Blizzard Cancels 'Overwatch' Launch Event Amid China Censorship Controversy

Monday night, Nintendo announced that Blizzard has canceled its launch event for Overwatch on Nintendo Switch. The launch was planned to take place on October 16 at Nintendo’s New York City store.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/j5ya3d/blizzard-cancels-overwatch-launch-event-amid-china-censorship-controversy

A lot of people have been wondering what the fuck they’re gonna say on BlizzCon.

I can’t imagine that cluster fuck.

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My only disappointment is that Blizzcon wasn’t sooner. Although perhaps this way people will be able to get better organized. I’m impressed with how this has refused to die down even over a few weeks.

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I’m not actually sure I’ve ever seen a company just… bunker up like this during such a high profile shit storm? It’s wild.

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I bet they’re seriously considering moving to the Nintendo Direct model in the future. I don’t think they can cancel blizzcon this year. People already have tickets and stuff. But if the protests mess their plans up this year then next year…

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My guess is that there won’t be any questionnaires for any of the stuff they’re going to be showing.

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So here is something interesting. There’s a blog on tumblr that’s been around for a fair time, askagamedev, run by an anonymous dev. Usually they’re answering broad questions about industry trends or How Do You Do X Specific Thing. Often pretty interesting.

They were asked about the HK-Activision-Blizzard thing and it’s a long post but worth reading, but something stood out to me as something I hadn’t really seen talked about.

Now that you’re all caught up, let’s talk about Blizzard and their business situation in China in general. China represents an enormous portion of Blizzard’s market. One of the designers I know at Blizzard said “I was once told that Warcraft is to China what Star Wars is to the US” and I believe it. China has gone so far as to build a Warcraft-inspired (but not licensed) [theme park]. You’d think this might give them some clout, but you’d be wrong. The CCP has no qualms about completely banning any company that steps out of line.

Here’s the thing - a lot of Blizzard’s critics in this situation are saying that it’s greed motivating their decision… but I don’t think it’s just greed. If Blizzard gets cut off from China, it would be disastrous for their bottom line, as well as Activision-Blizzard’s valuation. That would not only mean they lose a lot of money, but the entire company (and many of their employees’ jobs) is potentially in jeopardy. Given just how much of their business is done in China, I would not be surprised if being banned from China would be an existential crisis for Blizzard as we know it. For anybody within Blizzard, that should be terrifying.

And their conclusion is:

Now that we’ve been through all that, here are my own thoughts on the matter: Blizzard is stuck between two awful choices. This has become a full-blown international incident, which puts it in a different class entirely than the usual kinds of gamer recreational outrage. It’s a public relations shitstorm of the highest degree and one that will likely take years to recover from. However, their only other option is potential ruin with many, many lost jobs and irreparable harm done to the company at the pleasure of an authoritarian government.

If this is at all accurate-- and who knows if it is, they’re an anonymous dev, albeit anonymous for good reason-- it paints a very uncomfortable picture. Activision-Blizzard is not a company I would lose sleep over if they went under tomorrow (I find their arbitrary firing of employees and their use of microtransactions heinous) but the potential human cost of lost jobs is frankly very concerning.

Just some food for thought, I think it’s an interesting perspective to keep in mind.

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Gonna guess they maybe scale back the Q&As at Blizzcon this year. And they thought the Diablo mobile thing was bad last year…

Forgive me if the idea that a corporation like ActiBlizz receiving a “huge hit to their bottom line”, which will mean Bobby Kotick and shareholders continuing to make more money than I will ever see in my lifetime, while the ones who suffer from that setback will be the already unfairly compensated workforce, fails to illicit sympathy.

Don’t ever be fooled by the idea that these corporations HAVE to continue to make more and more money, especially when you see the disparity in pay between their labour forces and their CEOs.

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I’d normally agree except the alternative is acting on the behalf of a government that’s rounding up Muslims in concentration camps.

Like, once that’s in the cards, there’s no excuse. Phrase it like this: Google has to help the US government, which is rounding up immigrants into concentration camps, or people will lose jobs.

Just remember what the US is doing, what you think about any company censoring speech that government doesn’t like, then realize China is currently father along in the authoritarian death spiral.

