The Apology

The cynical side of me was betting that Blizz would just ignore this and hope it went away.  And, given that there were 40,000+ hardcore cheering fans inside the convention center and about 40 protesters outside as the opening ceremony began, they probably could have pulled it off in the short term.

Instead, the first thing that happened was J. Allen Brack got up and read his apology for what happened.  You can read the text here.

Reading from the teleprompter

As one would expect, the reactions to this were many and varied.  Ars Technica called the apology vague.   Massively OP put the word “apology” in quotes, so I guess they were not buying it.  But they have taken a hard editorial line against Blizzard.  I don’t recall them putting in little editorial apologies for covering other badly behaving companies like Riot.

Others seemed to take the apology as enough.  SynCaine declared victory for the protest.  They certainly got a response.

My own reaction remains somewhat mixed.  The apology was actually fairly vague, though this was a speech at a fan even and not a courtroom elocution, so it was probably too much to expect a rehash of every detail.  Brack said he was sorry for what happened and didn’t shift blame or claim extenuating circumstances.  He didn’t say that the Chinese or Bobby Kotick or whoever made him do it or go the NBA route and try to cast himself as a hero by going on about on how he talked the Chinese down from an even harsher penalty.  He didn’t mention China or Hong Kong at all.  The only thing he did seem clear on was that Blizzard did not live up to the standards to which it claims to aspire.

But what are those standards?

You have to parse things carefully to figure out what he was sorry for, and even then it is pretty opaque.  He said Blizz was too fast to pass judgement then too slow to respond to the outcry that judgement caused.  I think the latter at least is correct.  Going more than a day made things worse certainly.

As for not living up to the purpose of the company, there was some hand waving about bringing people together across the world through video games.  The promise was to do better on that as well, though I am not sure what better or worse really looks like.

He did not announce any specific changes either, nor hold up a “Free Hong Kong” sign, nor put the flag of Hong Kong or the guy walking around dressed up as Winnie the Pooh up on the big screen behind the stage.  Going openly and loudly against China was all that would appease some people, and that was never going to happen.  Blizz was never going to jump into the political ring.

And he didn’t let Blitzchung, or the two teams that were banned for showing support for Hong Kong, off the hook.  Their suspensions stand, and I am okay with that.  There were rules about that, Blitzchung knew them, knew he would likely face sanction, and chose to disobey them for a higher cause.

Blizz, in my opinion, still has to penalize him for what he did, because he did do something wrong and he knew it.  Blizz rescinding the ban would just send the message that it is okay to bring your politics into the tournament.

Most people seem worked up about the ban because they support Blitzchung’s message.  I am sure those people would be fine suspending somebody who said something that didn’t align with their world view, which is the typical free speech hypocrisy we see every day.  Blizz isn’t the government.  They don’t have to allow free speech in their tournament.  So as long as Blizz applies bans in such circumstances independent of the message, I think they’re acting correctly.

It would be different if Blizz were to go after somebody for political statements they made on their own time or tried to lecture people about the situation in Hong Kong.  That would be a whole different kettle of fish.  But participating in their tournaments on their dime you have to play by their rules.

Given that, I am not really sure what the promise to do better really means.  I guess it will mean being consistent with a six month ban for similar violations, applied regardless of message, that taking away prize money earned is wrong, and that penalties should be more slowly deliberated on and more quickly communicated. Maybe?  As anybody who has watched (and understood) the show BoJack Horseman knows, apologizing or feeling bad about what you’ve done doesn’t matter if you don’t change your behavior.  So is that the behavior change?  If not, what is?

For the most part I liked that Brack got up first thing and spoke about this issue, rather than ignoring it or downplaying it or waiting until after 5pm on a Friday to post it to their site.  And the apology had some good aspects, as I mentioned.   But the promise to do better didn’t leave me all that reassured as I am still not clear as to how that translates into action going forward.

So it is complicated.  I am no fan of China.  I haven’t forgiven then for Tienanmen Square.  They are a totalitarian, repressive regime and are engaged in ethnic cleansing as I noted previously.  Letting them into the WTO was a mistake to my mind, given how they abuse it.  The idea has always been that a free market will infect China and force it to liberalize. (Though the real plan has always been simply to make money, because we’re like that.)

