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Blizzard suspends ‘Hearthstone’ esports athlete after his pro-Hong Kong plea on livestream

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A Hong Kong-based esports athlete has been suspended from competition for speaking out in favor of protests against Chinese control over the semi-autonomous city.

And the game maker’s actions have caught the attention of U.S. lawmakers.

Ng Wai Chung, who uses the nickname “Blitzchung,” when playing the game “Hearthstone,” donned a gas mask and declared, “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age!” during a streamed post-match video interview.

“As you know there are serious protests in my country now. My call on stream was just another form of participation of the protest that I wish to grab more attention,” he told esports site Inven Global on Sunday after the interview. The player lists his hometown as Hong Kong on the Hearthstone site.

Activision Blizzard, which publishes the game and runs international competitions including the Asia-Pacific Grandmasters that Blitzchung was participating in, subsequently banned the player for one year saying he had broken the organization’s rules.

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Blitzchung’s actions, the company said in an announcement, violated a rule that “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 image will result in removal from Grandmasters and reduction of the player’s prize total to $0 USD, in addition to other remedies which may be provided for under the Handbook and Blizzard’s Website Terms.”

The game publisher also severed ties with the two videocasters who had hosted the interview. One Hearthstone player noted that the casters actually encouraged Blitzchung. 

Blizzard said, in its announcement, that while it stood by “one’s right to express individual thoughts and opinions, players and other participants that elect to participate in our esports competitions must abide by the official competition rules.”

But some lawmakers are not appeased. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said: “No American company should sensor calls for freedom to make a quick buck.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in a tweet of his own, called the action a sign of “China using access to market as leverage to crush free speech globally.”

This action comes as the NBA finds itself amid controversy with China after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posted a since-deleted tweet in support of protesters in Hong Kong. Chinese-born Hall of Famer Yao Ming played for the Rockets, which made the team popular in the country. The NBA is attempting to foster a global audience and has two preseason games in China this week.

There are other aspects that tie the two incidents together. Tencent, which owns a 5% stake in Activision Blizzard, is also the NBA’s exclusive digital partner in China.

U.S. companies are seeking to strike a balance in maintaining access to China’s massive and lucrative audience, while also dealing with the country’s sociopolitical differences.

“There are a lot of companies afraid to rile up China because of the risk of lost sales,” Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania professor Wiltold Henisz told USA TODAY sports columnist Jeff Zillgitt, who is covering that story.

Many esports followers online found fault with Blizzard for suspending Blitzchung.

Esports consultant Rod Breslau, who noted Monday that Blitzchung had been suspended, noted that online video of the interview had been deleted, too.

Blizzard had not responded to his request as to why the video had been removed, Breslau tweeted.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.

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