If you’re reading my humble site, then you’ve heard about the controversy surrounding Blizzard with regards to China and the Hong Kong protests. However, it feels wrong to start an article with no context whatsoever, so here’s is a super-fast one-paragraph summary:
A week ago the pro Hearthstone player Blitzchung won a tournament. Afterward, he appeared in an interview wearing goggles and a face mask and shouted “Liberate Hong Kong!”, showing solidarity with the Hong Kong protesters. The interviewers ducked behind their desk and laughed, and then the interview was terminated. Two days later, Blitzchung was stripped of his prize money, stripped of his title, removed from the grandmaster league, and banned from Hearthstone competition for a full year. Additionally, the interviewers were also fired, even though they didn’t express any overt support for Hong Kong.
Everyone hated this move. The entire gaming community has already expressed their disgust for Blizzard’s behavior. I realize I’m showing up a week late to this party. I wouldn’t bother weighing in at all, except there’s another angle to all of this that I want to explore.
So here’s what I want to do: I want to defend Blizzard.
Also here is the video version of this article, for those of you who aren’t into the whole reading thingI really need to come up with a graceful way of offering both of these options without it feeling awkward.:
Now, if you’re a Blizzard executive then you shouldn’t get your hopes up. I’m not really on your side. I’m going to spend a couple of minutes pretending to be on your side, but this is part of a secret technique I’ve mastered after decades of arguing about things on the internet. The move is called “I see what you’re saying, but…”. It involves a quick gesture of empathy to get your opponent to let their guard down, followed by lifting them up so you can throw them down even harder.
This is a very difficult technique. I’m a trained professional. Please don’t try this at home.
With that out of the way, let’s look at this from the perspective of Blizzard entertainment.
Let’s start by giving Blizzard the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that Blizzard got a scary letter from the Chinese governmentThis is extremely unlikely – bordering on fantastical – but let’s just imagine things as favorably as possible for Blizzard. that demanded the company punish everyone involved. Let’s assume that the letter threatened severe and specific penalties if Blizzard didn’t comply.
If I’m sitting in the chair of Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby KotickYes, this controversy surrounds Blizzard, not Activision Blizzard. But we can’t pretend like the parent company doesn’t have any say in how Blizzard operates., then my first concern is for the people who work for me. The livelihoods of thousands of people are on the line. We have a lot of employees and partners inside of China. If China boots us out of the country, all of those people will suffer. China might even punish them directly once we’re gone. I don’t want to see anything bad to happen to them.
More importantly, what can our company do? We make video games. We can’t help the Chinese people. We can’t change anyone’s mind. This fight is happening in another language, in another country, in another culture, all the way around the world, and I don’t have any power in that battle. There are people who have built their careers around the partnerships we have with Chinese companies and the relationship we have with the Chinese people. Our games bring joy to millions. It won’t change anything if I defy China, but it will hurt thousands of my employees and millions of our fans.
We make video games here. It’s not our job to fight governments. We need to stay as neutral as possible. In fact, it’s our duty.
That’s what would be going through my head as the CEO of a corporation. Now, you might disagree with this line of thinking. You might even call me a coward. And you’re probably right. But I think it’s a pretty understandable and pragmatic position. History takes a dim view of people that try to stay neutral in conflicts, but it’s frequently a good survival tactic.
However, Blizzard isn’t trying to be neutral. They’re not even trying to look neutral.
If you actually wanted to stay neutral, then the most sensible course of action is to stonewall. This is right out of the standard corporate playbook. If someone big – like a major government – is being a pain in the ass and they’ve got leverage over you, then you start dragging your feet. Promise on the phone that you’re going to act right away. Then wait until it’s 1am in China and email them back requesting clarifications. When they call back the next day, tell them you want to comply but you need your lawyer present to help hammer out the details. So you set up a conference call for the next day. Then postpone it at the last minute for logistical reasons. Just draw everything out and hope the government gets bored and loses interest in the whole thing.
But if they keep pressing, then you keep devising new ways to haggle over details while claiming you’re willing to do whatever they want.
“You want us to take away his prize money? Oh, that’s difficult. See, there’s contracts and agreements, and something something sponsorships, and this would destabilize the league blah blah blah and upset our western partners. Oh, you insist? Okay, I’ll talk to legal and see what we can do.”
And then the next day you talk to them again:
“Okay, we’ve heard you loud and clear. We’ve suspended those two casters. Oh, you wanted those guys fired?! Sorry. There must have had some miscommunication. Fine, we’ll begin the process of interviewing potential casters and as soon as we find suitable replacements, those two guys are gone. Oh, you want them fired now? Okay, I’ll send the order to legal and they’ll begin the process of drafting a document to direct our partners to send a notification to the talent agency.”
Maybe this won’t work. If China is serious and they amplify their threats, then you’ll have no choice but to fully comply with all of their demands. If that happens, then you issue a public statement to put the blame where it belongs. Your announcement can say something like:
“We love all gamers and we want everyone to enjoy this hobby together. In order to continue working with our valued Chinese partners and serving our fans in China, we’ve had to do X, Y, and Z.”
The west might get mad at you, but at least people will understand you had a gun to your head.
But Blizzard didn’t do any of that. They could have. It would have made business sense to do that. But instead they immediately prostrated themselves before the Chinese government and did exactly what their masters wanted. They handed down harsh punishments to everyone involved in less than 48 hoursThey lowered the punishments and gave Blitzchung back his prize money on Friday, but that doesn’t change the fact that their initial response was so over the top., and we don’t even have any proof – or even a hint – that the Chinese government threatened them.
It’s not like Activision Blizzard is a stranger to corporate politics! This isn’t some innocent small-fry company that doesn’t know how to play hardball with major governments. Activision Blizzard is headquartered in California, but they technically sold their IP rights to a company in Bermuda and one in Barbados and those companies then license that IP to a fourth part of the organization, a Netherlands-based company that manages distribution and rights outside of the US. The idea is that when all of these countries come to collect tax, all of these entities can cook their books to make it look like the money was “really” earned elsewhere. The company is effectively avoiding billions in taxes with this.
And you know what? I could sort of respect that in a, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game” sort of way. Okay, these guys know how to play the game. I don’t like how they play, but they’re technically obeying the rules.
This company is willing and able to engage in tactical lawsuits, PR spin, tax evasion, review score manipulation, and duplicitous marketing. The company is willing to piss off consumers and governments around the world without a second thought. That’s not nice, but fine. But then they won’t offer even the slightest opposition to China’s authoritarian bullying?
That’s not neutral behavior. That’s not a company that wants to stay out of trouble. People are criticizing Blizzard for putting profits ahead of people. If that was the case, they would be just as sneaky and duplicitous with the Chinese government as they are with everyone else. Instead they’re willing to endure massive backlash, bad PR, and boycotts in the west to appease the only government they respect.
I don’t know what their corporate priorities are, but they’re a lot more grotesque than just being weasels that will do anything for a buck.
 I really need to come up with a graceful way of offering both of these options without it feeling awkward.
 This is extremely unlikely – bordering on fantastical – but let’s just imagine things as favorably as possible for Blizzard.
 Yes, this controversy surrounds Blizzard, not Activision Blizzard. But we can’t pretend like the parent company doesn’t have any say in how Blizzard operates.
 They lowered the punishments and gave Blitzchung back his prize money on Friday, but that doesn’t change the fact that their initial response was so over the top.
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