US Congress members urge Blizzard to ‘reconsider’ Hearthstone pro’s suspension

Lawmakers in both chambers of Congress and from both sides of the aisle have called on Blizzard Entertainment to rethink its suspension of a Hong Kong-based Hearthstone player who publicly supported the ongoing protests against Chinese rule there.

Chung “blitzchung” Ng Wai was suspended after appearing in an official Hearthstone stream in early October wearing a gas mask, a show of support for the Hong Kong demonstrations. He also shouted, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time,” before the broadcast cut away from the video.

Blizzard originally banned Chung for a year and confiscated his most recent winnings, and later shortened that suspension to six months and returned the $10,000 he had earned. The company had also fired a Taiwanese broadcasting team present for Chung’s livestream protest, but later changed that punishment to a six-month suspension.

On Friday, U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Mike Gallagher (R-WI), and Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) wrote a letter to Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick asking the company to reverse course. “We urge you in the strongest terms to reconsider your decision with respect to Mr. Chung,” the legislators wrote.

They continued:

Your company claims to stand by “one’s right to express individual thoughts and opinions,” yet many of your own employees believe that Activision Blizzard’s decision to punish Mr. Chung runs counter to those values. Because your company is such a pillar of the gaming industry, your disappointing decision could have a chilling effect on gamers who seek to use their platform to promote human rights and basic freedoms. Indeed, many gamers around the world have taken notice of your company’s actions, understandably calling for boycotts of Activision Blizzard gaming sites.

The members noted a stake in Activision Blizzard held by Tencent, a Chinese company. Earlier, Blizzard president J. Allen Brack said that Tencent’s investment, which is 4.9% of the company, had “no influence” on the decision to punish Chung. Blizzard’s critics have since highlighted both Tencent’s relationship with the company and Blizzard’s apparent desire to capitalize on China’s large gaming market.

Following his suspension, Chung told Polygon that he had expected “negative consequences” but still wanted to “contribute to the protest [Hong Kong is] having right now.” In protest of Chung’s ban, an American University Hearthstone team held a “Free Hong Kong, boycott Blizz” sign days later during their official match. The collegiate players were banned for six months, but told Polygon they’d forfeit their matches regardless of punishment.

A spokesperson for Wyden told Polygon that he and the other lawmakers want Blizzard to fully reverse its sanctions. (Their letter says Blizzard made Chung “forfeit prize money” and chose to “ban him from participating in tournaments for a year,” although that suspension has since been reduced.)

Blizzard’s seen protests both internally and from fans, and has since canceled at least two events scheduled over the past weeks. People are boycotting Blizzard games and have turned Overwatch hero Mei into a symbol of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Blizzard’s annual fan convention, BlizzCon, is scheduled for early November in Anaheim, California — and attendees are planning further protests at the event.

Since early June, Hong Kong citizens have protested a bill that would allow local authorities to detain and extradite persons wanted by the Chinese government in Beijing. Hong Kong has been under a special government since the United Kingdom ceded control of the territory to China in 1997. Demonstrators have also demanded an investigation into police misconduct during the protests, and a return of democratic reforms promised under the law governing the territory’s 1997 handover.

As the demonstrations have gained international attention and sympathy, many companies have been criticized for “supress[ing] criticism of the Chinese government in hopes of gaining higher profits,” the lawmakers noted. The members of Congress also wrote a disapproving letter to Apple after it removed HKMap, an app used by protesters in Hong Kong, from its app store. The NBA has also been caught in the controversy, after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of Hong Kong protesters, which Morey then deleted and the league’s leadership quickly disavowed. Members of Congress wrote to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver about that on Oct. 9.

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