Blizzard president clarifies decision to ban Hearthstone player and two casters over Hong Kong controversy

BlizzCon 2019 opened on a somber note yesterday when president J. Allen Brack walked on stage to address the controversy surrounding Blizzard's heavily-criticized decision to ban a Hearthstone player and two Taiwanese casters. A month ago, Hearthstone Grandmaster Chung 'Blitzchung' Ng Wai created an international controversy when he openly called for Hong Kong's freedom from China while wearing a mask during a post-match interview as part of the Asia-Pacific Hearthstone Grandmasters league. 

"We moved too quickly in our decision making, and then, to make matters worse, we were too slow to talk with all of you," J. Allen Brack admitted.  "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."

"As you walk around this weekend," Brack later added. "I hope it's clear how committed we are to everyone's right to express themselves, in all kinds of ways and all kinds of places."

Despite that stated commitment, Brack did not address Blizzard's decision to ban Ng Wai and the two Taiwanese casters. After the first day of BlizzCon came to a close, PC Gamer was contacted by one of those casters who wanted to express their frustration at Blizzard's apparent decision to uphold the ban against him. "Expressing myself is exactly what I did during casting," said Virtual, who prefers to not use his real name. "So why is Blizzard still banning me for six months?"

Brack was willing to address that question directly in a brief phone interview with me this afternoon.

PC Gamer: I wanted to revisit the statement you made at the beginning of the opening ceremony yesterday. You said Blizzard is "committed to everyone's right to express themselves in all kinds of ways and all kinds of places," and you made a commitment to do better going forward and that your actions are going to matter more than words do. Are you going to be repealing the punishment against Blitzchung and the two Taiwanese casters involved in this incident?

J. Allen Brack, Blizzard president: We are not.


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.

So Blizzard's perspective is that, of course you want players to express themselves, except for when it's taking place through official channels?

That's right.

Is it fair to say that if Blitzchung had said any political message, it would have incurred the same punishment? It wasn't that he was specifically calling for Hong Kong's freedom, it was that he was saying anything political?

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.

One thing that I'm curious about that has been downplayed in all of this is the two Taiwanese casters and their role in the incident. I want to understand their punishment specifically. I've been in contact with one of them and understandably they're quite frustrated with how things have played out. They don't feel like they're to blame for what Blitzchung had to say. Are the Asian-Pacific casters, or any of your esports casters, given specific training on how to handle on-air breaches of protocol?

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.

There's been a suspicion that China and your Chinese business had an influence on the decision and the statement Blizzard made. Can you confirm for me on the record whether NetEase or any of your Chinese partners didn't have any sort of influence on your decision in this incident?

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.

So the Weibo post that talked about defending "the pride" of China was written by NetEase?

Correct. We did not authorize it. We did not approve it. We would not have approved it had they 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?

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.

Some parts of this interview were edited for length and clarity.

Steven Messner

With over 7 years of experience with in-depth feature reporting, Steven's mission is to chronicle the fascinating ways that games intersect our lives. Whether it's colossal in-game wars in an MMO, or long-haul truckers who turn to games to protect them from the loneliness of the open road, Steven tries to unearth PC gaming's greatest untold stories. His love of PC gaming started extremely early. Without money to spend, he spent an entire day watching the progress bar on a 25mb download of the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 demo that he then played for at least a hundred hours. It was a good demo.