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Blizzard President J. Allen Brack has stated Blizzard Entertainment will not overturn the suspension of the two casters involved in the Free Hong Kong Hearthstone incident, as well as elaborating on the incident from Blizzard’s perspective.
For those unaware, Blizzard Entertainment have been in hot water since their suspension of pro-Hearthstone player Blitzchung for his support of the Hong Kong protests, firing the casters, and their overall handing of the entire debacle.
Blizzard finally released a statement, revealing they had returned Blitzchung’s confiscated prize money and reduced his suspension time. In addition, the casters firing was rescinded, instead becoming a ban. The statement also claimed that “relationships in China had no influence on our decision”
After weeks of protests online and in real life, Brack offered a statement at the start of BlizzCon 2019. “We moved too quickly in our decision-making and then, to make matters worse, we were too slow to talk with all of you,” said Brack. “When I think about what I’m most unhappy about, there’s really two things: The first one is that we didn’t live up to the high standards that we set for ourselves. And the second is that we failed in our purpose. And for that, I am sorry, and I accept accountability.”
Some online condemned the statement itself, saying that it lacked an apology for the actions Blizzard took in the first place. Others were also concerned that Blitzchung was still banned.
PC Gamer states that Virtual, one of the casters (who did not wish to use his real name) contacted them. He expressed his frustation at still being banned. “Expressing myself is exactly what I did during casting,s o why is Blizzard still banning me for six months?”
PC Gamer then conducted a phone interview with Brack, their article stating “Some parts of this interview were edited for length and clarity”. Firstly they asked if Blizzard would be fully undoing the punishments dealt out to Blitzchung and the casters. “We are not,” replied Brack. When pressed to elaborate, Brack stated that Blizzard was committed to free speech, and extended that to their employees and “esport athletes”.
However, Brack stated the open guidelines and policies Blizzard had for tournaments was designed to help people focus on the game, and Blitzchung’s punishment is for not doing so.
“So, one of the things that we talked about in the commitment to expression about all kinds of ways and all kinds of places, is the fact that we’re huge believers in free speech, and we’re huge believers in free expression. We have a long history of that being part of the culture of the company for employees. That’s certainly part of the culture of the relationship that we have with the community. And so employees are free to post on their social media accounts. If you think about the people that we have that are esports athletes, our Grandmasters, or anyone who is participating in esports, they’re free to say and do whatever they want on their social channels. I feel like we have a far more open set of guidelines and policies than really any other traditional sport that takes a view around making sure that all of the people stay on message. And so, that’s how we think about free expression and how we’ve contextualized it.
We want the official broadcasts, which are a small percentage of the overall content that gets created, to be about the games. And we want those to be focused on the games. Again, it’s not about the content of Blitzchung’s message. It’s about the fact that it was not around the games. If we hadn’t taken action, if we hadn’t done something, you can imagine the trail that would be in our future around doing interviews. They would become times for people to make a statement about whatever they wanted to, on whatever issue. That’s just a path that we don’t want to go down. We really want the content of those official broadcasts to be focused on the games, and keep that focus.”
PC Gamer then clarified “So Blizzard’s perspective is that, of course you want players to express themselves, except for when it’s taking place through official channels?”, which Brack confirmed.
Brack’s claim that Blizzard allows employees and competitors to freely post on social media is disproven by an earlier incident, in which Overwatch E-sports team Dallas Fuel’s assistant coach Justin “Jayne” Conroy was “directed” to delete a tweet that criticized Blizzard’s punishment of Blitzchung.
PC Gamer pressed on, asking that if Blitzchung “had said any political message, it would have incurred the same punishment?” Brack confirmed again that the content of the message was not the issue.
“That’s correct. The content was not the problem. It was the fact that it was not about the game in question, it was something very specifically different. I think, and I don’t want to speculate around if he had said this, that, or the other, and how would it have gone- I think that’s a difficult thing to think about, but it’s not about the content of his message. There are many people that are supportive of him and his message.”
The interviewer then revealed that one of the casters has spoken to them. They explained how they wanted to understand the punishment for the casters, and asked “Are the Asian-Pacific casters, or any of your esports casters, given specific training on how to handle on-air breaches of protocol?” Brack stated that the casters had failed to do their job.
