By Sarah E. Needleman
Activision Blizzard Inc. suspended an esports competitor from one of its tournaments for backing antigovernment protesters in Hong Kong as tensions intensify between Beijing and the National Basketball Association over a similar expression of support.
Activision Blizzard, one of the world's biggest videogame companies, on Tuesday said in a blog post that "Hearthstone" competitor Ng Wai Chung, known as "Blitzchung" in the game, violated its rules that bar players from actions it considers offensive to a public group or that could damage the company's image.
The gamer, in a live online interview after winning a match on Sunday, said "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time," a slogan commonly associated with the protests. He wore a gas mask and goggles while he spoke. Hong Kong last week banned protesters from wearing masks.
Activision Blizzard said the player, who had no immediate comment, won't be allowed to compete in the second season of the digital card game's Grandmasters competition and will be banned from playing any of the game's company-run competitions for one year. He also lost the $7,000 awarded for making it into the tournament's second season plus the chance to win up to $200,000 in prize money.
A spokeswoman for California-based Activision Blizzard declined further comment. The company's shares closed down 2.3% Tuesday.
"Hearthstone" is one of the most popular franchises from the company's Blizzard Entertainment unit. It launched in 2014 and is played on computers and mobile devices.
How to deal with the Hong Kong protesters -- who claim Beijing is exerting ever-more political control over the city -- has become a minefield for companies. The chief executive of Hong Kong's flagship carrier, Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., resigned in August after criticism from Beijing because some airline employees participated in the protests.
China has canceled broadcasts of preseason National Basketball Association games after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posted a message on Twitter Friday night also in support of the Hong Kong protesters. Even though Mr. Morey quickly deleted the tweet, it touched off a firestorm in China, where many consider the demonstrators unpatriotic. The basketball league's commissioner said he wouldn't apologize for the tweet hours before China said it was canceling the broadcasts.
The controversy has threatened the future of the NBA's carefully cultivated China franchise, with merchants halting sales of the organization's merchandise and many Chinese celebrities pulling out of an NBA event in Shanghai, among other negative outcomes.
China is a big market for esports, though the segment globally still represents only a fraction of the videogame industry's roughly $150 billion in expected sales this year. Professional videogame competitions are projected to generate $1.1 billion this year, mostly from sponsorships and media rights, with sales expected to reach $1.8 billion by 2022, according to research firm Newzoo BV.
In recent years, Activision Blizzard has invested significant resources into building out its presence in esports. In addition hosting "Hearthstone" tournaments, it runs professional leagues around its blockbuster franchises "Call of Duty" and "Overwatch." Chinese videogame giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. has a 4.9% stake in Activision Blizzard.
Activision Blizzard's decision to suspend a protest-supporting esports competitor comes at a time when the company is seeking the Chinese government's approval to release a new Call of Duty game in the country. The free-to-play game launched in the U.S. and several other markets on Oct. 1 and amassed more than 35 million downloads in its first three days, according to the company.
The move against the "Hearthstone" player also highlights a risk in taking such actions publicly. After announcing the player's punishment, the hashtag #boycottblizzard began trending on Twitter.