“Every Voice Matters”
This article has taken longer than I wanted to get out, but I feel the weight of this story is important to need to be discussed. These past two weeks have been quite an interesting and controversial time for Activision Blizzard, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time for them. Activision’s Call of Duty Modern Warfare, arguably the what is expected to be the biggest game release of the year again, is less than a week away; Blizzard’s huge mega franchise Overwatch has launched on Nintendo Switch; and top it all off Blizzcon 2019 is fast approaching! We are in the last three months of the year with the huge push that is the Holiday 2019 shopping season revving up to full swing here soon. If there was a time Activision Blizzard couldn’t afford a massive Avengers Level Threat- controversy, it is now.
That didn’t stop them from making the biggest fumble in recent gaming industry history, and I just watch as they shot themselves in the foot. I usually try to avoid any content that is remotely political here on Game Infinite but some times some major gaming stories trend everywhere that can’t help but have political notes. I’ve purposely stayed silent on this story, waiting to collect all the facts, verify what was actually said and done by whom, instead of my usual quick news tweets. I wanted to wait and see how this story developed before diving deep into it.
I considered making this an opinion piece, and I might comment on specific actions but I wanted to be clear I didn’t want to “place blame” or talk about “who was right”. Blizzard may have handled the situation poorly, but this will be mainly a news piece discussing “what” happened.
I am of course talking about the controversy surrounding Blitzchung, a Hearthstone eSports player who decided to make pro-Hong Kong Protestor support, for Hong Kong residents who desire freedom from Communist China.
“Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Age”
After winning the Hearthstone Grandmasters competition, Blitzchung was being interviewed on the official Hearthstone twitch channel where he wore a gas mask and proclaimed “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Age” During this stream, the two casters who were with Blitzchung actually hid under the desk during this proclamation in some type of fear out of what was happening, disassociating themselves from this unplanned outburst at the event.
The VOD of this clip was removed from the Hearthstone channel and what followed this event has been a devastating backlash for Activision Blizzard.
Where this situation gets murky is that this entire story is an important lesson in the idea of being technically right but tragically wrong in the public perception of your position. It is a lesson for any major company that how you respond, when, and what you say matters more sometimes than your technical rights.
You see the story could have been that some player made a political comment on an official channel without permission and was dissociated with. This story may have swung more in Blizzard’s favor. I empathize with the people who live in oppression in China and Hong Kong I really do. I also empathize with Blitzchung in that I understand what it is like to be punished for political beliefs in my personal experience. However, the idea that one can’t make political comments when representing a company is actually a very common one. That isn’t new. Even here in America, employees can’t make political comments at work. Employers have rights too. This was an official Activision/Blizzard owned channel during an official Blizzard event, and he was a guest. By making a political statement during that stream he decided to speak for Blizzard. Now I and many many many people believe in his cause, and the political position he spoke for to be admirable; however it could easily be argued he was technically wrong for doing it WHEN and WHERE he did. I think if Blizzard had handled this grenade in their lap much better they could have avoided the situation all-together. To be clear, No one told Blitzchung he couldn’t say this on his personal twitch or social media. Blizzard responded because he did so on THEIR account.
What should they have done? A very simple PR speak press release that said exactly this: “During a stream last night a player decided to make political comments during our stream. We do not condone nor condemn the position this player has personally, however any political comments are not permitted on our streams and social media. This is a rule we hold for everyone. We have decided to no longer work with this player. Blizzard prefers to remain neutral on political matters to embrace an open and diverse community”. Etc etc…
I mean how hard was that? How hard would that have been. A simple immediate response that put the blame on the where he did it not what he said. It would have clearly told the few people who originally saw broadcast (myself NOT included) this was why Blizzard quite working with Blitzchung, and people would maybe even feel it was a little bit unfair for him to use another channel for your own political message? What if Ninja got up on an official Xbox Mixer stream representing Xbox and made pro Trump comments? (I have no idea his political position) Would people still be so quick as to defend him? People have free speech yes, but there are rules when representing others right? Keep in mind probably nothing at all would have happened if Blitzchung had done this on his own personal channel.
If Blizzard had just done this, they would actually come off as the understood victim. Blitzchung broke the event rules and used an official Blizzard channel to make a political comment. Even if we agree with his position, maybe we could understand he should have done it in a different way.
But, here’s what they ACTUALLY did. It was Blizzard’s reaction, not their position, that has caused massive controversy. Activision Blizzard came back swinging with a huge over reaction that threw so much gasoline on a fire they could have easily snuffed out. Did they just cut ties? Did they release a calmly worded polite release? No, they did the worst thing they could do. They stayed silent. Without an explanation of their actions they banned Blitzchung for an entire YEAR from their esports, they retracted his winnings, and to add further insult to injury, they actually fired the casters who were there…just for being there I guess? The innocent casters who said nothing and tried to hide under the table were fired as collateral damage…
This reaction blew up in to a huge negative public perception of Blizzard. The countless articles I’ve read, YouTube commentaries, and every major journalist are spinning this as Blizzard “taking a pro China stance”, “anti free speech”, “Blizzard censors eSports player for political views” One of my favorite gaming YouTubers even used the title “Money over Freedom”. Even Blizzard's own employees staged a walkout calling into question Blizzard's supposed values, values posted on statues on campus that quote "Every Voice Matters" a phrase Blizzard later uses in their own defense.
You see this ridiculous reaction from Blizzard changed the following narrative from “cut ties for making political comments on their channel” to “banned and punished for one’s political views”. The difference may be subtle, but incredibly important.
If that response wasn’t enough, if the American audiences were thinking this was response to fear or Chinese government pressure on a US company, censoring a man from his freedom of speech, then just read the official statement made by what appeared to be Blizzard to the CHINESE audiences. It didn’t help that a partner Chinese company overseeing the Chinese Hearthstone social media account made a pro Chinese statement that many incorrectly thought was actual Blizzard.
That trully made it look like Blizzard was taking a Pro China Government stance and this made it taking sides. Blizzard made no statement dissociating themselves with the Chinese run company who posted this. What has followed is so much backlash with the #boycottblizzard trending on social media. More so, I’ve been watching major Blizzard owned social media channels and the entire comment section is 99% support for Hong Kong and speaking out against Blizzard’s banning of Blitzchung. The fact of the matter is Activision Blizzard is loosing a Public Relations nightmare, and sometimes perception matters more than anything in business.
Friday, Blizzard eventually released a statement that was too little too late, and said much of what they should have said initially, but four days later by the time Friday came the public was already too mad at Blizzard for how they came across initially.
Blizzard's official Statement, 4 days too late... - Click Here.
In this release they reduce his ban from one year to six months and return his winnings. Another mistake they made was an American team that did the same thing in support of Blitzchung was never banned. The team forfeited out of principles. Blizzard corrected this by also banning them to be “fair”.
However, by Friday the damage was done and should really be a lesson to any company on how not to handle an employee or partner making political comments when representing you. If you punish without clearly explaining that the punishment is for the timing of a comment and association with the company and not the political comment ITSELF, it will blow up in your pocketbooks. The severity of a companies response matters too, they could have just cut ties and parted ways but they responded so aggressively.
Here we are about two weeks later and the controversy has barely slowed down. Blizzard had to cancel the Overwatch Nintendo Switch launch party in New York due to the hot waters. As we approach Blizzcon it will be interesting to see how Blizzard acts. Will they ignore it, try to counter it or make any announcement. If they want my advice, take the high road, don't ignore it, apologize and try to explain. Maybe even invite Blitzchung back on stage to show there's no hard feelings.