Video game behemoth Blizzard Entertainment is returning prize money and reducing its ban on a Hong Kong-based pro esports player who made political comments on air after a win.
The company, which faced international backlash for its initial decision, says it "reacted too quickly" when it slapped a one-year ban on Ng Wai Chung, known under the stagename Blitzchung, and rescinded thousands of dollars in winnings after the gamer shouted a pro-democracy slogan at the Hearthstone Grandmasters tournament last weekend.
"We've had a chance to pause, to listen to our community, and to reflect on what we could have done better," said Blizzard Entertainment's president J. Allen Brack in a lengthy statement Friday. "In hindsight, our process wasn't adequate, and we reacted too quickly."
The American company is responsible for some of the industry's biggest hits including World of Warcraft, StarCraft, Overwatch and the Call of Duty franchise. Blizzard's second quarter net revenue for 2019 was $1.4 billion US.
The backpedaling comes after there were threats by major players to boycott the business, prompting the hashtag #BoycottBlizzard to trend worldwide. There were also reports of various forms of protest by Blizzard employees, including a staged walkout at the company's campus in Irvine, Calif., and company signs saying "Think Globally" and "Every Voice Matters" being covered up.
Both the "Think Globally" and "Every Voice Matters" values have been covered up by incensed employees this morning. pic.twitter.com/I7nAYUes6Q—@lackofrealism
Here's what happened
While being interviewed on a Twitch broadcast following his match at the Hearthstone streaming event Oct. 6, Ng donned a gas mask similar to those worn by Hong Kong protesters and said in Mandarin: "Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times."
Watch the interview with esports pro player Ng Wai Chung, known as Blitzchung, that led to his suspension
@Matthieist #Hearthstone pic.twitter.com/DnaMSEaM4g—@InvenGlobal
The phrase, a slogan used in the pro-democracy movement, was considered to be a violation of tournament rules, which allow for disqualification if a player is brought into "public disrepute" or "damages" Blizzard's image.
"There is a consequence for taking the conversation away from the purpose of the event and disrupting or derailing the broadcast," said Brack.
Blizzard was perceived to be siding with communist-led China — the country is a huge market for gaming and a Chinese holding company has a five per cent stake in Blizzard. Decision-makers were quickly criticized, putting them on the defensive.
I want to be clear: Our relationships in China had no influence on our decision.- Blizzard's president J. Allen Brack
"I want to be clear: Our relationships in China had no influence on our decision," Brack said in the statement. "If this had been the opposing viewpoint delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted the same."
Latest example in growing conflict
It's the latest example of how the entertainment world is trying to navigate the sensitive and complex issues surrounding the Hong Kong protests.
Anti-government protesters have been demonstrating for months, accusing China of stifling Hong Kong's territorial freedoms, which were guaranteed in the 1997 handover.
China denies the accusations. Political commentary on both sides has drawn unsuspecting but prominent figures into the conflict.
The NBA recently took heat over a pro-Hong Kong tweet by the general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey. Morey was forced to apologize, insisting he "always appreciated the significant support" of Chinese fans and sponsors.
And when creators of the animated comedy South Park did an episode satirizing Hollywood and its efforts to access China's vast consumer market, there were efforts to hastily remove the show from the Chinese internet. The move prompted the series to tweet a parody apology.
The star of Disney's upcoming Mulan waded into the debate in August, voicing her support for the Hong Kong police force. It drew both praise from some and calls by others to boycott her film.
In a statement, Ng, 21, said he was "grateful for Blizzard reconsidering its position." He said he still feels the revised six-month suspension is too long but appreciated the company recognizing he "played fair in the tournament" and returning his winnings.
"In the future, I will be more careful on that and express my opinions or show my support to Hong Kong on my personal platforms," Ng said in a statement Saturday.