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Their situation is uniquely difficult in that their morally-fraught business decision, the likes of which most businesses would hope to remain largely ignored, is being brought to the forefront via a clash between the ramifications of that decision and a core value that most people within the enthusiast gamer crowd share (unfettered access to free speech).

They’re trying to operate on the usual big business playbook of “wait until the audience’s consumerist desires win out over their principles”, but this is a PR tension that’s really easy to reignite, even by people without a large social following.

They will probably continue clamping down on errant activism in their competitive events, treat this Blizzcon as a wash before converting to a stream-only news cycle, and just generally absorb the bad PR. Because there is almost zero chance they will do anything to risk getting cut off from (what is likely) their biggest consumer base.

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I know all this, I have no misplaced love for Activision-Blizzard, but also I find it terrible that the people at the top will be fine if Acti-Blizz dissolves tomorrow but everyone below them are on the line. I can simultaneously be concerned for the livelihoods of these employees and about the wider issues.

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I’m surprised they didn’t do that after “don’t you have phones?” thing, but probably they figured that would just blow over as long as they could announce Diablo 4 or some other “core gamer” thing next time around. The China stuff isn’t going away, though, especially given that concern over China’s humanitarian abuses somehow managed to transcend the partisan divide that usually causes such things to slip out of mainstream discourse and dwindle down into an ideological stalemate.

The issue I have is that mindset is already being used to softly defend a giant corporation doing the dirty work of an authoritarian government. There’s definitely layers to the protests themselves due to the complexity of Chinese politics a lot of the west is still catching up on, but Blizzard’s actions are pretty black and white morally. Besides, the people at top absolutely don’t care about their workers, their decision rests entirely on greed or public pressure.

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Activision already doesn’t respect the job security of all workers under its umbrella, even as they’re reaping record profits. An ongoing PR crisis probably won’t change that lack of stability for their employees.

At the same time, I don’t believe boycotts will ever hold the right people accountable in a capitalist system. Pushing for political candidates and policies to disempower corporate actors will always be a more powerful action.

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Again: I have loathed Activision-Blizzard for years now. I’m also worried about how, as you say, the people at the top will be fine while their employees (who we already know are Not Happy about this bullshit) will be the ones to suffer. I’m not defending them, and you’re kind of repeating things I’ve already said I agree with as if they’re counterpoints.

“Activision-Blizzard are suppressing free speech in hopes of staying in the Chinese market, and they deserve this shitstorm” can co-exist with “It’s terrible that the employees at Acti-Blizz who have no control over these decisions will be the ones who suffer the most.”

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Blizzcon is going to be something, it could be quite the spectacle and I’m interested to see how Blizzard hides or spins it. I suspect any livestreams will not have m/any cuts the audience, in case someone brings a banner or something.

I hope everyone there stays safe! Especially with a number of gators involved in the boycott, there’s a potential for it to turn ugly and both protest organisers and Blizzard should be prepared for it.

An aside

(Also, just as a reminder, please be careful and do your due diligence when spreading news about Hong Kong and China. There’s a lot of American propaganda out there, and I’ve seen a vile amount of sinophobia on Twitter recently, even in liberal and left spaces. Check who you are retweeting, check your sources and read a diversity of sources. Read Chinese sources, read Hongkongese sources, read Middle Eastern sources, read American sources. All of them will only hold part of the truth, but at least you’ll be better able to put together a picture.)

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The main thing here, is that a lot of the assumption about chinese revenue is just kind of…wrong? Like it’s not insignificant but Activision Blizzard’s Q2 filings have “Asia Pacific” as 12% of their total revenue. The americas are 55% and, Europe/Middle East/Africa are lumped together at 33%. So that number also includes australia, south korea, japan etc.

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My understanding is that the importance of China to a lot of western companies isn’t necessarily gross revenue today, but growth potential. Companies like Blizzard are usually near market saturation in their home markets and China (with its rapidly growing middle class) is a good way to keep growth going. Growth is critical to keeping stakeholders happy.

But that’s all mechanics: the underlying calculation for Blizzard’s leadership was that this compromise of values was worth it, and that’s the world we live in.

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It’s 100% this, except from what I’ve seen chinese growth targets are less rooted in reality and more unrealistic imagination numbers based on some yet to happen explosion of the Chinese middle class. It’s investors being sold on 1000% growth for the companies in that market already when the boom finally happens.

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