Friday at approximately 5:20pm Pacific time Blizzard start pointing towards a statement “Regarding Last Weekend’s Hearthstone Grandmasters Tournament” on their various social media accounts. I saw it just as it popped up on Twitter where it appears just ahead of when the press release site was ready to serve it up, leading to about a minute of people getting the amusing Murloc 404 error for Blizzard’s site.
Just looking at the timing of the press release made me a bit skeptical. There is a long tradition in US business and politics of making announcements you think will damaging or not be received well after business hours on a Friday. The hope is that the story will get lost in the mix before Monday comes around. I’ve poked Daybreak about doing this in the past. But the internet news cycle knows no weekends and Blizzard has a much larger profile than Daybreak, so the timing of the release probably doesn’t have much of a message in it unless Blizzard expects everything to die down. It won’t.
Going to the statement, the changes that were announced:
- Blitzchung’s winnings will not be “rescinded,” so he gets to keep any prize money he won
- Blitzchung’s suspension has been reduced from a year to six months. He will be able to compete in the 2020 Grandmasters tournament if he so desires
- The two casters of the show are suspended from working on Blizzard tournament for six months, reduced from “forever” I guess, for failing to keep the show on topic
The first covers what I felt was the most egregiously unfair aspect of the affair. So good on Blizz for that.
The second… well… I’m not happy, but it is better.
And the third, if you’re running a broadcast for Blizzard you’d best be running on a delay and be ready to cut out the feed if things get out of hand I guess. But at that point you’re a Blizz contractor, so you serve at their pleasure.
Blizzard also strongly reiterated its stance that when you play in their league you agree to their rules. If you express views within the context of the tournament, they had better remain focused on the game. Some people have tried to make hash out of the fact that Blizzard, as a company, can express political views, and has done so about “controversial” things like being against discrimination in the work place, but that doesn’t mean that Blizz has to provide a forum for political speech for anybody under its own banner. Blizzard can speak for Blizzard. But when you speak under the Blizzard banner at a Blizzard event, you too are speaking for Blizzard and they get to make the rules.
When it comes down to it, we liked Blitzchung’s message, so we feel he shouldn’t be punished. But it doesn’t take much mental rigor to imagine other messages we would not agree with. You think if somebody got up and echoed Ward Churchill we would be having this issue? We love free speech when we agree with the speaker, but lose our minds when we do not.
That Blizzard did not similarly ban a US team for holding up sign supporting Hong Kong late last week remains problematic. You are sending a message if rules are not enforced uniformly.
And Blizzard failed completely to address the statements made in China by their partner NetEase on the Weibo platform about respecting and defending the pride of China. Therein lays the rub for many. As I noted elsewhere, to business in China you must partner with a Chinese company in a joint venture. For Blizzard their partner is NetEase. That partner must have a controlling stake in the venture. To do business in China you have to hand over the rights to your product and messaging there. So Blizz may not have any control over what NetEase says in their name and certainly no control over what NetEase says under its own banner.
But, as I wrote on Friday, I am not sure that matters. When you make the deal you get what comes of it, good and bad. So while Blizzard says Blitzchung’s ban was not specifically due to his message and that Blizzard’s relationship with the government of China had nothing to do with the ban, the words of their partner do not line up with that. I do not think it is excessive to insist that Blizzard reconcile what they are saying to their Western audience with what is being said in their name in China.
Given all of this, am I happy? No. But I wrote on Friday that I doubted Blizzard could to anything that would make anybody happy, much less everybody.
And if you were already angry at Blizzard for whatever reason before this occurred, it is very easy to mine their statement for more flaws. You can see perennial axe grinder and self-promoter Mark Kern out there on Twitter trying to make himself the head of the anti-Blizzard faction. That he goes to such ridiculous lengths to find fault (How dare Blizzard describe what a shout caster is!) makes him look like a buffoon yet again, diluting his message with the trivial. But I expect no less from him. Mark Kern is just going to be Mark Kern.
Anyway, Blitzhchung getting his prize money makes me feel better, as does the reduction in his suspension, which will allow him to compete in next year’s tournament. We will see if he has the liberty in Hong Kong to do so a year down the road. Chinese President for Life Xi Jinping was ratcheting up the rhetoric this past weekend in what sounded very much like a warning that repression was coming. We’ll see who wants to do business in China if that comes to pass.
I am not happy with Blizzard’s failure to own up to the dichotomy of its China situation. I don’t expect them to divest fully from China right now, as I have seen some demand. China is alleged to be only 5% of Blizz’s revenue, but you may have noticed that Acti-Blizz has been selling Monthly Active Users as its success metric since they decided never to speak of subscription numbers again, and China is a very large source for that metric when it comes to games like Hearthstone.
But some clarification of the situation and some ownership of what it means might be helpful… or it might not. I’m not sure most people get the reality of doing business in China. Seeing just how compromised Blizz is may not help.
So, after their statement, have I run back and re-subscribed? No.
Blizzard hasn’t done anything to earn my adoration with this, but I still have some time to think about it. Certainly what comes to pass at BlizzCon will influence my thoughts, and that is less than three weeks away. Some people already have plans it seems.
Oct. 16, 2019 addendum: It looks like the US team that held up the sign got a six month ban eventually, as well as an Australian team that call for a boycott of Blizzard. So I guess we can leave “lack of consistency” off the list of complaints. Yay?