Blizzard is having a very bad month. As you’ve no doubt heard by now, the company came under fire over a decision to punish professional Hearthstone player Chung "Blitzchung" Ng Wai for declaring his support of the liberation of Hong Kong following his win at a Grandmasters tournament. He was banned from competing for a full year, and all prize money earned from playing in the Grandmasters Tour was taken away. The suspension was later reduced, but the damage had already been done.
Needless to say that this was a tremendously unpopular move, as it made Blizzard seem like it was siding with the Chinese government over its fans, its own country, and the people protesting in Hong Kong. #BoycottBlizzard has been trending everywhere on social media, high-profile esports personalities are abandoning its games, and employees are staging walkouts. Despite all this, Blizzard seems to be sticking to its guns, and is continuing to chastise anyone speaking in favor of Hong Kong.
So why is Blizzard doing this? What would make a company with such a die-hard fan base work so hard to appease the Chinese government at the risk of its reputation? It has a lot of money riding on its investments in China, but why go to all this trouble over a simple post-game comment?
In 2017, China decided to fuck up Lotte for the pettiest reason: the THAAD missile defense system was deployed by re-purposing a golf course that was previously owned by Lotte group. As if Lotte had to throw its corporate body to stop US/ROK from deploying THAAD.— T.K. of AAK! (@AskAKorean) October 8, 2019
Blizzard is owned by Activision, one of the biggest video game companies in the world. And if there’s one thing CEO Bobby Kotick and his crew love, it’s money, and there’s a lot to make in the country of China. Which is why maintaining a positive relationship is of the utmost importance to continue operating there, because even the smallest slip-up could end their business ventures in an instant. There are few governments more sensitive than China, and no company knows that better than Lotte.
The Lotte Corporation is an international conglomerate based out of South Korea. They have their hands in a little bit of everything including department stores, fast food, retail and hotel chains, food and beverage manufacturing, industrial chemicals, and the list goes on and on. They’re a massive company that’s worth billions, and like any business looking to expand, they set their sights on the Chinese market.
While Lotte was sinking inconceivable amounts of money into its business interests in China, it was coerced into a deal with Seoul that would turn out to be absolutely disastrous. Lotte reluctantly agreed to provide a plot of land on a Lotte-owned golf course so the US government could set up their THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile system. This was intended to deter North Korea from launching missile attacks, and while Lotte was hesitant to agree to this proposal, it couldn't exactly reject its own government, so it acquiesced.
However, China was not happy with this development. They feared that the THAAD system would be used by the US to spy on their military operations. Despite Lotte not technically doing anything wrong in this process, China needed a scapegoat, so they immediately hit them with sanctions and unannounced inspections that leveled Lotte stores and construction sites with fines and violations. Even though the company had previously had a strong relationship with China, and had helped employ thousands of citizens, one small perceived slight led to the closure of most of Lotte’s stores, and billions of dollars of lost revenue and wasted investments.
And this is the reason why Blizzard is afraid. The tiniest, most seemingly insignificant error can segue extreme retaliation from the Chinese government. You can additionally look at their recent ban of South Park over recent episodes criticizing the country’s actions for another example of their pettiness. They’ve even gone as far as to ban German DJ Anton "Zedd" Zaslavski from entering the country for simply liking a tweet from the show's Twitter account.
Not everyone at Blizzard agrees with what happened.— Kevin Hovdestad (@lackofrealism) October 8, 2019
Both the "Think Globally" and "Every Voice Matters" values have been covered up by incensed employees this morning. pic.twitter.com/I7nAYUes6Q
When you do business with China, they hold all the cards. They’re a lucrative market, and they know that outside corporations want in. Thus, if they want something removed or censored, most companies will give in to their demands because they know a refusal can lead to their removal. So if a professional player representing the company says something that could be viewed as inflammatory, the logical choice is to discipline them to keep China happy.
Activision and Blizzard have put in too much work and effort to have it all fall apart now, and if they need to silence their professional players or a portion of their fan base to keep that money rolling in, it’s a small price to pay. Which is the saddest part of this whole story. Blizzard used to be a company that cared about the opinions of its followers, and in return, fans were loyal to a fault. But those days seem to be over, and the revealed truth is that they’ve been over for years now.
The developer’s acquisition by Activision meant that it was only a matter of time until Blizzard became nothing more than another profit generator for hungry executives. China has a giant economy for them to financially benefit from, and they’re not going to let a little thing like politics and civil unrest get in the way of all that beautiful revenue.
The New Blizzard
What’s even more depressing is that #BoycottBlizzard hasn’t severely affected their stock or earnings, and that’s all that truly matters in their eyes. If they need to receive backlash for censoring their players and fans, it’s a necessary evil to appease the Chinese government, and no amount of protests or hatred is going to change their minds (although they will walk it back a bit if things get a little too hot).
This whole mess has exposed Blizzard for what it really is. Every company needs to turn a profit, it’s just unfortunate that Blizz now cares more for the bottom line than the people playing their games.