy stating, “While we stand by one’s right to express individual thoughts and opinions, players and other participants that elect to participate in our esports competitions must abide by the official competition rules.”
While things have certainly hit a point of contention for Blizzard, most fans still rallied around releases like Modern Warfare, tipping the scales well over the six hundred million sales mark in its first week alone. However, the financial stress of Blizzard seems to have hit its boiling point and a lot of the blame can be pointed towards the ever increasing stress from the Hong Kong controversy. Blizzard is reportedly losing quite a bit of money this quarter despite some huge numbers from notable IPs. It can be easy to say that sales will be sporadic and some thing swill show more progress than others, but when certain things line up like this, and Blizzard continues to put their foot in their mouth, it becomes increasingly difficult to explain away big changers like this.
What can ultimately be taken away from this? Businesses will have to do things that most consumers and relations will not agree with. However, there is an infinitely better way to do things rather than appearing like you’re groveling at the feet of an entity that is currently under a huge amount of flak and controversy over human rights violations and massive protests that are causing large debates all over the world. There is a way to make both sides happy, unfortunately there is no way to make everyone happy. It can be easy to forget that there is a lot of nuance to an issue like this and it can be even easier to automatically agree with one side over a narrow field of view on the topic. Regardless of which side you fall on, Blizzard made a mistake, and they are paying the price for it.