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Following “South Park” and the NBA, is “Fortnite” Next on the Chopping Block?

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After tuning out the Houston Rockets and turning off South Park, Chinese citizens may have to cancel another beloved, imported pastime: massively multiplayer online gaming.

Blizzard Entertainment, the developer behind such wildly popular games as Warcraft, Diablo, StarCraft, and Overwatch, made headlines earlier this week after punishing a professional player of its online card game Hearthstone for speaking out in support of Hong Kong’s ongoing protests. The player, Hong Kong-based Chung Ng Wai, repeated a common protest slogan (“Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time”) in an interview last weekend after participating in a Hearthstone tournament. On Tuesday, October 8, Blizzard posted a harsh rebuke of Chung’s comment on a Hearthstone blog, addressing Chung by his online username Blitzchung:

“Effective immediately, Blitzchung is removed from Grandmasters and will receive no prizing for Grandmasters Season 2. Additionally, Blitzchung is ineligible to participate in Hearthstone esports for 12 months beginning from Oct. 5th, 2019 and extending to Oct. 5th, 2020. We will also immediately cease working with both casters.”

That same day, the company released a Chinese-language apology on Hearthstone‘s official Weibo account, reading:

“We express our strong indignation and condemnation of the events in the Hearthstone Asia-Pacific competition last weekend, and resolutely oppose the dissemination of personal political ideas in any event. The player involved will be banned, and we will terminate work with broadcasters. At the same time, we will, as always, resolutely safeguard national dignity.”

Blitzchung (right) faced off against DawN in a Hearthstone Grandmasters Asia-Pacific tournament match (YouTube)

Gamers and game developers in the US have been swift to weigh in on Blizzard’s decision in this matter. Mark Kern, who has worked on several Blizzard titles including World of Warcraft, Diablo 2, and Starcraft, leveled a lengthy criticism against the company on Twitter. “I am ethnically Chinese,” prefaced Kern, a problematic figure in gamer circles given his role in the 2014/2015 Gamergate controversy. “I was born in Taiwan and I lived in Hong Kong for a time. I have done buisiness [sic] with China for many years, with serveral [sic] gaming companies there. So I think I have a valid perspective here, having been a Team Lead at Blizzard and having grown up in Asia.”

Kern’s lengthy Twitter thread calls for a boycott of Blizzard, and details his experiences with China’s gaming industry, a lurid story involving kickbacks, bribes, censorship and smear campaigns. “It’s one thing to keep politics out of games, which I am still a proponent of doing,” Kern writes at one point, adding: “It’s another to unfairly and harshly punish voices that speak out against corruption, against abuses of human rights, and freedom.”

Kern ends his Twitter thread by stating he will “refuse any deal for Epic exclusivity,” referencing another giant in the online gaming space, Epic Games. Epic is the developer of the widely adopted Unreal gaming engine, as well as the massively popular multiplayer game Fortnite. Epic co-founder and CEO Tim Sweeney has a controlling stake in the company, but Chinese tech giant Tencent is the next largest shareholder, with a 40% stake. “The money comes from Tencent,” Kern wrote, adding that his latest creation, Em8ER, “will never be an Epic game store exclusive. This might mean we never make a dime, but more is at stake now than just games. A line has to be drawn, and I’m drawing it now.”

For his part, Sweeney got ahead of potential criticism by declaring on his personal Twitter account that “Epic supports the rights of Fortnite players and creators to speak about politics and human rights,” replying elsewhere to a commenter who referenced Blizzard’s treatment of Chung: “That will never happen on my watch as the founder, CEO, and controlling shareholder.”

For their part, gamers outside of China seem to have mobilized in support of free speech. Following a prompt on a Hong Kong subreddit, users have gotten to work creating pro-HK memes featuring Mei, a Chinese character in Blizzard game Overwatch.

Gamers in China, meanwhile, are not responding positively to this latest round of criticisms leveled at Chinese influence over Western entertainment companies. “Epic, this should be viewed as an insignificant quarrel,” esports influencer Wo Pingguo Niu (我苹果牛) wrote to his 1.6 million Weibo followers earlier today. Further addressing Sweeney in particular, the gamer criticized Epic’s defense of free speech in no uncertain terms: “[You think that] as the richest man in the North American gaming industry you can do whatever you want? Compared to [how] Blizzard [handled] this situation, it’s easy to see who will be the winner!”

As with basketball, esports has evolved into an extremely popular (and profitable) pastime in China in recent years. The debate about values versus profit that has consumed the NBA’s China prospects this week is likely to carry over into the world of online gaming, as two of the industry’s heavyweights chalk out opposing positions on the field of public opinion in China and the West.

Cover photo: Fortnite

Josh Feola
Josh Feola is a Shanghai-based writer and musician, and RADII's Culture Editor. His coverage of Chinese music and art has appeared in The Wire, Dazed, Artsy, LEAP, Tiny Mix Tapes, and more. He's been active in China's underground music scene since 2010 via his booking platform pangbianr.com, and is a former member of Beijing bands Chui Wan, SUBS, and Vagus Nerve.