Blizzard Entertainment finally responded to the international controversy that has been swirling since they punished a Hong Kong gamer for shouting “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age!” during a live stream. The company responded by banning the player from competition for a year and taking away his prize money. The two “casters” who were hosting the live stream were also banned.

That didn’t sit well with a lot of gamers who responded with memes and a boycott that involved uninstalling the company’s games until the decision had been reversed. Yesterday, Blizzard cracked and partially reversed its decision. From the company’s statement:

Over the weekend, blitzchung used his segment to make a statement about the situation in Hong Kong—in violation of rules he acknowledged and understood, and this is why we took action…

In the tournament itself blitzchung *played* fair. We now believe he should receive his prizing…

When we think about the suspension, six months for blitzchung is more appropriate, after which time he can compete in the Hearthstone pro circuit again if he so chooses. There is a consequence for taking the conversation away from the purpose of the event and disrupting or derailing the broadcast.

The company claimed Blitzchung’s views and its own relationship with China played no role in his punishment:

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.

If this had been the opposing viewpoint delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted the same.

I’m not sure I believe that but even if it’s true, I don’t think showing strict neutrality between western democracy and Chinese communism is really the winning argument Blizzard thinks it is. Blizzard is an American company based in California. It should be a given that freedom and democracy are superior values. The idea that you’d punish proponents of freedom and proponents of communist autocracy equally seems like a very bad idea.

And just like the situation with the NBA, Blizzard’s own hypocrisy is pretty glaring. In the NBA’s case, you have a bunch of woke coaches and players who have suddenly gone silent about Chinese communism because they are worried about their shoe deals and marketing rights. In Blizzard’s case, the crackdown on Blitzchung presents a stark contrast with its own products. This is, after all, a company whose motto is “Every voice matters.” From Kotaku:

As has been stated multiple times by fans, players, and commentators throughout the week, it’s hard to square this kind of faux-neutral political stance with the games Blizzard creates and the values it espouses. This is a company whose games are full of heroes fighting for freedom and equality, and China’s handling of Hong Kong has been anything but. All political statements are not equal—especially where human rights violations are concerned—and it’s disheartening to see a company with Blizzard’s legacy stand behind that kind of false equivalence in a time when games are, more than ever, intertwined with culture. Reducing Blitzchung’s suspension is a step in the right direction, but in the face of all this, it’s still hard for the company’s games and statements not to ring hollow.

Blizzard hosts an annual convention called Blizzcon which brings together about 40,000 players. This year’s Blizzcon takes place in Anaheim, CA three weeks from now, which seems like very unfortunate timing for the company. There are already multiple groups looking to protest outside this year’s convention:

Fight For The Future’s protest will take place outside the Anaheim Convention Center at noon on November 1, the first day of BlizzCon. The organization is asking protesters to bring umbrellas as a sign of solidarity with protesters in Hong Kong—who’ve adopted umbrellas as a symbol—or to cosplay as their favorite Blizzard characters…

“What is happening are horrible human rights violations and suppression,” Thompson told Kotaku in an email. “When Blizzard, whose games and mottos support heroes and freedom, and [who] has stated on their company grounds [that] every voice matters, took away Blitzchung for simply saying he supports Hong Kong as the revolution of our times, I was shocked… He never used any foul or extreme language about China. It shows how companies are willing to say they support diversity and heroes until it doesn’t pay.”

I’m sympathetic to the idea that gamers should remain focused on the game. I’m sure a lot of NBA fans don’t enjoy listening to Steve Kerr’s mind-thoughts about gun control. But the NBA Commissioner is right when he says he isn’t going to become a minder of other people’s speech. The problem is that no one in the NBA is actually using that freedom to criticize China or support Hong Kong despite offering opinions on everything else.

As for Blizzard, if they really want people to believe this wasn’t about the content of what Blitzchung said, just about enforcing the rules, they can prove it. All they need to do is issue another statement that would go something like this:

As an American company, Blizzard strongly support freedom, human rights, and democracy around the world, including in Hong Kong. Every voice matters.

If they can’t say that loudly and clearly, and so far they haven’t, then gamers are right to suspect the company’s financial relationship with China is playing a role in this decision.