Blizzard Speaks

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  • Blitzchung’s winnings will not be “rescinded,” so he gets to keep any prize money he won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?

7 thoughts on “Blizzard Speaks

  1. bhagpuss

    I thought the official statement poured oil on the flames but as always it’s open to interpretation. The whole thing is becoming more complex than most participants are likely to be willing to untangle. Blitzchung’s wishes certainly no longer seem to be of concern to everyone. There are some jaw-dropping comments about that on Massively’s latest post but then there would be. It’s interesting that he appears to have few issues with Blizzard himself, if indeed he ever had any. He did what he wanted to do and now he seems to want to move on but clearly the matter has passed clean out of his hands.

    Your point on freedom of speech is well-made. I had to look up Ward Churchill, of whom I have never heard, so thanks for providing the link. Many people are using “neo-Nazis” as shorthand for people whose freedom to speak their minds would not be welcomed in post-game interviews or pretty much anywhere else but we could all draw up a list of voices we would not want to hear enjoying the oxygen of free publicity.

    This is the problem with freedom of speech. It’s such a bedrock tenet of American culture that I’m never sure to what degree Americans recognize how nuanced and restricted the concept is in other democratic countries, let alone in the non-democratic ones. In the UK there are any number of things that are legally off-limits in public discourse and I don’t think we’re the most restrictive of nations by a long chalk.

    I always found that oft-quoted aphorism “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (usually misattributed to Voltaire), to be highly problematic at best. If you disapprove of something you might just as well attempt to supress it to prevent it spreading it’s malign influence as encourage its supporters to crow about it, I’d have thought. Perhaps less abstruse are the arguments over how far “The West” should engage commercially with China. We might be coming to a tipping point there but I suspect not quite yet.

    If anything useful comes out of this perhaps it will be an awareness that, just as China is not our friend, neither are corporate entities. They neither know us nor love us. They cannot and they will not. It’s fun to pretend they do sometimes, like it’s fun to pretend your cuddly toys can talk, but it’s not a good idea to believe your own fantasies.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. motstandet

    The last sentence in the Weibo post is the issue for me. If Blizzard is trying to be neutral in all this, then why is there a blatant political statement in a post describing the reprimand of blitzchung? “Defending national dignity” is the rhetoric used when China condones the HK protests.

    Are they worried about alerting/angering the Chinese fans by removing that statement?

    It raises a lot of philosophical questions. Should international companies have a consistent message across its markets? Are they allowed to tailor messages to different cultures? Are companies extra-national instead of inter-national?

    I’ve also been thinking about how another gaming company might handle a similar situation. What if there was an issue during Dota’s The International this year in China? Would Valve have banned players (and effectively eliminated teams) and confiscated winnings? Would they have let it slide and possibly sour relations with China? We are criticizing Blizzard for their response to the situation, but maybe every company would react the same. Blizzard is unlucky to be tested.

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  3. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @bhagpuss – I tend to be a free speech maximalist, but only when it comes to the government. Governments restricting speech, even when it starts with good intentions, tends to lead to members of the government using it to hide their own bad deeds.

    And I am aware that things don’t work this way in other countries. For example, because I tend to watch US programs that feature political satire, I get to hear from time to time that the parliament of the UK does not allow the use of video of it in session for purposes of satire on comedy shows or other light entertainment. I can think of no better use for video of any legislative body. Seems a bit stuffily self-important to me, especially given the clips I’ve seen, but it doesn’t affect me either.

    However no business has to put up with anybody’s nonsense if they don’t want to. I can get irked when companies get draconian in their moderation, and it is open season to criticize them, but I’ll cop to being a half-wit if I ever respond to that sort of thing with, “But my fee speech rights!”

    As for defending the right to say things, I do not find that problematic at all. But I think the key is the right and not the specific content of any actual statement. You can endorse a right to free speech without endorsing everything said under its aegis.

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  4. Esteban

    Blizzard’s response to Blitzchung does get misframed as an absolute free speech issue, which it is not. We are all agreed that Blizzard can ban and silence whomever it likes for whatever reason it likes in the context of its events. This full discretion, however, cuts both ways. Blizzard could, and should, have chosen to let Blitzchung’s statement slide while banning the hypothetical Ward Churchill, as an expression of its vaunted corporate values.

    As to the free speech debate itself, I agree with Bhagpuss that the slippery slope argument is overwrought. I don’t think the overall struggle of our times in this area is with censorship, but rather with ever more sophisticated methods of crafting and disseminating strategic falsehoods.

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  5. Marathal

    From reading all of the Hearthstone tournament rules, and the more restrictive Grand Masters, the impression I have is they were written at a time when we were all bitching about toxicity and player behaviors on Twitch streams, and related to eSports. We were telling them that players at the pro level should be representative of being not only the best at the games, but to fair play and sportsmanship. They screwed up. They got caught off guard and had to apply a ruling that I doubt they considered they would every need to, and found it allowed no leeway. The player knew what he was going to do was a violation. I had read the shout-casters had knowledge he was going to say it. It was a political stunt and they paid the price. Next season there will be addendums to the rules, and we will certainly be all over Blizzard for restricting free speech. There is a time and place for everything and that was not it. They learned, got egg on their face, they won’t let it happen again. If it does? Look for them to potentially wipe their hands of Hearthstone eSports. Then no one wins and they still make millions.

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  6. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Esteban – I find censorship a much more pressing issue. Fake news, or disinformation, or lying, has been around since humans could communicate. The sudden fascination with it as though it were somehow new and more ominous is silly.

    Censorship though, both ends of the political spectrum are in love with it. They want to control society by controlling speech. Being against hate speech or flag burning or showing disrespect for the government or the office of the president… or, frankly, complaining about fake news… these are all coded calls for censorship. In the end, it all comes down to that.

    Basically, lying is a lot tougher in a society where you are free to speak. You let the government rule on what the truth is and you end up with the situation in China where I am sure actual citizens are outraged at the NBA or Blizzard for questioning the rights and sovereignty of the country because they have been fed a steady diet propaganda and where people see what happens to you if you disagree with it publicly.

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