China Came To BlizzCon, Not Just In The Way We Expected


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Blizzard Entertainment threw its annual fan festival, BlizzCon, over the weekend, and the tens of thousands at the event and the millions watching online got one of the biggest new game line-ups ever launched at the event. Diablo 4, Overwatch 2, a new World of Warcraft expansion, and new Hearthstone cards were all announced.

But the show began and ended with China in the spotlight, with a complicated web of politics and heroic storylines to give us feels of all stripes in the process.

It’s been less than a month since the incident when a Hong Kong Hearthstone pro, Ng Way “Blitzchung” Chung, called for a free Hong Kong during a post-match interview on a live broadcast. Bans were instituted within two days and global fan outrage immediately followed. Bans were reduced, and a belated statement tried to clarify the decisions that were made but didn’t alleviate the community’s anger all that well.

The lights faded.

BlizzCon ended.

Everyone went home.

Hong Kong, of course, is still in turmoil.

Walking into BlizzCon ahead of the opening ceremony, planned protests were taking place, with a dozen or so protesters offering ‘Free Hong Kong’ T-shirts to attendees which featured Chinese Overwatch character Mei, who has been used as part of a number of protest messages and images in the aftermath of Blizzard’s Hearthstone incident.

For all those wondering whether Blizzard would address the concerns at the event or hope it would all fade away by itself, the answer was immediate. Ahead of dropping its big new announcements, Blizzard President J. Allen Brack walked onto stage and delivered a direct personal apology to the community.

“Blizzard had the opportunity to bring the world together in a tough Hearthstone esports moment about a month ago. We did not. We moved too quickly in our decision making and then, to make matters worse, we were too slow to talk to all of you,” said Brack.

“When I think about how most unhappy I am I think about two things. One, we didn’t live up to the high standards we set for ourselves. Second, we failed in our purpose. For that, I am sorry, and I accept accountability.”

As corporate apologies go, it was head on and to the point, if lacking in the words ‘Hong Kong’ and ‘China’. Bans still stand, but have been clarified as bans over breach of contract – players must not talk about political issues of any kind during live broadcasts.

Not everyone will be happy, but for many fans it was enough to let them feel heard and to enjoy what the show had in store.

China breaks the gender drought

Phew, that’s China out of the way… Not quite. The show had one or two moments of protest. One young man got out a ‘Free Hong Kong’ on a hot mic during the World of Warcraft Q&A. Those T-shirts being offered outside were spotted around the show floor now and then.

But Chinese influence hit one of the esports stages – in a far more positive form.

One 23-year-old Chinese woman, Xiaomeng “VKLiooon” Li – or just ‘Lion’ as she was being called – was wiping the floor with the competition in the Hearthstone Grandmasters Global Finals. After a dominant undefeated past season in China, Lion went 10 wins, 2 losses across all games played.

She beat a former world champion in the process, only dropping games in her semi-final match before a 3-0 clean sweep of the grand final to become the new Hearthstone champion and the first female world champion in any Blizzard esport.

TL;DR: Lion absolutely roared.

In her winning speech, Lion called on all women to chase their esports dreams.

“I want to say to all girls out there that have a dream for esports competition. If you want to do it, and believe in yourself, you should just forget gender and go for it,” Lion said through a translator. “As long as you want to play well you can.”

In the Overwatch World Cup, Hong Kong actually came and competed in the preliminary rounds of the tournament. Sadly, the dream run was not to be as they were taken out by Germany before the main event began.

But the main event did see China play well, and when the USA defeated South Korea in a semi-final that was the match of the tournament, the final could not have been scripted any better – USA vs China.

Chinese fans had formed a massive, raucous contingent of flag wavers, painted faces, cosplayers and other fans to chant their team on. They were just like the rest of us, living in the moment, cheering for their team, everyone sharing in a sporting moment that does more to unite than divide.

They lifted the roof when their team defeated France in their semi-final, but come the final these fans could not compete with the classic “U-S-A!” chants that drowned them out at every opportunity.

The US dominated, sweeping the series 3-0.

The chants rang on.

The lights faded.

BlizzCon ended.

Everyone went home.

Hong Kong, of course, is still in turmoil.

Sports, esports and political speech

In the Overwatch animated short “Recall”, everyone’s favourite sentient ape, Winston, reflects on his upbringing on a moon base before calling the heroes back to action. His eponymous mentor, Dr Harold Winston, gives him the advice that drives him to choose the path of the hero even though he must break the law to do it.

“Never accept the world as it appears to be. Dare to see it for what it could be.”

Blizzard is held to a higher standard than so many other game makers because it builds its epic stories around these highest of heroic ideals and how heroes champion those in need when they need it most.

Blizzard fans want it to be the company they wish it could be, not the fallible business it sometimes turns out to be.


Over the past few days, alongside Brack’s apology, the company has clarified other elements of its position on what went wrong when they banned Blitzchung for his protest. One, in particular, stood out as showing a respect for speech that is rare in the sports and esports ecosystem.

In a conversation with PC Gamer, Brack noted that Blizzard’s esports contracts allow players to make political comments on personal streams and social media accounts.

Players have been reprimanded for racist and homophobic slurs on such streams and media in the past, but political commentary is considered a free area of expression — just not within the official broadcast spaces where they feel they must maintain a line.

This contractual freedom to use personal media for political purpose is one not afforded by many other esports or even traditional sports organisations. And it’s one Blizzard hopes can speak to the idea that it wants to be better at this than most other businesses in the category. It just got itself caught short because it had never dealt with something so close to the heart of global political turmoil before.

There’s no taking back what they got wrong. Only action can prove the path forward and it takes time to restore faith amongst those who hold the company’s heroic ideals close to their hearts.

Esports, just like traditional sport, can find itself in the midst of politics. And for an industry so young, it is learning it needs to grow up very quickly.

Seamus Byrne is a veteran nerd industry journalist covering tech, esports, and all things shiny and new. He’s @seamus on Twitter and runs the Byteside podcast network.