The protests in Hong Kong have had international business ramifications from the NBA, to the jewelry company Tiffany and Co. But none of the public relations disasters has matched the reaction that video game company Activision Blizzard garnered.
Following a Blizzard tournament for their card game Hearthstone, professional player from Hong Kong, Ng “Blitzchung” Wai Chung expressed support for the protests in Hong Kong. Being interviewed after the match, Blitzchung donned a gas mask while saying “liberate Hong Kong, revolution for our age” into the camera.
It is important to note that Chinese entertainment giant Tencent owns a five percent share in the Blizzard.
Blizzard reacted by stripping Blitzchung of his winnings and suspended him for 12 months for a rules violation. Additionally, Blizzard reported that they would stop working with both commentators, who did not speak about Hong Kong during the broadcast. After the ruling was released a large amount of backlash followed. Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle strongly condemned the company's actions. A group of Blizzard employees walked out in protests the day after the initial punishment.
Community members that played other Blizzard games like the first person shooter Overwatch were disappointed as well. “Their is a lot of resentment towards Blizzard right now” said Gonzaga Overwatch Club President Max Leung-Wagner. “For Blizzard to act so heavy-handedly out of pure financial interest feels like a betrayal of the community.”
Leung-Wagner stated that he understands that Blizzard’s goal is to make a profit but also noted that he believed Blizzard's response to the Blitzchung situation was hypocritical of their mission statement to “think globally”. China is heavily invested in the Overwatch esports scene as well. The Overwatch league has placed franchises in several Chinese cities.
Following the uproar Blizzard President J. Allen Brack put out a statement on the Blizzard website addressing the situation. In the statement he said “The specific views expressed by Blitzchung were not a factor in the decision we made. I want to be clear: our relationships in China had no influence on our decision.” Instead he said that the company's decision was to create a tournament to benefit the global audience. In this release Brack said that the suspension of Blitzchung would be reduced to six months and his prize money would be restored.
While members of Congress and Americans alike can condemn the actions of Chinese censorship seeping its way into international companies, they have no stake in the Chinese economy. Businesses, large and small with ties to Hong Kong and China have to stand up for the values they believe in. This applies not just to when it is convenient, but also when their profits may take a hit.
The truth is Blizzard could have been the company to take the high ground and support free speech in this situation. The company is worth more than 30 billion dollars, has a large international market, and a mission statement saying “every voice matters”. Yet they still flinched at the small controversy that might have affected their bottom line.
If companies like Blizzard want to really push for the common good like their mission statements often say they will, they need to step back and look at the ramifications beyond the short term profit.