Eric did not imagine this would be how he would spend his first BlizzCon. The 26-year-old World of Warcraft (WoW) player from Glendale, California, was at the annual fan event in Anaheim held by Blizzard, the games company behind global hits such as Warcraft, Overwatch and more. Each year, more than 35,000 people pack into the city’s vast convention centre to play games, attend talks and share in their fandom.
But at this year’s event, held last weekend, there was a different feel. Instead of WoW cosplay, Eric was sporting a mask as worn by Hong Kong protesters to shield their faces from tear gas and facial recognition. And rather than joining in with the hype during panels about the forthcoming World of Warcraft: Shadowlands expansion, he was outside the convention centre handing out “Liberate Hong Kong” flyers, adorned with the protestors’ adopted symbol, the Overwatch character Mei.
Eric has joined the protest group Gamers for Freedom, which he discovered though YouTube. “I figured, I live out here, and I ought to do something I care about,” he explains. “I care about Blizzard games, but I also know the situation in Hong Kong is dire. I want businesses to listen to us, and know there are consequences when they make decisions.”
For the past month, the US game developer Blizzard has been engulfed in a political controversy. In October, after a major tournament for the company’s game Hearthstone, esports champion Ng “blitzchung” Wai Chung, who is from Hong Kong, used a livestreamed interview to state his support for protestors in his country. Blizzard’s punishment for expressing this view on their official channel, which doesn’t allow political messages, was to issue him with a year’s ban and revoke his $10,000 prize winnings.
The decision provoked global outrage from fans, US senators and Blizzard’s own employees, with people accusing the American company of favouring Chinese business interests over supporting free speech – a supposed tenet of its corporate philosophy. Disgruntled staff covered the signs on the company campus that expressed its devotion to creative freedom.
Bending to pressure, Blizzard later reinstated Ng Wai Chung’s winnings and reduced the ban – though he is still suspended for six months. This did little to quell the outrage.
While Eric and his group protested outside the fan expo at the weekend, the president of Blizzard Entertainment, J Allen Brack, took to the stage for BlizzCon 2019’s opening ceremony, and prefaced the show’s big new game announcements – Overwatch 2 and Diablo IV – with an apology to fans. Addressing how the company had handled the Hong Kong controversy, he said: “We failed in our purpose. For that, I am sorry, and I accept accountability.”
For many fans, the apology felt hollow. Blitzchung is still suspended. So too are the two Taiwanese Hearthstone casters who were hosting the stream.
In the days following the event, Blizzard Entertainment provided a new comment to the Guardian on the controversy. “We understand this is an important issue, and it’s one many community members and employees feel strongly about,” the statement reads. “We deeply value personal expression, and support everyone’s rights to make their voices heard peacefully and lawfully.”
The first point is correct. But the second seems to be contradicted by the company’s actions. Brack has stated the punishment is “not about the content of Blitzchung’s message”, but about his breaking the rule that official Blizzard channels will not support any political messages of any kind, regardless of leaning.
A message from the official Hearthstone account on Chinese social media site Weibo last month, however, appeared to have taken its own political stance. Following Blitzchung’s ban, it published a post, which, translated to English, supports the tough punishment and spoke about protecting Chinese “national dignity”.
Brack has since confirmed that this statement was not approved by Blizzard in the US, as its Chinese publishing partner, Netease, has sole control of its Weibo accounts (a Chinese partner company is a legal requirement for Blizzard to publish its games in China). But the concern for fans is that American companies like Blizzard are willing to let free speech principles slide when it comes to prioritising big business interests – and that they can have a convenient scapegoat in the shape of a separate, Chinese publisher.
Blizzcon 2019 should have been a huge celebration. After opening the show with the apology, the company revealed its long-awaited sequels Overwatch 2 and Diablo IV, showing impressive teaser trailers and early looks at gameplay to halls packed with thrilled fans, while millions more watched online.
Later in the event, Hearthstone, the online card game which Blitzchung is a Grandmaster in, revealed new expansion, Descent of Dragons, new 8-player Battlegrounds mode, and set esports history, with Chinese player Li “VKLiooon” Xiaomeng becoming the first female Global Finals champion at the event.
But for the people behind the game, seeing their hard work unveiled amid the backdrop of global controversy, lead to a complicated mix of feelings.
Hadidjah Chamberlin, who prefers using they/them pronouns, is an effects artist on Hearthstone, having worked on the title for the past four years. “I think the fact that J addressed it during opening ceremony was really important, and I’m really glad he did that, personally,” they told us, following the announcement.
“Hearthstone has always been … such a fun, welcoming game and that’s one of the things that I really love about it. There’s not a single person involved in any part of this situation that I would wish this on, no matter where you are in this. I think it sucks to have to be a part of that.”
On the expo floor, Blizzard built a fully functioning Hearthstone tavern complete with Blizzcon brews, a Duel-A-Dev table, and live band. Chamberlin feels it was important to celebrate the game, while understanding the controversy around it. “For me, seeing people acknowledge [the controversy], and know that it’s important, and still be able to be excited about the game, and go dance an Irish jig … The fact that people have room for both of those, I think just speaks so well of our community.”
Weighing up those ideas of fandom and civil responsibility has manifested differently for the demonstrators outside the convention centre, many of whom have cancelled their game subscriptions and deleted their access to Blizzard’s online gaming service, Battle.net – despite their love for these franchises.
Blizzard’s games have a vast audience in China, but this success – as the NBA has also discovered – will have far-reaching ramifications for the culture and politics of entertainment going forward. Fans are finding they have to balance that.
“I adore the lore,” says Eric. “I’ve been an enormous fan of Blizzard, and WoW specifically, for years. But I also realise that there are people elsewhere in the world who can’t voice their opinions like we can in America. And I’m a gamer who wants Blizzard to be successful. Come on guys! I want you guys to do good!”
• Rebecca April May attended a press trip to Blizzcon, where travel and accommodation expenses were met by Activision Blizzard