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When Esports Turn Political: Why are members of US Congress talking about Hearthstone?

On the 18th of October, five members of the US Congress people penned a letter to Activision-Blizzard CEO Robert Kotick denouncing Blizzard’s suspension of Hearthstone professional Ng “Blitzchung” Wai Chung. The letter was co-signed by both Republican and Democrat Congress People, including 2016 Republican Presidential candidate Marco Rubio and author of the Green New Deal Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

Hearthstone is an online collectible card game, similar to Yu-Gi-Oh, that was created by Blizzard. The game, which was released in 2014, features a $4 million prize pool for the 2019 season of their professional circuit.

The issue began on the 6th of October when Blitzchung used his post-game interview following an official Hearthstone match to support the protesters in his home city of Hong Kong who have been protesting an amendment to extradition law which could see Hong Kong citizens being sent to face trial in China. During the interview Blitzchung wore a ski-mask and a bandana over his face, mirroring that worn by the protesters, and after the first question from the interviewers he echoed the chants of “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our time!” which have become so famous in recent months. The interviewers could be seen ducking down behind their desk in order to distance themselves from the incident.

Speaking to Inven Global after his post-game interview, Blitzchung admitted that “I know what my action on stream means. It could cause me a lot of trouble, even my personal safety in real life. But I think it’s my duty to say something about the issue.” Despite receiving support for his actions across the esports world, Ng found himself banned from all Hearthstone competitions for a year and stripped of his prize winnings from Season 2 of the Hearthstone Grandmasters Circuit, after being found guilty of breaching “Section 6.1 (o)” of the tournaments rules which prohibits engaging in any act which is found, “at Blizzard’s sole discretion” to have “offend[ed] a portion or group of the public, or damages Blizzard’s image”. The interviewers were also fired from their positions for their alleged role in the protest.

The incident, and Blizzard’s response received international backlash as many speculated that the response may have been influenced by the American company’s financial ties with Tencent, a Chinese technology and gaming firm who own 4.9% stake in Activision Blizzard, worth $2.5 Billion. This accusation is not without precedent either as Tencent, who also own the screening rights to the NBA in China, “temporarily suspended” its NBA preseason broadcast following Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeting out in support of the Hong Kong protests, “Fight for Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.” before quickly deleting the tweet.  

NBA commissioner Adam Silver confirmed that “Chinese interests” requested that the NBA fire Morey for his tweet but the commissioner said “there’s no chance we will even discipline him” at the Time 100 Health Summit.

As a result of this backlash, Blizzard halved Blitzchung’s suspension and reimbursed him the  winnings that they had previously confiscated. The interviewers have had their punishment reduced to a six month suspension. In the company’s 12 of October press release, President of Blizzard Entertainment J. Allen Brack promised that “Moving forward, we will continue to apply tournament rules to ensure our official broadcasts remain focused on the game and are not a platform for divisive social or political views.” citing their wish for every player “feels safe and welcome” while playing Blizzard’s games. 

Standing in solidarity with Blizchung, American University (AU) students held a sign saying “Free Hong Kong, Boycott Blizz[ard]” in front of their camera following a Collegiate Hearthstone Championship match on October 8th. One week later the team received a 6 month ban from all Hearthstone competitions due to their violation of the Collegiate ruleset. 

Two days after the American University team receiving their ban, five members of congress sent an open letter to Activision Blizzard expressing their “deep concern” about the decision penalise Wai Chung for supporting “pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong”. The letter claimed that the decision was particularly disturbing given the “Chinese government’s growing appetite for pressuring American businesses to help stifle free speech.”

The letter urged Activision Blizzard to “look beyond the bottom line and promote American values – like freedom of speech and thought” instead of giving in “to Beijing’s demands in order to preserve market access.” The letter claims that “Last week alone, the Chinese government targeted Apple for hosting an app to help peaceful demonstrators evade repression.” referring to Apple being pressured to remove an app which tracked Hong Kong police with crowdsourced data named “HKmap.Live”.

 

Hugh Dooley – Features Writer 

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