BlizzCon 2019 featured sequels to two of Blizzard's biggest properties: Diablo and Overwatch. The two mega-franchises have legions of fans, having influenced the landscape of video games forevermore after release. Under normal circumstances, the announcements of Diablo 4 and Overwatch 2 would garner universal excitement. The games appear to answer requests that fans have had for years for prior entries in each series -- most notably Overwatch 2 featuring a woman of color as a playable character, as well as a single-player mode. Fans would, under normal circumstances, be cheering in the streets.
But BlizzCon 2019 did not take place in a normal atmosphere. Rather, it occurred in the wake of the very public controversies. In early October, Hearthstone player Ng “Blitzchung” Wai Chung shouted on a live-stream "Liberate Hong Kong!" On top of banning him from Hearthstone for one year, Blizzard stripped Blitzchung of his tournament prize money. Even though they have walked back from this in the following weeks, Blizzard's actions cannot be overlooked. To buy Overwatch 2 and Diablo 4, unless more is substantially done, would be a political action.
Overwatch 2 and Diablo 4 Look Good
Undeniably, these two games look pretty good, from what little we have seen so far. The early trailers don't tease a total reinvention of the wheel, of course. The games look fundamentally the same as prior installments. Both games released story and gameplay trailers, showcasing the plot and style of play for each game.
Diablo 4 brings a fantastic nightmare to life, with a glorious, simple premise: a ritualistic sacrifice summoning a great elder evil. But the gameplay footage offered fans an even better look at what they'd be experiencing: a profoundly bleak-looking world, full of monstrosities and horrors veiled in shadow. While the gameplay looks the same on a fundamental level (over-the-top POV action-RPG), it looks stylistically very bleak.
Overwatch 2, on the other hand, appears to finally progress the story of the world past "Here's what happened in the past," by showing the actual Overwatch team in action. While tweaks and balances have been added to gameplay (a level-up system, the new Push game-mode, single-player story mode), the game fundamentally plays the same while still providing an actual narrative for fans to enjoy. Arguably, this progressive story is something fans have wanted for a while -- but not as much as a playable woman of color, which the game has provided in the form of Sojourn.
But while both games look enjoyable, neither fundamentally reinvents the wheel that has been successful up until now. Overwatch in particular looks almost indistinguishable from its prior entry, save for some cosmetic redesigns.
But Then There's That Hong Kong Bit
In recent years, Hong Kong has been caught in an intense struggle. While many point to the Extradition Bill as the initial cause of the protests, multiple bills and legislation have been pushed both from within Hong Kong's city government and the Chinese government, to strip Hong Kong of its unique privileges to make it a part of China's greater whole. Hong Kong until the mid-90s was under colonial rule, and, as such, possessed a more democratic government free from the main Communist Party's regulations. This meant it had more liberties and freedoms, independent of the mainland.
When these liberties the people of Hong Kong enjoyed for years were stripped away, the people, justifiably, protested. While the Extradition Bill has been withdrawn, protests are expected to continue because there are far more problems facing the people there than just one bill.
So, when Blitzchung declared "Liberate Hong Kong" on a Hearthstone Livestream, he used the platform to voice his support for democracy and freedom. It is for this reason Blizzard banned him for one year and withheld Blitzchung prize money for winning a Hearthstone tournament, a sum of roughly $3,000. When Blizzard received backlash for this action, they returned the money and reduced his ban to six months. When pushed about this, J. Allen Brack insisted the company's relationships in China did not impact its decision.
“The specific views expressed by blitzchung were not a factor in the decision we made. I want to be clear: Our relationships in China had no influence on our decision. If this had been the opposing viewpoint delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted the same.”
Chinese company Tencent owns 5% of the company. They possess a large market in China. The Chinese market has continued to grow as a consumer of media, and media that opposes China's political decision often faces censorship and bans as a result of their decision -- or things get banned for seemingly petty reasons. For example, Winnie the Pooh is banned in China because people have drawn comparisons between the fictional teddy bear and President Xi Jingping as a way to lightly tease him. Evidently, he did not like the comparison.
A longer apology for Blitzchung's ban was made at BlizzCon 2019, however, at no point did the company actually ever acknowledge why it banned Blitzchung, why it was sorry for doing it, or anything like that. Furthermore, the company made no attempt to further reduce his ban, rendering the whole apology even more toothless.
One character put front and center in Overwatch 2's promotional material is Mei, a widely beloved character who represents China. In many respects, Mei represents all that is good about Blizzard's campaign from a business standpoint as well as the gigantic irony behind it all.
Overwatch was conceived as a way to represent the whole world coming together to solve problems. Every culture and ethnicity is represented in this game (which was why the omission of a woman of color in the game until this point was so glaring). While most of the characters are popular within their countries, Mei, oddly enough, is more popular outside of mainland China than in it. Many Chinese players don't like her due to her heavy-set appearance. In Overwatch 2, Mei's role is even more front and center, as one of the core members of Overwatch.
Mei's most iconic statement in-game is "Our world is worth fighting for." While this is in part her because of her role as a polar scientist, many have seen Mei as a symbol of fighting oppression. After all, despite being a scientist without any real superpowers, she's one of the first to answer the call of Overwatch. It is perhaps for this reason that many players wondered -- If Mei saw what was going on in Hong Kong, would she stand by and support it?
Many Chinese actors and activists, from Jackie Chan to Mulan's Liu Yifei, have voiced support for China against Hong Kong. But Mei, in a fascinating turn of events, has become a symbol for Hong Kong protests. Many protesters in and out of Hong Kong have appropriated Mei's image to stand as a symbol of support against China, the very country she was created to appeal to.
Hey, Blizzard.— rizzy 🍰🔞 (@PearlteaRizzy) October 9, 2019
Mei from Overwatch says:
"Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age!" pic.twitter.com/4VraKTrufc
In essence, Blizzard's tool to appeal to China has made her an icon to the protests going on in Hong Kong. Blizzard's properties have become political symbols in a far greater conflict. Regardless of what you feel about these games, know that everything involving these two titles from here on out will be part of the greater political discourse.