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US legislators: Blitzchung ban could have "chilling effect" on free speech

Bipartisan letter urges Blizzard to reverse decision to ban player for pro-Hong Kong statements

A bipartisan group of US legislators has authored a letter to Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, asking him to reconsider the decision to temporarily ban a professional Hearthstone player for speaking in support of protests in Hong Kong.

The letter, signed by senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), and members of Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Michael Gallagher (R-WI), and Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), expresses concern over the ban of Chung 'Blitzchung' Ng Wai from professional Hearthstone competitions "in light of the Chinese government's growing appetite for pressuring American business to help stifle free speech."

Although the legislators make reference to Blitzchung forfeiting prize money and being banned for a year, Blizzard said a week ago that it would give him the money after all and reduced the ban to half a year.

"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," one segment of the letter reads. "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 initially banned Ng Wai from competitive Hearthstone for 12 months and stripped him of his Hearthstone Grandmasters prize money earlier this month after he shouted, "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age!" in a broadcast post-match interview. The company also cut ties with two interviewers on camera at the time.

After over a week of backlash from US senators including Rubio, online communities, Blizzard employees, fellow pro-Hearthstone players, and casters, Blizzard softened its ruling to the current six-month ban with reinstated prize money, also reducing its break with the interviewers to a six-month ban.

In an open letter explaining the change in the ruling, Blizzard president J. Allen Brack said that "the specific views expressed by Blitzchung were NOT a factor in the decision we made. I want to be clear: our relationships in China had no influence on our decision."

Over 25% of Blizzard's business last year--$570 million--came from the Asia-Pacific region, with many of its games localized for China through a partnership with NetEase. Additionally, Chinese gaming giant Tencent holds a 4.9% stake in the company.

Since Brack's letter, Blizzard has also issued a six-month ban to American University Hearthstone players who held up a sign that said "Free Hong Kong, Boycott Blizz" during the Hearthstone Collegiate Championships in solidarity with Ng Wai.

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