Activision is a scummy company. The reason it seems to avoid the same kind of ire as companies like EA probably stems from the fact its talented developers at studios like Treyarch, Infinity Ward, and Blizzard Entertainment consistently produce high-quality games, almost without fail. Activision also employs some pretty underhanded tactics to avoid the same sort of controversy as some of its contemporaries, such as adding pay-to-win loot boxes to Call of Duty Black Ops IIII, long after reviews shipped.
These sorts of ethical questions can be considered subjective. The value of loot boxes certainly rests on the individual, and clearly people are buying them in droves or they wouldn't be included. That debate is entirely separate from what Activision-Blizzard did this week, however.
I love(d) this company. My old band was aired live at the first Blizzcon event to an audience of hundreds of people. I have more than 10,000 hours played in World of Warcraft during the past 15 years. I dropped out of high school to kill Nefarian, instead of taking my exams. I have hundreds of hours in Diablo, Heroes of the Storm, and Overwatch. I had my preorder in for the Warcraft III remake. I have spent thousands of British pounds over the years on these games, merchandise, and books.
Like most, I've suspected for a while that Activision was devouring Blizzard, but I've been naively hoping the company would retain its independence from the wider Activision, which seems to have nothing but contempt for both its customers and employees that support civil liberties.
Activision-Blizzard not only crossed a line this week, it blew it up with a nuclear warhead. It's with some heartbreak that I simply cannot support this company anymore.
Bowing to dictators
In case you missed it, Blizzard banned a Hearthstone champion esports player this week, stripping his winnings to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, while also firing two commentators simply for being nearby to the incident in question. The reason? He voiced support for Hong Kong's human rights movement in a post-match interview.
In a sane company, he might've picked up a couple of match suspensions at most.
The Chinese government is aggressive with its censorship of cultural information it finds embarrassing, banning entire companies from operating from the lucrative region. South Park was banned as well this week, after airing an episode that mocked the Chinese government's censorship. The creators offered this "apology," further mocking them.
Leveraging an aggressively vague terms of service passage that bans esports players from bringing the "company into disrepute," Activision-Blizzard delivered blitzchung's incredibly harsh punishment, publically bent the knee to Chinese censorship, and posted a blog post full of complacent ignorance for the implications of its actions.
Even if blitzchung broke Blizzard's vague rules, in a sane company, he might've picked up a couple of match suspensions at most, maybe even a few months worth of banning. However, the fact that they stripped his winnings and fired the two commentators conducting the interview simply for being there speaks less about its arbitrary rules and more about capitulation in exchange for Chinese dictatorial money.
Huge, deserved backlash
Since Blizzard's "ruling," the internet exploded with support for blitzchung, the Streissand Effect realized in full. You could argue that Activision-Blizzard has generally suffered from slipping faith for a while, at least on the games side of things. This includes loot box controversy, pay-to-win elements appearing in Call of Duty, and the tone-deaf announcement of a Chinese-made Diablo spinoff mobile game at Blizzcon. However, these were all game-related essentially, and we expect publishers to degrade the user experience to make a quick buck. Degrading the call for human rights is another matter entirely.
Most of the Blizzard-oriented subreddits either have megathreads dedicated to the topic or are in complete meltdown, particularly in the case of /r/hearthstone. The wider internet has also begun immortalizing Activision-Blizzard's appeasement of evil in memes, many of which take aim at China's chief dictator, Xi Jinping.
Blizzard isn't the first, nor will it be the last, company to bow to pressure from the Chinese. The NBA bowed to pressure over a team manager voicing support for the Hong Kong rights movement, forcing apologies and censoring journalists from asking questions about it. Apple also dropped the Taiwanese flag emoji from its keyboard to appease China.
The mainstream media has also begun discussing the wider implications of Chinese investiture in Western companies, forcing their Draconian laws in exchange for access to China's incredibly lucrative market.
Various popular game companies, including Path of Exile's Grinding Gear Games, Fortnite's Epic Games, and others, have varying portions of their companies owned by China's ridiculously powerful Tencent tech company. Tim Sweeney of Epic Games recently stated that as long as he remains the controlling shareholder of Epic Games, the company wouldn't censoring Fortnite esports players' opinions. I would truly love to see someone test Sweeney's statement in practice, however.
China is a vast market for Activision-Blizzard, which is very successful in Asia and has interlocking investments from various firms, including NetEase. I would have at least paused at how much cash is actually worth selling out the spirit of freedom we enjoy in democratic societies. Activision-Blizzard, however, hasn't.
Blitzchung noted in a statement that he risks losing four years of his life grinding Hearthstone esports, but to stay silent risks losing Hong Kong forever. From that statement:
Even though it seemed that I had wasted four years of time, I have something more important in my heart – if we lose the movement, Hong Kong will end forever.
Every voice matters, eh?
Outside Blizzard, an Orc statue stands proudly above a plaque that reads "every voice matters." Blizzard employees outraged and incensed have since covered up the statement, which is a powerful reminder of how much the company has changed under Activision and its shareholders' insatiable greed. Blizzard employees have staged a walkout over the decision, too.
This is about putting a spotlight on how sickeningly Activision-Blizzard has behaved.
I fully expect Activision to blacklist me (maybe Windows Central) for writing this article, which might seem a big risk considering how much traffic we do related to the company's games. If the Chinese censors are worth their salt, I risk being banned from the entire country as well, who knows? Moreover, who cares? This is nothing compared to what Hong Kong citizens stand to lose by remaining silent.
This is about putting a spotlight on how sickeningly Activision-Blizzard has behaved. All I can do is use my modest platform to amplify the voices of those who are rightfully angry. What Activision-Blizzard has done here is not acceptable and runs antithetical to the very essence of human rights and basic civil liberties. It represents a wider sickness in capitalism that is complex, and frankly depressing to unravel. You would have hoped video game companies could be better about this, but some are apparently not.
I'll leave you with the closing statements from Tommy, one of the broadcasters Blizzard fired simply for being near blitzchung when the "incident" occurred. His statement can (and should) be read in full here but here's an excerpt:
You have your business considerations, I have my principles, even if the broadcast accounts for most of my income ... I don't know where to go after four years of hard work. But I really can't agree with you. Finally, I want to send a word of Blizzard. #EveryVoiceMatters
Update October 13, 2019: Blizzard has reduced its punishment for Blitzchung from a 12-month ban down to a 6-month ban, and won't remove him from the Hearthstone Grandmasters. Also, Blizzard has given his winnings back, noting that while he violated Blizzard's vague rules, he hadn't cheated in the competition. This is a welcome development, but Blizzard's denial that this was about appeasing China, while still leveraging an aggressive punishment for the presenters still speaks of capitulation to a violent dictatorship for money. It will be hard for me to ever see Blizzard in a positive light, knowing this.