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Blizzard breaks silence on Hong Kong Hearthstone controversy, reduces punishment on banned player

Blizzard Entertainment is shortening its suspension of Hearthstone player Chung “blitzchung” Ng Wai to six months, Blizzard president J. Allen Brack announced tonight. The developer will no longer strip Chung of his earnings, and both fired casters will have their suspensions reduced to six months, too.

The Irvine-based developer has been under intense scrutiny, including internal criticism from staff, after it suspended Chung on Oct. 8 for expressing support for ongoing protests in Hong Kong during a Hearthstone broadcast. Brack said in his statement that Chung broke the rules by using his interview to “make a statement about the situation in Hong Kong.” He added that Chung’s views were “not a factor” in its decision. “I want to be clear: our relationships in China had no influence on our decision,” he wrote.

He continued: “If this had been the opposing viewpoint delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted the same.”

Here’s an excerpt of Brack’s statement:

Over the past few days, many players, casters, esports fans, and employees have expressed concerns about how we determined the penalties. We’ve had a chance to pause, to listen to our community, and to reflect on what we could have done better. In hindsight, our process wasn’t adequate, and we reacted too quickly.

We want to ensure that we maintain a safe and inclusive environment for all our players, and that our rules and processes are clear. All of this is in service of another important Blizzard value—Play Nice; Play Fair.

In the tournament itself blitzchung *played* fair. We now believe he should receive his prizing. We understand that for some this is not about the prize, and perhaps for others it is disrespectful to even discuss it. That is not our intention.

Chung’s initial suspension came after winning a Hearthstone Grandmasters match against South Korean player Jang “DawN” Hyun Jae on Oct. 6. In his post-game interview, Chung appeared on stream wearing a gas mask and shouted “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time.” The broadcast quickly cut away from the interview and Blizzard later pulled the video offline. On Oct. 8, it announced its decision to suspend Chung, strip him of his prize winnings, and to fire two Taiwanese casters that hosted the interview.

Following the suspension, Chung told Polygon he knew there would be “negative consequences,” but that he wanted to “contribute to the protest [Hong Kong is] having right now.”

Critics accused Blizzard of folding to Chinese interests, whether that’s Chinese media company Tencent’s 4.9 percent stake in Activision Blizzard — which is worth around $2.5 billion, according to financial website The Motley Fool — or its desire to capitalize on the large Chinese gaming market.

Multiple Hearthstone casters stepped down from their positions in solidarity with Chung, noting that the punishment was too harsh. A collegiate Hearthstone team from American University in Washington, D.C. held up a “Free Hong Kong, boycott Blizz” sign on an official broadcast.

In the days following, Blizzard faced criticism from across the globe as consumers posted pictures of themselves uninstalling Blizzard games and cancelling World of Warcraft subscriptions. Others took to Photoshop to turn Chinese Overwatch hero Mei into a symbol of the Hong Kong protests in an effort to get Blizzard banned in China. At the Blizzard campus in Irvine, California, employees covered up plaques inscribed with the company’s values — particularly, “Think Globally” and “Every Voice Matters” — in protest of Blizzard’s response. Brack addressed these company values in his message to the community, noting that Blizzard’s actions were “causing people to question” if it was committed to those values.

Brack said Blizzard “absolutely is” committed to its values.

Blizzard’s ruling follows a similar incident involving Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. Morey tweeted support for the Hong Kong protests over the weekend, just days before Blizzard’s decision to ban Chung. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the NBA will not apologize for Morey’s tweet, though he did say he and the league are “apologetic” that people are upset, according to the Los Angeles Times. China Central Television said it will suspend preseason broadcasts of the NBA. Tencent has a reported $1.5 billion contract to stream NBA games digitally, and the company said it too will “temporarily suspend” its preseason broadcasts.

Protests have been ongoing in Hong Kong since June, when the government proposed an amendment to extradition law in the region. Hong Kong is part of the People’s Republic of China, but operates semi-autonomously. The extradition law, which has now been suspended, would have allowed suspected criminals to be extradited to China. But the tensions in Hong Kong are about more than just the bill — since the bill’s suspension, protester demands have expanded to include “universal suffrage” and an investigation into the Hong Kong police force.

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