My fellow fanatics, Blizzcon has come and gone once again. The great convention showcasing the passionate community and talented developers behind the fantastic games made by Blizzard Entertainment. And as always, the studio took this grand event to announce future titles for their fans to enjoy and discuss. They are some of the best people at the craft of video games, every single one of their titles are landmark classics in their own right. In fact, some of our own talented people had time at the event themselves to check out exclusive demos of their latest games, Diablo 4 and Overwatch 2, and you should totally give those a look because we all like to eat around here.
But for me, specifically, I have officially written off the company in my future purchases of interactive entertainment. Not for my consistent disdain for lootboxes or morally questionable sustained monetization, though that has strained my enjoyment of their stuff. No, this doesn’t mean I won’t cover them or look at their material in a professional context ever again, just that they won’t be getting any money directly out of my pocket. It is for a reason that the gaming community needs to be more mindful of as the medium and its actions become increasingly observed by the mainstream culture: civil rights violations.
A few of you probably already know where this is going, but for those who don’t, a very quick recap. Blizzard recently got into some controversy when they wound up banning a prominent Hearthstone streamer, Blitzchung. This wasn’t due to some scandal or something, but because he chose to vocalize his support of liberating Hong Kong from its current humanitarian crisis at the hands of the authoritarian Chinese government. They banned him from streaming Hearthstone for a year, and chose to withhold ten-thousand dollars in tournament winnings he was entitled to.
This lead to a large outcry by the gaming community. Mass boycotts happened, many attendees of Blizzcon showed up to protest and to bring sharp accusations to Blizzard at their Q&A panels, and a lot of radical activist-oriented fan art began circulating, and it has lead to serious concerns regarding Blizzard’s intentions behind the ban. Because last I checked, Blitzchung is an American citizen, and Activision-Blizzard is an American traded company, and if memory serves, America is a place where people have freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Especially in this case, since the expression was about a situation not currently happening in the USA. It’s like hearing a basketball player getting fired because he mentioned starving orphans in Africa.
But this has lead to more cynical accusations. Specifically, Activision-Blizzard didn’t want to anger the Chinese government or its people, risking their games being banned from the public there, and that would mean a lot of lost money. Also the fact that the Chinese gaming company Tencent owns a considerable stake in these two companies. Meaning for the sake of pure personal gain or not wanting to lose financial support, they turned a blind eye to positive PR goodwill and implicitly enabled a fascist superpower on the global stage. Whoops.
Make no mistake, what is happening in Hong Kong is dire. Just do a quick Google search and you’ll find plenty of examples of the horrors going on over there.
This is not just a thing in the game’s industry either by the way. Going back over briefly to basketball, the NBA suffered a very similar controversy regarding players making incendiary comments about China, causing several Chinese sponsors of the organization to pull their funding.
So naturally, the answer might appear to be simple. Reverse the banning, give the player his winnings, and make a proper apology at the prestigious Blizzcon, on top of all of their announcements it would make for a positive spin slam dunk.
Well, we got an apology, but it was the most ineffective, vague and limp. The President of Blizzard, J. Allen Brack went up on stage and gave a non-specific apology regarding the actions taken by the company. He stated that they missed an opportunity to share in a perfect Hearthstone moment, and that we should judge Blizzard by their actions, not their words. And then they made their announcements and the crowd almost immediately forgot about their concerns regarding the agenda and loyalties of this company.
So, I am going to take Allen Brack at his word and judge Blizzard by their actions. First, after this public announcement, they merely lessened Blitzchung’s ban to being six months instead of a year and returned his prize money. They also lessened similar bans for similar reasons on two Taiwanese players. When asked why they did this instead of a full reversal, Brack said it wasn’t for what Blitzchung said, but that what he said wasn’t relevant to the broadcast. Stating in an interview by PC Gamer, “If we hadn’t taken action, if we hadn’t done something, you can imagine the trail that would be in our future around doing interviews. They would become times for people to make a statement about whatever they wanted to, on whatever issue. That’s just a path that we don’t want to go down. We really want the content of those official broadcasts to be focused on the games, and keep that focus.”
On the surface it seems like an innocent enough desire. Keep the focus on the game, the craft, the skill,, etc., but this very attitude is dangerous for the future of not just eSports but the capacity for expression of anything in the increasingly thorny issues of an ever-escalating global community. Boiled down to its most basic level, the message is, “just stick to talking about the game, nobody cares about your politics, and we’ll shut you down if you defy us.” A message that doesn’t exactly stop accusations of China wanting to oppress any criticisms or protests against its administrations or its actions in the world. Bear in mind, this is the country that made it a capital offense to display Winnie the Pooh because President Xi Jinping had his feelings hurt for being compared to the bear’s appearance.
First of all, athletes and eSports members aren’t just entertainers or players, they are human beings. Being able to express views or vocalize causes using their status is not uncommon in sporting events, in many ways its how certain social change finds its footing. Why else did something as innocuous as taking a knee become so potent after all? To just demand players keep their views to themselves is just ridiculous. Obviously, there is always the case of relevance, no one expects a hand of Hearthstone to turn into a bizarre lecture on Roe v. Wade for example, but even basic expressions can be inevitably tied to the inherent appeal or identity of these eSports celebrities.
Second, this very rhetoric only adds to the strong accusations of Activision-Blizzard clearly putting the comfort of China over the liberties and rights of players and influencers of their games. In fact, this was such an issue several US senators sent a letter to Activision CEO Bobby Kotick strongly advising him to reconsider the ban and Blizzard’s statement. When lawmakers in your own country are saying you’re doing something highly morally questionable, something has gone horribly wrong.
Finally, since I am still judging Blizzard by their actions, the icing on this cake is that they immediately followed up all of this vague waffley non-apology malarkey and thinly veiled “just shut up and play our stuff” rhetoric, they revealed Diablo 4 and Overwatch 2, two highly anticipated follow-ups to some of their most successful games, complete with slick cutscenes and playable demos on the showfloor. The PR equivalent of buying someone that thing they really like so they forget about the black eye they got this morning.
I am not saying that Activision-Blizzard as a whole are full of malicious and morally duplicitous people. In fact, I’m sure a lot of people working at Blizzard would rather keep their heads down and just keep making great games meant purely to entertain and enthrall millions of people around the world rather than deal with these unsettling current events. But the fact remains that in the face of authoritarian actions on the global stage, Activision-Blizzard gave credence to China’s actions, had to get US Senators to kick them into saying something, and when they did finally say something it was flimsy to the point of being completely pointless.
And for that reason I do not feel confident anymore as a consumer with buying or continuing my patronage of anything developed by Blizzard Entertainment. Until I see a more concrete and definitive stance on this whole fiasco stated explicitly and unequivocally by Kotick or Brack where they stand by their consumers rather than their sponsors, I do not care anymore about anything they are involved with.
It’s a shame, Diablo 4 looked fantastic.