On Friday, Riot Games said that League of Legends broadcasters should “refrain” from discussing “sensitive topics” on the air, following a controversial move from Blizzard to ban a Hearthstone player who voiced support for the Hong Kong protesters over the weekend.
“As a general rule, we want to keep our broadcasts focused on the game, the sport, and the players,” John Needham, the global head of League of Legends e-sports said in a statement. “We serve fans from many different countries and cultures, and we believe this opportunity comes with a responsibility to keep personal views on sensitives issues (political, religious, or otherwise) separate.”
As of 2015, Riot Games is entirely owned by the Chinese tech giant Tencent.
A message from John Needham, Global Head of League of Legends Esports pic.twitter.com/5Au9rE7T86— lolesports (@lolesports) October 11, 2019
On Monday, Blizzard banned professional Hearthstone player Ng “Blitzchung” Wai Chung from participating in tournaments for an entire year after he voiced support for the Hong Kong protesters. In a post-game interview at Grandmasters on Sunday, Blitzchung said, “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age!” which triggered the company’s decision. Outside of the tournament ban, Blizzard is also withholding any winnings Blitzchung would have received from the tournament over the weekend.
Lawmakers, angry fans, and other games publishers all came out with statements and forum posts condemning Blizzard for its decision to ban a player for expressing speech unfavorable to the Chinese government. Epic Games, the developer of Fortnite, told The Verge that it would never ban players or content creators for political speech. In a statement, an Epic Games spokesperson said, “Epic supports everyone’s right to express their views on politics and human rights.”
Epic’s founder and CEO Tim Sweeney took to Twitter later Tuesday afternoon to support his company’s position. Critics were quick to point out that Tencent, a Chinese holding company, owns a 40 percent stake in Epic Games, but Sweeney said that the company wouldn’t influence Epic’s position on political speech.
“That will never happen on my watch as the founder, CEO, and controlling shareholder,” Sweeney said.
On Wednesday, Riot Games was forced to make its first statement on Hong Kong and censorship after it was accused of censoring the special administrative region’s name from its League of Legends Worlds broadcasts. E-sports fans took notice that casters were abbreviating “Hong Kong Attitude,” an LoL team’s name, to HKA on stream. To clarify, Riot Games said, “We refer to their team interchangeably by both their full name and their tricode abbreviation ... as we routinely do with all of the teams in our ecosystem.”
League of Legends is currently in the midst of its annual, high-profile World Championships, in which the top professional teams across the globe compete in a World Cup-style event. The tournament has attracted big-name brands like Louis Vuitton, and will feature matches spread across Europe, culminating in the finals on November 10th in Paris. The game is particularly popular in China, where the League of Legends pro league is one of the largest professional e-sports leagues in the world. Nike even recently signed on to make team jerseys.
A couple dozen Activision Blizzard employees walked out of work on Tuesday in protest of the company’s decision as well. Numbers fluctuated throughout the day as employees met at a giant statue depicting an Orc Warrior on the company’s campus.
The r/Blizzard subreddit was pulled down for a few hours after users flooded the forum with anti-Blizzard posts and calls to unsubscribe from the company’s services and boycott its entire portfolio of games like Overwatch and World of Warcraft.