The opening ceremony at BlizzCon, an annual convention that draws tens of thousands of fans of Blizzard Entertainment’s video games to Anaheim for a weekend of sneak peeks and communal geekery, typically features a splashy announcement of a new title or installment in a popular game series.
This year, it kicked off with an apology. Blizzard President J. Allen Brack took to the stage at the Anaheim Convention Center on Friday to address the roiling controversy around the company’s early October punishment of a player who spoke out in support of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
“Blizzard had the opportunity to bring the world together,” Brack said. “We did not. We moved too quickly in our decision-making, and then, to make matters worse, we were too slow to talk with all of you.”
The player, known as Blitzchung, had competed in and won a tournament of Blizzard’s popular card battle game, “Hearthstone.” After he spoke out in a postgame interview, saying “liberate Hong Kong” in Mandarin on a live broadcast, the company moved to strip him of his $10,000 winnings and ban him from future competitions for a year.
Fans and some employees protested the decision, claiming that it went counter to Blizzard’s stated principles of “Every voice matters” and “Think globally.” In response, the company walked back most of its punishment, returning the winnings to the player and shortening his ban to six months. But in a statement, the company said it would continue to enforce limits on non-gaming speech in official company broadcasts.
“When I think about what I’m most unhappy about, there’s really two things,” Brack continued from the stage Friday. “The first one is, we didn’t live up to the high standards that we really set for ourselves, and the second is, we failed in our purpose, and for that, I am sorry and I accept accountability.”
The crowd inside cheered at that point in Brack’s speech. Some convention-goers told The Times they were satisfied as well.
This year was the first Bill Jones, 28, has attended BlizzCon. He and his wife, Janee Jones, 27, dressed up as Ana and Otaku Roadhog from “Overwatch.” Both felt the company had earnestly addressed what it had done wrong. “But I don’t keep up with politics much, and I would keep playing ‘Overwatch’ whether or not they had made a statement,” Janee Jones said after watching Brack’s speech.
Other attendees were not placated. “He was correct to admit that the company acted too harshly, too fast to punish Blitzchung and were too slow to respond to criticism,” said Michael Wilson, 19. “But it was more a PR move than anything.”
Wilson attends BlizzCon nearly every year with his brother and parents; his mother used to work for Blizzard, so he grew up playing the games. His father, David Wilson, designed and printed “I stand with Hong Kong” stickers ahead of the event for the family to pass out.
The elder Wilson said it was a complex situation but that he is concerned that American companies are not standing up for core values such as free speech. “We have to stand up for freedom,” he said. “We should be standing up for the people in Hong Kong.”
Outside the venue, a small crowd had gathered to condemn the company’s actions.
Trey Soto, 26, stood among the protesters dressed as a character from “Overwatch.” Soto said he recently stopped playing the game in solidarity with the boycott. Noting that “Overwatch’s” story centers on a global organization that fights for the oppressed, he called it “ironic, disgraceful and shameful” that the company behind it would interfere with an individual’s freedom of speech about an oppressive government.
A man in a fuzzy Winnie the Pooh costume carrying a yellow can labeled “HUNNY” filled with fake money and a photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping taped to his face marched around the protest area handing out the fake bills to passersby. Giving only his first name, Doug, the man said he took the day off from work so he and his wife could join the protest. He was one of several protesters dressed as Pooh, a character censored in China because of his supposed resemblance to China’s president.
“We don’t need these empty platitudes after the fact,” he said of Brack’s apology. “They shouldn’t be doing whatever the Chinese market wants them to do.”
Jake Zander, 31 of San Diego and Shun Ip, 25, of Pomona, both wearing masks similar to those worn by demonstrators in the Hong Kong protests, set up piles of “Boycott Blizzard” stickers under a black umbrella — a symbol of resistance in Hong Kong — to hand out in the afternoon.
“One of [Blizzard’s] values is ‘Every voice matters,’ but they’ve been silencing the voices that matter most,” Zander said.
Ip calls himself a huge Blizzard fan and had bought tickets to BlizzCon before the controversy erupted. But he has family members in Hong Kong who have participated in protests. Ip said he will boycott the company until it’s clear from Blizzard’s actions it won’t censor speech in support of the Hong Kong movement.
Overall, attendee Gabby Snello, 21, said this year’s BlizzCon topped last year’s — the releases were far more exciting. (The release of mobile game “Diablo Immortal” at the 2018 event was widely greeted with disappointment by hardcore fans.) She traveled to Anaheim from Cheyenne, Wyo., to play demos and see old friends from as far away as Canada she’s made through gaming and at past BlizzCons.
Brack’s apology was disappointing, Snello said, and the controversy somewhat tainted her experience.
Passing the protesters out front “definitely adds a guilt feeling — just a little,” Snello said.