It’s not just the NBA and the Rockets that are caught up in the China-Hong Kong political storm. One of the world’s most popular online strategy games is also ensnared in the controversy related to the anti-China protests currently roiling Hong Kong — a conflict that is very much relevant to Houston .
Hearthstone, a popular global competitive video game made by Blizzard, was protested and “canceled” by fans last month because some believed the company was censoring free speech in fear of losing business in China.
It all started in October, during a live stream of a global competition of “Hearthstone,” an online trading-card game (think Magic the Gathering or Pokémon ) made by Blizzard, one of the largest gaming companies in the world. Activision Blizzard owns properties such as “World of Warcraft,” “Starcraft,” “Call of Duty” and “Overwatch.”
In the era of YouTube and Twitch, modern day game companies are in constant competition for consumers’ attention. That’s why popular competitive video games like “Overwatch” and “League of Legends” have birthed professional competitions, with regulations, amateur and professional leagues and world championships. This massive global scene is called eSports and the U.S. government treats eSports pros the same as professional athletes, giving those hired from other countries the same visas that Olympic athletes get.
ON HOUSTONCHRONICLE.COM: Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta shuts down GM Daryl Morey’s Hong Kong tweet
All of this to say that, even if you don’t know or don’t care about some fantasy video game you’ve never heard of, “Hearthstone” is a big deal to a many people. And a major political controversy has major ramifications not only on the profit margins of billion-dollar companies, but also the way millions of consumers talk about issues of democracy.
Imagine if Colin Kaepernick didn’t just kneel silently before a football game, but showed up wearing a T-shirt with an anti-Trump slogan or while leading a “Black Lives Matter” chant. It would dominate the conversation of the entire sport for days, weeks, even months. That’s what happened to my favorite video game in October. A Hong Kongese professional Hearthstone player, Wai Chung “Blitzchung” Ng, appeared in protest gear and shouted “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” during a televised, post-match, televised Q-and-A.
He was banned from competition. His prize winnings were taken away. And the two commentators, hosting the streamed event, were fired as well. The moment blew up my social media, such that the Hearthstone online forums turned into a cascade of posts criticizing Blizzard for shutting down free speech in favor of business relationships in China.
Not even a month after Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protests — setting off a chain of events that continue today — Blitzchung does to Hearthstone what Morey did to the NBA. He caused a global community to wrestle with complicated world politics.
Houston has been riled in the Hong Kong conversation. Late in October, three rows of attendees to a Rockets-Bucks game at the Toyota Center held up pro-Hong Kong signs. They wore T-shirts which read “Fight for Freedom” on the front and “China Stop Bullying,” as well as held signs that said “‘Stand For Hong Kong” and “Thank you Morey.”
The comparison between the Blizzard controversy and the Rockets firestorm isn’t just metaphorical. The Houston Rockets own its own eSports company, Clutch Gaming, which operates a top North American League of Legends team. Houston itself is an eSports hub. There are countless gaming meetups in the city. In October, the internet café GTX eSports hosted a League of Legends “Houston Mega Tournament.”
ON HOUSTONCHRONICLE.COM: Hong Kong demonstrators cry foul outside Rockets game
In other words, the Hong Kong debate is very much in our backyard, and quite relevant for local gaming and sports fans alike. Wrangling with global politics isn’t something every consumer wants to do. When I watch the NBA, I want to think about how James Harden can lead the Rockets to another NBA finals — not that he’s on the side of China, and not Morey, in this debate. When I come home from work and boot up my gaming computer, I want to adventure into hidden tombs in faraway deserts, using magic and relics to defeat zombies — not think about whether I should continue supporting a company that punished a man from Hong Kong for speaking out in favor of democracy.
Blizzard ultimately made a concession, reducing Blitzchung’s ban from one year to six months and returning the prize money. But the damage was done. Here in the U.S., Blizzard was forced to ban three Hearthstone competitors on the college level. After the Blitzchung event, three American University students were banned for holding up a “Free Hong Kong, Boycott Blizz” sign during competition.
Which is to say that, even in the U.S., even in Houston, far from the streets of Hong Kong, we’re being presented with a chance to wrangle with our morals and beliefs — even when it’s the last thing we expected to have to do.
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