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Blizzard's substance-less BlizzCon statement speaks volumes | Opinion

President J. Allen Brack's opening speech rings hollow as company changes no policies, stands by Hearthstone pro's ban for supporting Hong Kong protesters

"We will do better going forward. But our actions are going to matter more than any words. As you walk around this weekend, I hope it's clear how committed we are to everyone's right to express themselves in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of places."

That was Blizzard president J. Allen Brack, opening the developer's BlizzCon fanfest on Friday with comments about last month's banning of Hearthstone pro Chung "Blitzchung" Ng Wai for supporting Hong Kong protesters in a post-match interview.

He was absolutely right in that Blizzard's actions matter more than its words, which is what made it so disappointing over the weekend when a PC Gamer interview with Brack showed that the company had no actions to go along with its words.

When PC Gamer asked Brack if the commitment to people's rights to express themselves meant the bans on that pro player and the two broadcasters who conducted the post-match interview had been lifted, Brack confirmed they had not. The support for free expression "in all kinds of places" that Brack talked about is in reality limited to some kinds of places. More specifically, places other than Blizzard's official Hearthstone competitions, which you could interpret as places where it is less likely to be heard.

"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."

Brack tap dances around the Blitzchung ban in the BlizzCon opening statement

Brack tap dances around the Blitzchung ban in the BlizzCon opening statement

The phrase "that takes a view around making sure that all of the people stay on message" is doing a whole lot of work there, effectively turning the sentence into, "We censor less than any other sport, provided that sport is also known for censoring people."

We only have to look at the NBA, which had its own controversy with China last month, as evidence of that. When Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong," the NBA's plans were thrown into upheaval. The tweet came days after Morey's Rockets had hosted the Shanghai Sharks for an exhibition game, and less than a week before the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets were set to play a pair of pre-season games in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Plans to broadcast those two games in China were scrapped. Sponsors pulled out of the events. Promotional events in China were cancelled, as were exhibition games for NBA developmental teams planned for later in the month. Sportswear brands cut their ties to the league and put a freeze on contract talks with star players. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the Chinese government had asked for Morey to be fired.

"We said there's no chance that's happening," Silver said. "There's no chance we'll even discipline him."

Despite the "substantial" financial impact the league had suffered, Silver was clear that its decisions were based not on money but on the organization's values.

"We wanted to make an absolutely clear statement that the values of the NBA, these American values - we are an American business - travel with us wherever we go," Silver said. "And one of those values is free expression."

Actual values are the things that guide your decision-making even when people are yelling at you or your bottom-line is at risk

Blizzard would doubtlessly claim it was doing the same. In Brack's BlizzCon statement, he explicitly said the company failed in its purpose: "To bring the world together in epic entertainment."

"When we get it right, we create a common ground where the community comes together to compete, connect, and play, irrespective of the things that divide us," Brack said, adding, "That is the positive power of video games, to transcend the divisions that surround us in so many of our places today."

On one level, that makes sense. If a company's core value is just bringing people together in play and avoiding anything divisive that might threaten to undermine that value, then sure, telling your esports pros to stick to sports in their post-game comments makes sense. Brack said as much to PC Gamer when asked if other political statements would have been handled the same way as one which could anger Chinese partners and regulators.

"The content was not the problem," Brack said. "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."

That's transparently false, considering that what constitutes "political" or "divisive" is entirely in the eye of the beholder.

As an example, Blizzard has been vocally pro-LGBTQ+ for years (although it still has room for improvement on that front in any number of ways). Brack himself was wearing a rainbow colored Blizzard pride pin on his collar during his BlizzCon keynote. Simply being LGBTQ+ is political and divisive in many parts of the world, including Blizzard's. Expressing support and acceptance for LGBTQ+ people in mainstream entertainment cannot help but qualify as the same.

But Blizzard, and presumably Brack, have determined that it is a worthy enough cause to embrace it publicly regardless of however much it might cost them in lost sales from bigots. Because actual values are the things that guide your decision-making even when people are yelling at you or your bottom-line is at risk (assuming you value something other than not being yelled at and protecting your bottom line). You cannot help but have them reflected in the things you do.

And that brings us back to Brack's quote:

"We will do better going forward. But our actions are going to matter more than any words. As you walk around this weekend, I hope it's clear how committed we are to everyone's right to express themselves in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of places."

The weekend certainly did make it clear how committed Blizzard is to everyone's right to express themselves. And since by Brack's own admission, Blizzard's actions matter more than his words, the answer to how committed they are is a resounding, "Not very."

Brack's opening statement of BlizzCon was not an apology for banning Blitzchung. It was not a change in policy or enforcement. It had no substance.

Instead, it served as a perfunctory acknowledgement of the elephant in the room, one which performed verbal gymnastics in order to avoid even naming the elephant, calling it simply "a tough Hearthstone esports moment." It was a way to defuse a month's worth of simmering anti-Blizzard sentiment and de-fang the planned protests, an attempt to take the edge off the fanbase's anger so that Diablo IV and Overwatch 2 could be welcomed with open arms rather than overshadowed by outrage.

If that was the intent, then for Brack and Blizzard at least, this was simply a marketing exercise in service of their true values. Their actions were irrelevant -- in part because they took no action -- and all that mattered were some well-received words, a vague admission of mistakes, and an even vaguer pledge to be better without actually doing anything differently.

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Latest comments (3)

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 13 days ago
In an attempt to whip their customers into compliance and be less political, Blizzard dove head first into the muck of political double-standards. Saying one thing, but doing another and turning both on their head tomorrow. In the end, the bottom line is the true master and values will only exist for as long as the bottom line allows. That is the hidden message between the conflicting messages.

Press F to kneel.
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Brian Hollenbeck Javascript Developer 13 days ago
"Stay on message" is just about as clear as Blizzard can make it - don't mess with the bottom line, no matter what. Where the double standard comes in is toxic players, since their behavior affects an insignificant (to Blizzard) amount of monetary flow if people leave the game thanks to people being assholes. But piss off an authoritarian regime? Now you're talking big bucks.
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Tudor Nita Lead Programmer, Gameloft Romania12 days ago
@Brian Hollenbeck: I mean, I know the realities of today's game dev. industry but picture this:
How about we don't hang the financial bottom line of our companies on an authoritarian regime's whims ?
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