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International Politics Barges Into The World Of Video Games

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

International politics has now entered the world of video games. A professional player of the game Hearthstone has forfeited his winnings and has been banned from competing for a year. His crime? Vocally supporting the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. NPR's Andrew Limbong reports that decision prompted a furious response.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: The player's name is Ng Wai Chung. Professionally, he goes by Blitzchung. Blitzchung is based in Hong Kong. And last weekend in a postgame interview, he said...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NG WAI CHUNG: (Speaking Chinese).

LIMBONG: ..."Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times." Hearthstone's publisher, Activision Blizzard, runs the competition. And the response was swift. It banned Blitzchung and made him forfeit a reported $10,000 in winnings. The company said he violated one of their rules, quote, "engaging in any act that, in Blizzard's sole discretion, brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public or otherwise damages Blizzard's image will result in removal." Brian Kibler had never seen anything like it.

BRIAN KIBLER: Players who have gotten caught cheating in tournaments have received much smaller penalties that have come much later. And this was, you know, instantly.

LIMBONG: Kibler is a popular streamer. And he was on deck to be a commentator at the upcoming league finals.

KIBLER: Essentially the global championship for Hearthstone.

LIMBONG: But he stepped down from the job over the Blitzchung decision, protesting Activision Blizzard's heavy-handedness. Though, he gets that it was a business decision.

KIBLER: China's a huge market for them. It makes up a enormous amount of their overall business. And I imagine it could have been very legitimately, like, at risk if they, you know, hadn't done something about this.

LIMBONG: It's not just a matter of potentially offending the Chinese government and the mainland audience. It's also about a huge Chinese holding company named Tencent. Tencent has a financial stake in a lot of gaming companies, including a share of Activision Blizzard and also Ubisoft, Epic Games - it owns all of Riot Games, which makes the popular League of Legends. Activision Blizzard and Tencent didn't get back to us for this story. Brian Kibler said that, sure, it could be a defensible business position to punish Blitzchung.

KIBLER: That doesn't mean that morally that this is the right stance to take, by any means.

LIMBONG: And a loud portion of the gaming world seems to agree. There's been a furious online response, with subscriptions being cancelled and boycott campaigns being launched against Activision Blizzard - all this right before the company's big convention called BlizzCon later this fall.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.