With Hong Kong in the news more and more, and dramatic images of the protests on every news channel and site, esports has found itself between a rock and a hard place with the growing controversy.
For months, the former British colony, now a special administrative region within the People’s Republic of China, has been wracked with political unrest. The demonstrations recently moved beyond the realm of international news, and into popular culture, with the NBA butting heads with China’s administration following a series of Tweets from Houston Rockets General Manager, David Morey. Adam Silver, the NBA Commissioner, later voiced his support for Morey, furthering the controversy.
This dispute immediately became a source of lampoonery, as popular satirical cartoon South Park aired a timely episode about the Chinese influence on America earlier this week, which was promptly banned in China. And now, esports is the next under the magnifying glass, as examples of what CNN called “kowtowing to Beijing” have increasingly come to light across the industry.
Most recently, with the 2019 Season World Championship of League of Legends underway, fans and journalists alike have noticed the careful language used when the event’s commentators refer to recent Group Stage qualifier Hong Kong Attitude.
Viewers of the tournament stream noticed that the on-air talent seemed to avoid mentioning Hong Kong, instead abbreviating the team’s name to “HK Attitude” whenever possible. Worlds 2019 is an official tournament operated and organised by League of Legends’ developer Riot Games, which is a subsidiary of Chinese tech giant Tencent, the largest video game company in the world. Along with competitors Alibaba and Baidu, Tencent is also one of the most dominant tech companies in Asia.
The controversy also threatens to embroil yet more teams at Worlds 2019, with Clutch Gaming firmly in the firing line. The North American franchise has strong ties to the NBA controversy, being partly owned by the Houston Rockets. Clutch is set to be acquired by Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, the parent company of the Philadelphia 76ers, in late November. However, this won’t distance them much from any Hong Kong backlash, with China already boycotting all NBA preseason games, and Riot Games’ owner Tencent suspending ties with the NBA over David Morey’s tweets.
The LCS, LoL’s North American League, is inexorably tied to the NBA. Former NBA pro Michael Jordan has invested $26 million into Team Liquid. 100 Thieves are linked to the Cleveland Cavaliers by their investment. Golden Guardians to the Golden State Warriors, FlyQuest to the Milwaukee Bucks, and so on. Any dispute between the NBA and China has the potential to affect investment across the majority of the NA scene.
But League of Legends isn’t the only game that’s been affected by the recent rise in Hong Kong polemic. Professional Hearthstone player Ng Wai “Blitzchung” Chung was banned from the Hearthstone Grandmasters series, his prize money rescinded, and a one-year suspension put in place, following his comments during a recent interview. After winning a Hearthstone Grandmasters regular season match, Blitzchung shouted, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age!” in Chinese.
After the incident, Blizzard Entertainment, made an official ruling, stating that Blitzchung had breached section 6.1 of their Grandmasters Official Competition Rules, by “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 [sic] image.” Blizzard also announced it had ceased working with Taiwanese casters Mr. Yee, and Virtual, who conducted the interview.
Blizzard Entertainment is a subsidiary of Activision Blizzard, and together the companies are responsible for numerous popular esports titles, including Call of Duty, StarCraft, Hearthstone, Overwatch, and World of Warcraft. Activision Blizzard has no direct ties to China, however, as of 2015, Tencent had a reported 25% stake in the company, and the region is considered to be one of their largest audiences. Since Blizzard’s initial ban of Blitzchung, the company has faced backlash from players, and calls for a boycott of their products. During Tuesday night’s Collegiate Hearthstone championships, participants American University held up a “Free Hong Kong, boycott Blizzard” sign, before the broadcast was quickly cut.
China’s influence on esports cannot be denied. Two months ago, Shanghai hosted The International 2019, Dota 2’s largest tournament. The 2017 League of Legends World Championships were held across China. And according to Unibet, there were over 1000 professional players in the country in 2016, with that number expected to have grown since then. As the issue of Hong Kong expands, China will continue to exert pressure on teams and companies to tow the line, as the nation attempts to put its best foot forward in the esports industry.