BlizzCon attendees approaching the convention's main entrance this weekend in Anaheim, Calif. were greeted with an unusual sight: a group of protestors--some masked, some not, some dressed as Winnie the Pooh--shouting slogans and offering pamphlets stating "Free Hong Kong."
For those following the news, the protests should come as little surprise, as organizers began making plans to visit BlizzCon after the banning of pro Hearthstone player Blitzchung in response to his on-stream protest against the Chinese government's treatment of Hong Kong and its protestors over the course of the last year.
But how much impact did that protest have on the event itself? It's both possible to say the protest was extremely effective (J. Allen Brack loosely acknowledged its existence during his pre-show apology on Friday) and ultimately somewhat muted.
Despite an eye-catching showing, it's unclear if this is the beginning of sustained pressure against Blizzard, or the climax of a month-long PR firestorm for a company that probably never wanted to comment on the Hong Kong protests in the first place.
A spectacle for human rights
The biggest win for the Hong Kong protestors at BlizzCon was that if you passed by them, it was impossible to ignore them. The group of protestors (organized by Hong Kong Forum, Freedom Hong Kong, Fight for the Future, and a BlizzCon protest subreddit, per Kotaku) claimed a fountain smack between the Hilton and Marriott hotels, and borrowed from the same tactics as their counterparts in Hong Kong.
A cosplayer dressed as Overwatch's Mei waved a flag over the fountain, signs sporting Blizzard's slogan of "every voice matters" dotted the stonework, and various people in Winnie the Pooh outfits mingled alongside attendees dressed up as Blizzard's colorful cast of characters.
(Winnie the Pooh has become a satirical symbol among protestors in China and Hong Kong, as the character has been used to mock president Xi Jinping.)
When speaking to the protestors what was immediately striking was that the group wasn't entirely made up of disaffected players, and included anti-authoritarian protestors who'd previously been supporting the Hong Kong protests. Their message to Blizzard went beyond the banning of Blitzchung, and went as far as to encourage the company (and other developers) to vocally support the city's protestors.
"I really believe the Communist Party is going to oppress Hong Kong," said one protestor named Oscar. "They're going to oppress their civil liberties, and [the city] should have a right to self-determination."
Oscar was joined by another protestor--a self-described a Hong Kong native--who called for the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in the U.S. Senate, which specifically targets sanctions against individuals who've participated in the crackdown on protestors in the city.
One former Blizzard player named YX did speak to Gamasutra about his hopes for what game developers could learn from this situation. "I found out about [Blitzchung's banning] right after a Hearthstone competitive match," he said. "I closed out my game, saw the news, and deleted all my Blizzard games."
"What we ask for is something that's fairly straightforward," YX said. "Unequivocal support for democracy and human rights all around the world...a lot of people ask us 'what do you want, when will this protest end? It's going to end when Blizzard decides to support democracy and human rights. It should not be difficult, and the fact it is [difficult is] why it's a problem."
J. Allen Brack's apology appeared to have done little to appease YX or his fellow protestors. While Blizzard's president did emphasize a support for free speech at the convention, YX pointed out there was no call for supporting human rights in his words. "Everything else is just jibber jabber."
Beyond the protestors' demands and signs, it's worth noting how local its contingent seemed to be. The diverse group of attendees appeared to hail from the Southern California area, a populous region that sports a number of residents who used to live in Hong Kong or may have other experiences with authoritarian countries.
The protestors were encouraging passerby to take photos with sign-holders and cosplayers, including one local celebrity known for his appearances on the LA Clippers jumbotron. While BlizzCon itself features attendees from all over the globe, it appeared that Blizzard's actions in Blitzchung's banning set off a nerve with local activists, who were already mobilized to support Hong Kong and ready to take action at the company's popular SoCal event.
Calm inside the convention
For once, the unanimously upbeat and excited tone of BlizzCon felt somewhat dissonant. Once you walked past the fountain and through the security gates, Hong Kong seemed to be the furthest subject from attendees' minds.
This isn't to say that there clearly weren't Blizzard players who still felt upset over its actions banning Blitzchung. Two attendees managed to get the phrase "free Hong Kong" on camera during the livestreamed World of Warcraft Q&A, but the online anger generated at Blizzard in the last few weeks seemed to barely manifest among the players who'd shown up for a first-hand look at new games and live tournaments.
A handful of attendees carrying shirts given by the protestors outside marked the crowds, but what became interesting is that for some (especially younger) Blizzard fans, there was still some confusion over the situation as a whole. One attendee named Josh who sported the protestor's Hong Kong shirt told us he had the shirt not expressly out of support for the protestors but more out of curiosity and spectacle.
"A good amount of my friends are following it, kind of," he said. "But I don't pay attention to it myself. What Blizzard did is something I don't really know. I'm not really involved in anything political."
Josh said he followed the situation mostly through Reddit, and not any particular news outlets.
Eavesdropping on conversations around the show, the room where conversation about the protests was most notable was, with little surprise, the event's press room. Reporters appeared to be studying some of the fliers that had been handed by protestors (and reporters from IGN and Kotaku extensively covered the protests' presence), but it took extra effort to find anyone in the show proper who seemed visibly upset about Blizzard's choice to ban Blitzchung.
The most visible form of protest inside the convention center was a handful of Winnie the Pooh cosplayers who looked fantastically out of place amidst the sea of Murlocs, demons, and other costume-clad attendees. One costume-bearer, Robert, explained how he'd come to wear his (rather large) outfit, seen in the image below.
"I already bought the ticket and I couldn't refund it, so I figured I'd show up as Winnie the Pooh because Winnie the Pooh's banned in China," said Robert. "I thought Blizzard's apology was kind of weak because they didn't follow up the apology with unbanning Blitzchung."
He didn't say if he expected any conflict with his costume, but apparently it was something of a hit among his fellow attendees. "People have been very nice. Even security has been cool. A Hilton security guard even gave me a little jar of honey."
Robert even claimed some Blizzard employees had taken pictures with him. He admitted there was a mix of understanding about his costume--some people reacted with knowledge of Pooh's significance in the protests, others pointed out that Disneyland was across the street, and he looked like he belonged there.
Despite being fairly lighthearted about his method of protest, Robert still agreed with the protestors outside that Blizzard hadn't done the right thing in banning Blitzchung, and had crossed a line by not standing up for "American values" like free speech. He said he also uninstalled all his games, and even sold all his Blizzard stock before flying out to Anaheim.
Robert's costume proved popular with photographers and cosplayers around the show, but ultimately more as a matter of spectacle than strong sympathy for the cause he represented. There was a wide gap between him, a man who'd sold all of this stock and attended BlizzCon out of resignation, and the cosplayers he stood next to who'd no doubt sunk hundreds of dollars into costumes of their favorite characters (and possibly Blizzard's games themselves).
For supporters of Hong Kong, it may be frustrating to acknowledge the mood at BlizzCon may inform the company that instead of a foundational shift, it's dealing with just another PR problem that's happened to attract the attention of U.S. politicians. The protestors may be back next year, but the attendees most bothered by the events are already deleting their accounts, and seemed to attend largely out of financial obligation.
Will it be worth it for Blizzard, or any other developer, to actively wade into the Hong Kong situation the way it waded into the toxic harassment of Gamergate in 2014? This time, signs seem to broadly point to "no."
Protestor YX did make an economic element for developers looking to understand Blizzard's thorny situation. "Blizzard made a big mistake, so I have to look for a whole new set of games," he deadpanned. "I can't just rely on Valve, Blizzard, and Capcom because any one of them might do something really dumb."
"This is a great time, these are great opportunities, if you stand up for human rights, we will support you."