Jordan E. Culley*
The American gaming company Activision Blizzard, Inc. (Blizzard) made international headlines with its decision to ban players for supporting the Hong Kong protests. See Matthew Gault, Blizzard’s Hong Kong Screw-Up Is Officially an International Incident, Vice (Oct. 8, 2019, 5:24 PM), https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/bjw535/blizzards-hong-kong-screw-up-is-officially-an-international-incident. In an official Blizzard broadcast on October 6th, 2019, a player named Blitzchung declared his support for Hong Kong’s protest movement during a post-tournament interview. See id.; Zach Beauchamp, One of America’s Biggest Gaming Companies Is Acting as China’s Censor, Vox (Oct. 8, 2019, 12:10 PM), https://www.vox.com/2019/10/8/20904433/blizzard-hong-kong-hearthstone-blitzchung. Two days later, Blizzard sanctioned Blitzchung by suspending him for a year, required him to forfeit thousands of dollars in prize money from 2019, and fired the commentators who conducted the interview. See Beauchamp, supra. Blizzard supported these sanctions by citing to § 6.1(o) of its Hearthstone Grandmasters Official Competition Rules. See id. This rule states:
Engaging in any act that, in Blizzard’s sole discretion, brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages [sic] Blizzard[’s] image will result in removal from Grandmasters and reduction of the player’s prize total to $0 USD, in addition to other remedies which may be provided for under the Handbook and Blizzard’s Website Terms.
2019 Hearthstone Grandmasters Official Competition Rules v1.4, Blizzard 12, https://bnetcmsus-a.akamaihd.net/cms/page_media/w4/W4NWIBHB74T31564507077190.pdf (last visited Dec. 16, 2019).
Following the news of Blizzard sanctioning Blitzchung, a group of players from American University held up a sign during another Grandmasters tournament that stated: “Free Hong Kong, Boycott Blizz.” Patrick Klepek, Blizzard Bans Three College ‘Hearthstone’ Protestors for Six Months, Vice (Oct. 16, 2019, 12:45 PM), https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/d3akzz/three-college-hearthstone-protesters-banned-for-six-months?utm_source=wptwitter. A week later, Blizzard imposed sanctions on this group of players for violating the Hearthstone Collegiate Championship official rules, and banned the team from competing in any competitions for six months. See id.
These events brought international attention to Hong Kong’s liberation movement and caused the hashtag “#BoycottBlizzard” to trend on Twitter. Jordan Sirani, The Blizzard China Controversy, and Why #BoycottBlizzard Is Trending, Explained, IGN, https://www.ign.com/articles/2019/10/09/activision-blizzard-hong-kong-china-boycott-blizzard-response (last updated Oct. 10, 2019, 6:55 PM). Additionally, many of Blizzard’s community members and professional players pulled out of other Grandmasters tournaments and deleted their accounts. Id. Even U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Marco Rubio responded to the incident and condemned Blizzard for allowing China to use their huge market as leverage to censor players. See Ron Wyden (@RonWyden), Twitter (Oct. 8, 2019, 11:27 PM), https://twitter.com/RonWyden/status/1181637167749193729; Marco Rubio (@marcorubio), Twitter (Oct. 8, 2019, 6:04 AM), twitter.com/marcorubio/status/1181556058659135488. Moreover, on October 18, 2019, five members of the U.S. Congress signed a letter to the Chief Executive Officer of Blizzard which expressed their concern over Blizzard’s decision to impose sanctions that stifled free speech and enabled China to continue their “campaign of intimidation.” Gene Park, Activision Blizzard Under Fire from Bipartisan Group of Congress Members Over China Relations, Wash. Post (Oct. 18, 2019, 5:11 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/video-games/2019/10/18/activision-blizzard-under-fire-bipartisan-group-congress-members-over-china-relations/. Their letter further urged Blizzard to reverse its decision to impose sanctions and to stand up for human rights. Id.
Access Now, a group that defends human rights around the world, also wrote a letter on October 11, 2019 to the Chief Executive Officer of Blizzard regarding its commitment to the freedom of expression. See Blizzard Must Demonstrate Its Commitment to Respecting the Human Rights of Its Users, Access Now, https://www.accessnow.org/blizzard-must-demonstrate-its-commitment-to-respecting-the-human-rights-of-its-users/ (last updated Oct. 16, 2019). In the letter, Access Now’s General Counsel explained that the sanctions imposed on Blitzchung were a violation of human rights, which includes the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly. Id. Access Now’s letter also urged Blizzard to “reset its approach to human rights.” Id. In addition to a call for greater transparency and accountability from Blizzard, the letter left a list of questions for Blizzard to answer, including this blunt question: “Does Blizzard commit to respect the freedom of expression of its stakeholders, including players and stream [commentators].” Id.
On October 12, 2019, the president of Blizzard, J. Allen Brack, reduced the suspensions of Blitzchung and the two commentators to six months and reinstated Blitzchung’s winnings. See Blizzard Entertainment, Regarding Last Weekend’s Hearthstone Grandmasters Tournament, Blizzard (Oct. 12, 2019), https://news.blizzard.com/en-us/blizzard/23185888/regarding-last-weekend-s-hearthstone-grandmasters-tournament. Brack wrote a letter addressed to the Blizzard community in which he affirmed that the focus of Blizzard’s official broadcasts must solely focus on the video game regardless of the viewpoint expressed, and that its broadcasts “are not a platform for divisive social or political views.” Id. Despite Blizzard’s attempt to keep the focus solely on video games, Access Now pointed out that Blizzard is still violating Blitzchung’s human rights by not fully reversing his suspension. See Blizzard Must Demonstrate Its Commitment to Respecting the Human Rights of Its Users, supra. Access Now and other human rights groups are not the only advocates calling for Blizzard to take action. See Park, supra. Blizzard’s employees have been protesting on Blizzard’s campus in California, and its players are closing their accounts. See id. At the annual BlizzCon on November 1, 2019, there was a large demonstration outside of the Anaheim convention center where the convention was being held. See Niraj Chokshi, Why Gamers are Protesting BlizzCon for Hong Kong, N.Y. Times (Nov. 4, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/01/business/blizzcon-blizzard-protest.html. The protesters distributed “Freedom Hong Kong” t-shirts to attendees of the convention and two of the American University students spoke at the protest as well. See id. Inside the convention, Brack apologized on behalf of Blizzard by stating: “We moved too quickly in our decision-making and then, to make matters worse, we were too slow to talk with all of you,” and that the company would “do better.” See id.
Other companies like the NBA, Apple, and Starbucks have been involved in similar situations with the protests in Hong Kong. See Terry Nguyen, American Brands are Trying to Play Both Sides of the Hong Kong-China Conflict, Vox (Oct. 11, 2019, 2:30 PM), https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/10/11/20910039/american-brands-hong-kong-china-conflict. American companies should not bow to Chinese pressure and should prioritize human rights over their profits. As Blizzard companies navigates this storm, its players, employees, and other citizens should continue to voice their opinion and freeze out Blizzard if it continues to operate as a sensor for China.
*Jordan is a second-year student at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where she serves as a staff editor for the Law Review. Jordan is also a member of the Royal Graham Shannonhouse III Honor Society and research assistant for Professor Audrey McFarlane.