United States Senators Ron Wyden and Tom Cotton, and Members of Congress Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Mike Gallagher, and Tom Malinowski, have sent a letter to Blizzard condemning its ban on speech in favor of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and calling on it to reverse the punishment imposed on former Hearthstone (opens in new tab) Grandmaster Chung "Blitzchung" Ng Wai.
The letter, addressed to Activision-Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, acknowledges China's value as an esports market and the growing importance of companies like Tencent, which holds a small stake in Activision Blizzard (and a much larger stake in many others (opens in new tab)), before noting that "the Chinese government uses the size and strength of its economy to suppress opinions with which it disagrees." As examples, it cites China's actions against Apple (opens in new tab) over an app that protesters in Hong Kong can use to track police movements, and the NBA (opens in new tab) following a comment in support of the protesters by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey—which ultimately forced reversals by both.
"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," the letter states (opens in new tab). "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."
"As China amplifies its campaign of intimidation, you and your company must decide whether to look beyond the bottom line and promote American values—like freedom of speech and thought—or to give in to Beijing's demands in order to preserve market access. We urge you in the strongest terms to reconsider your decision with respect to Mr. Chung. You have the opportunity to reverse course. We urge you to take it."
Blizzard has already reduced Blitzchung's punishment (opens in new tab), but it remains substantial: He remains suspended from Hearthstone competition for six months. It's a very slight climbdown, and unlikely to satisfy the letter's notably bipartisan authors. But anything more significant would almost certainly lead to a blowup of likely worse proportions in China. The international operations of companies like Blizzard may mean this sort of blowback will sometimes be inevitable, especially as other organizations, such as Riot Games (opens in new tab) and ESL (opens in new tab), take similar stances.
But with notable figures from the US government now weighing in on this and other related issues (a similar letter was sent to Apple CEO Tim Cook), this mess isn't likely to go away anytime soon. All of this is a few weeks ahead of BlizzCon, which runs in Anaheim, CA on November 1-2.