A small group of Activision Blizzard employees walked out of work Tuesday afternoon to protest the company’s actions against a gamer who expressed support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong during an official livestream.
The game publisher behind online multiplayer hits like World of Warcraft and Overwatch banned Hong Kong-based professional Hearthstone player Chung Ng Wai from game’s lucrative pro league for a year on Tuesday. Chung, who uses the handle “Blizzchung,” prompted the ban after saying “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” during an interview about his tournament wins. Blizzard’s actions forced him to forfeit $10,000 in prize money he had already won.
“The action Blizzard took against the player was pretty appalling but not surprising,” a longtime Blizzard employee told The Daily Beast. “Blizzard makes a lot of money in China, but now the company is in this awkward position where we can’t abide by our values.”
“I’m disappointed,” another current Blizzard employee said. “We want people all over the world to play our games, but no action like this can be made with political neutrality.” The employees spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional consequences.
Protesting Blizzard employees from multiple departments gathered at an iconic statue of an Orc warrior charging into battle in the center of the company’s main campus in Irvine, California, starting around 10 a.m. Pacific Time. The demonstration’s numbers fluctuated throughout the day, the two employees said, ranging from a dozen to 30, and the protesters departed sometime in the late afternoon. The protesters would have been visible to executive offices, which overlook the main plaza, the two employees said. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Chinese tech giant Tencent owns a 5% stake in Blizzard, and the gaming company earned 12% of its revenue from the Asia-Pacific region last quarter, according to its earnings reports.
The decision prompted backlash from gamers and non-gamers alike, adding fuel to the fire begun by the National Basketball Association’s own controversy over China and the Hong Kong protests.
A person claiming to be a Blizzard employee and using the handle “Standingwhk” posted a picture to Reddit and Imgur that showed roughly 20 employees involved in the demonstration. Several employees held umbrellas, a visual symbol adopted by protesters in Hong Kong. Two current Blizzard employees authenticated the photo to The Daily Beast.
Blizzard has placed plaques with its core company values along a circular compass around the orc. According to the two employees and photos, protesters had papered over one that read “Every voice matters.”
The protesters also solicited signatures for a petition expressing displeasure with Blizzard leadership’s handling of the matter that they planned to submit to executives, the two employees said. Discussion about Blizzard’s actions and of the protest, they said, continued Wednesday. The two employees said Blizzard executives have not taken any public action against the protesters.
Blizzard’s actions inspired a negative reaction among lawmakers, who denounced the gaming giant. On Twitter, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said the company was willing to “humiliate itself” to please China. Marco Rubio declared that “Implications of this will be felt long after everyone in U.S. politics today is gone.”
One of the employees who spoke to The Daily Beast felt that the protest signaled a new era for Blizzard. The company has been complying with government censorship requests within its games in order to keep doing business in one of its biggest markets, he said.
“Doing business in China, it’s been easier to ignore the authoritarianism of the government because they were asking us to do things like remove a skeleton [from a game],” he said.
“The stakes are so much higher now. What was previously an obvious decision is much less obvious now.”