“I think that we have a long history of long relationships with a lot of different casters. It’s clear that the goal is to have the broadcast move forward and be about the games. There’s a lot of different interpretations around the [Taiwanese] casters and whether they were involved […] with Blitzchung or not, [but] that’s not really something we considered. What we considered with them was that they are hired by Blizzard to do a job, and in this case that job is to keep the broadcast focused on what it needs to be focused on, which is the games, the winners, and the stories coming out of there. They were not successful in their job. That’s how we made the decision on that.”
It is unclear how much control the casters had over the studio’s cameras, or ability to cut Blitzchung’s feed- not to mention the speed at which he held up his sign. There have also been allegations the casters encouraged Blitzchung in Mandarin. “Say the eight words, then we’ll end the interview immediately.” However, we have been unable to verify that for ourselves. The “eight words” in question are “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times.”- a slogan of the Free Hong Kong movement.
The interview continued. PC Gamer requested if any Chinese partners or Net Ease influenced their decision. We recently looked into Blizzard’s financials to see if that was the case, and discovered that while the region may become lucrative in the future (if analysts are to be believed), Blizzard currently makes less than 13% of their total profit from the Asia-Pacific region.
Replying to PC Gamer, Brack stated that many groups involved with Blizzard to “come together” to make a quick decision on the incident, something Brack feels was the source of the “failure.”
While one of those groups was NetEase (the publisher that distributes Blizzard’s games in China), Brack emphasis was on how Blizzard were “not legally allowed” to operate through NetEase- possibly trying to imply that NetEase had no influence over Blizzard.
“Okay, glad you asked that because I’d love to be very clear. The first thing that I want to talk about is that there is a massive amount of either confusion or non-understanding around what the regulations are in China. Blizzard is not legally allowed to operate or to publish games in China. You must have a partner. That is the regulation, that is law. NetEase is our partner. NetEase is not a government agency, NetEase is a company. They are the publisher. One of the things that has kind of come up around this is the Blizzard Weibo post and the text around that. We are not legally allowed to operate those channels. We are not legally allowed to contribute. That is a NetEase decision, they are the publisher in China.
Was NetEase in conversation around this issue? They were, certainly. As were the [Blizzard] Taiwan team, as was the Hearthstone leadership team, as was the esports team. All those various constituencies came together and one of the things that we said was we acted very rapidly and we acted very quickly. And that’s certainly the failure of this story is those groups coming together and deciding in a very short amount of time what the right action to take forward was.”
Focusing on the Weibo post Brack mentioned (in which Blizzard’s official Hearthstone Weibo account harshly condemned Blitzchung and stated “We will always respect and defend the pride of our country“), PC Gamer asked if that was written and posted by NetEase. “Correct. We did not authorize it,” Brack stated. “We did not approve it. We would not have approved it had they asked.”
Being NetEase seemingly can ask for approval from Blizzard, this would contradict Brack’s statement that “One of the things that has kind of come up around this is the Blizzard Weibo post and the text around that. We are not legally allowed to operate those channels. We are not legally allowed to contribute.”
If Blizzard did have influence over NetEase, the question begs if they would go through with actions that could result in harsh punishments from the Chinese government. In either scenario, Brack describes a scenario in which NetEase acted on their own. Whether that is the norm or otherwise is still unclear.
Returning to the matter of the casters, PC Gamer asked “With regards to the casters being reinstated, you’ve admitted that this situation was mishandled on Blizzard’s behalf. I’m wondering why that same sort of forgiveness isn’t being extended to the casters? Considering Blizzard admits it mishandled this situation, why haven’t you decided to be more graceful with them and their punishment?”
Brack answered that Blizzard had been “more graceful,” his earlier point about the casters “failing” still seeming to apply.
“We have been more graceful. The initial reaction was that we would not work with the casters anymore. In our revised statement, we came to the conclusion that it felt like the casters and Blitzchung, we wanted to align their penalty. So we’ve come out and said they have a six-month penalty.”
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