The problem is that China doesn’t have a free market.  Every company in China operates only at the sufferance of the government and must be expected to act as agents of the government on deemand.  Any foreign company that does business in China has to partner up with one of those government approved entities, give it control in a joint venture, and be ready appease the Chinese government on demand.  So I would have rather Blizz avoided that altogether.  But that ship sailed years ago and they are hardly alone in doing business in China and to sanction them while giving Apple, Google, GM, the NBA, or whoever a pass doesn’t work for me.  And should you even punish a US company when many of its main competitors are owned in part or in whole by companies like Tencent and NetEase? Doesn’t that essentially help China more?

This is me thinking too much about the whole thing.

If after the apology you’re still on the #BoycottBlizzard bandwagon, I get it.  I don’t think you’ll get what you want, and you really aren’t doing anything to hurt China, or even support Hong Kong, but if Blizzard disappointed you then withholding your support is reasonable.

As for my own reaction, I didn’t rush off to renew my WoW subscription or pre-order Shadowlands.  My financial support remains withheld for now.  But it seems much more likely that I will do both when I feel the time is ripe.  I still have a good amount of time left before I need to do either.   This incident won’t stand in my way, but I will remain sensitive to how Blizz may behave in similar circumstances going forward.  And I wonder who will push the boundaries next and how Blizz will respond.  They could still mess this up.

On this topic:

5 thoughts on “The Apology

  1. bhagpuss

    I posted a lengthy comment on SynCaine’s thread so I’ll try not to rehash it all here but I do think that what Blizzard have done is manage the situation reasonably smartly so as to leave the impression that they’ve changed when in fact they haven’t moved an inch. The thing that most puzzled me about the whole affair was the long periods of silence from Blizzard. I’d have expected a lot more PR massaging a lot sooner but apart from the very delayed revision of the penalties handed out there was nothing.

    Now Blizzcon has begun I think I can see why. They knew they had a locker full of very shiny, exciting new toys to throw to the crowd but because of the way they work they couldn’t really use that leverage until Blizzcon actually happened. That was awkward. It would have been a lot more awkward, though, had they had to go into the conference hall with nothing more than waht they had last year. If that had been the case I think we’d have seen some conciliatory statements a lot sooner.

    Opening with the apology, such as it is (and it is extremely vague) and then following it up with four new games/expansions is something of a shock and awe tactic and it looks like it’s working, so far. Only the most militant objectors are going to hold the line after that and those are most likely people Blizzard had already lost emotionally already. In retrospect, with only forty or so protestors, they may well feel they could have toughed it out but this way they get to look like the good guys again, at least in the eyes of those who felt they were good guys in the first place.

    They are carving out a tricky path going forward, though. It’s all very well keeping your promises vague so you can’t be held to them but that way you risk being people trying to hold you to things you never meant to suggest in the first place. So far there hasn’t been any real follow-up to the kind of protests Blitzchung and the US eSports team made – we’ve just had the boycott, the effects of which are handily visible only to Blizzard themselves. What wil happen should there be a wave of copy-cat protests about a range of issues at Blizzard eSports events would be the litmus test but I suspect there won’t be many.

    The upshot is that Blizzard seem to have decided to put themselves on public warning over their future behavior. It’s going to be interesting to see how that works out for them. They may have dodged this bullet but can they keep it up?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. evehermit

    “I am sure those people would be fine suspending somebody who said something that didn’t align with their world view, which is the typical free speech hypocrisy we see every day”. Isn’t that the truth. It is like the activists protesting for change by breaking the law – who expect everyone else to be following the law. A well written post that reminds us that people do stop and thoughtfully think about these things, instead of just charging off with torches and pitch forks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Asmiroth

    The apology is for the speed of response, not the actual response. I’m not sure how that actually addresses anything.

    The hypocrisy here is about trying to unify people but actually not. When your rule is “anything I decide is wrong is wrong” that’s not a rule. But thats their prerogative.

    They could have taken the opportunity to explain how they want to keep political items out. Or better articulated a wide ranging rule. Even a couple examples. We’ve seen more than enough companies come back from worse, with a much better approach. But here is an empty speech and expansions for diehards. Good enough I guess. When (?) those games actually launch i guess we will find out if it worked.

    Like

  4. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    I do like that PC Gamer interview as it confirms a lot of what I was saying about the perils of operating in China, how a company that goes in there has to give up control to a local company.

    I do disagree somewhat when Brack says that their Chinese partner, NetEase, is not a government agency but a company. That is technically true, but any company in China is beholding to the Chinese government for its ability to operate, so even when the Chinese government doesn’t overtly tell them what to do, they may do things on the assumption that it is what the government would require were it consulted.

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