In the latest of several China-related brand crises in recent days, a professional esports player has been banned from an international tournament and had his winnings stripped, after voicing a slogan in support of Hong Kong’s ongoing protest movement.
Ng Wai-chung, who goes by the online handle Blitzchung, was a competitor in the Asia-Pacific division of the Hearthstone Grandmasters tournament. During a live-streamed post-match interview (after defeating South Korean player Jang “DawN” Hyun Jae) last week, Ng appeared on camera wearing goggles and a gas mask in an act of solidarity with the similarly dressed protesters who have been taking to the Hong Kong’s streets over the last few months.
During the discussion, Ng shouted the common slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” in Mandarin before the live-stream instantly cut away to the two presenters.
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In an official statement, Hearthstone developer and publisher Blizzard Entertainment announced that Ng had been removed from the competition and would receive no prize money despite having won six matches in the tournament. CNN Business said in a report that Ng was set to receive a total of US$3,000 in accrued winnings and was in the running for the US$500,000 prize pool if he hadn’t been disqualified. Blizzard went on to say that Ng will receive a one year ban from joining any official Hearthstone e-sports events until 5 October 2020.
Blizzard Entertainment claimed that Ng’s activities were the behaviour of an individual and did not represent Blizzard or Hearthstone Esports. Its argument for Ng’s expulsion was that he had violated a competition rule which prohibits engaging in any act that “in Blizzard’s sole discretion” brings a competitor into public disrepute, causes offence, or otherwise damages the brand’s image.
The games giant was also keen to make sure its decision was not perceived as an act of censorship, saying in its statement, “While we stand by one’s right to express individual thoughts and opinions, players and other participants that elect to participate in our esports competitions must abide by the official competition rules.”
CNN Business cited that Ng actually believed he had the right and duty to say the slogan and that his intent was to gain greater attention for the ongoing protests and to let protesters who were watching his speech know that he was on their side.
However, in a seeming case of collateral damage, both of the two Taiwan-based live-stream presenters (aka “casters”) who interviewed Ng – known as Virtual and Mr. Yee – have been fired by Blizzard, despite not taking part in or encouraging Ng’s political statement.
In an interview with PC Gamer, Virtual voiced his utter confusion with his firing by Blizzard. The independent contractor said that he was unaware of Ng’s planned statement and was merely doing his job. He did add that he believed Ng had the right to make his statement saying, “If their decision is to still fire me, I can accept that. But I think I’m doing good with my job. The winner should be able to say what he wants to say in the winner interview.”
This case has stirred up a hornets’ nest online, with many netizens taking to social media to voice their displeasure with Blizzard Entertainment, who they see as overreacting in an attempt to bend to Chinese censorship. Esports, a massive market worldwide, is seeing incredible growth in China, with Blizzard intellectual properties being immensely popular with the nation’s youth. Just as with the recent furore involving the NBA, incidents like this are putting a magnifying glass on the relationship brands have with China and brought forward questions if brands should show greater pushback to censorship, even in the face of potentially huge financial losses.