Blizzard’s decision to pander to the Chinese government is a PR headache that simply isn’t going away. Last week, games giant Blizzard stepped in a minefield when it severely punished a Hearthstone player for supporting the protests in Hong Kong during a championship live stream. The reaction was swift, justified, and severe, with everyone from gamers to Blizzard employees accusing the company of prioritizing profits over principles.
After days of silence, Blizzard ultimately issued a statement on the decision and, while public backlash forced it to retreat from some of the player’s more severe punishments, the company doubled down on its decision to censor players for political opinions, ignoring most of the criticisms leveled by human rights organizations like Access Now. It also tried to claim with a straight face that its financial interests in China played no role in the decision:
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. We have these rules to keep the focus on the game and on the tournament to the benefit of a global audience, and that was the only consideration in the actions we took.
Sure, Jan. While the gamer violated tournament rules by injecting political opinion, Blizzard’s over-reaction (the gamer lost all awards and prizes and faced a one year ban from competition) showcased a company absolutely terrified of losing out on Chinese cash. It could have adhered to its rules by applying a more modest punishment. Instead it behaved in a way that made it clear to everybody that Blizzard’s principles like Every Voice Matters–etched at the base of a statue at the company’s headquarters–couldn’t hold a candle to the potential money to be made in China.
But one company’s disastrous face plant is another company’s marketing opportunity. Fortnite developer Epic Games utilized the PR fracas to proclaim that it would not censor gamers simply for having political opinions, insisting companies can walk (embrace fundamental human rights) and chew gum (make a living selling games and game stream ads) at the same time:
Fortnite developer Epic Games said in a statement that it will not ban players or content creators for political speech. The message comes after Blizzard caught fire this week for banning a professional Hearthstone player for shouting a statement associated with Hong Kong protesters.
“Epic supports everyone’s right to express their views on politics and human rights. We wouldn’t ban or punish a Fortnite player or content creator for speaking on these topics,” an Epic Games spokesperson told The Verge.
That statement came despite the fact that Chinese tech giant Tencent has held had a 40 percent stake in Epic since 2011. In contrast, Riot Games, developer of League of Legends, is now 100 percent owned by Tencent. On Friday it effectively sided with Blizzard, proclaiming that broadcasters should “refrain” from discussing “sensitive topics” during game streams. Because, you know, god forbid some kid playing a game express something akin to empathy, while an authoritarian government threatens to “crush the bodies and shatter the bones of Hong Kong residents”:
“As a general rule, we want to keep our broadcasts focused on the game, the sport, and the players,” John Needham, the global head of League of Legends e-sports said in a statement. “We serve fans from many different countries and cultures, and we believe this opportunity comes with a responsibility to keep personal views on sensitives issues (political, religious, or otherwise) separate.”
Upsetting China’s authoritarian government means potentially losing billions for companies dreaming of international expansion, so, more often than not, cutesy purported principles like “every voice matters” are going to hold up like tissue paper in a thunderstorm. Still, there’s a marketing opportunity here for companies interested in showing how having a spine and respecting basic human rights isn’t inherently “bad for business.” Either way, with protests planned for Blizzard’s BlizzCon convention early next month, this was an unforced error that’s not going away anytime soon.
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