Blizzard Entertainment cuts punishment for gamer in Hong Kong protests row

SHANGHAI/BEIJING (Reuters) - U.S. games publisher Blizzard Entertainment has reduced the punishment dealt out to a Hong Kong-based Hearthstone esports gamer for his public support of pro-democracy protests after its decision sparked controversy among players and the public.

Blizzard Entertainment, a subsidiary of Activision Blizzard which is partly backed by Chinese gaming giant Tencent Holdings, said last week that it would suspend the player Chung “blitzchung” Ng Wai from competition for a year and strip him of prize money after he called for the liberation of Hong Kong in a post-game interview.

Blizzard became the latest corporate name to get caught up in tensions relating to the Hong Kong protests, garnering it support in China but also drawing criticism from fans, players and commentators in the West, some of whom said that they would stop working with Blizzard as a result of its decision.

However on Saturday, Blizzard said it had decided to cut Chung’s punishment to a six-month suspension and would still award him his prize money, with its president J. Allen Brack saying the company had “reacted too quickly” in making its decision.

Brack said that Chung still had to be penalized as he had violated rules, but that his specific views were not a factor in the decision.

“I want to be clear: our relationships in China had no influence on our decision,” he said in a post on Blizzard’s website.

Chung said in a statement posted on Twitter that he accepted Blizzard’s decision and would express his opinions on his personal platforms in future. But urged the company to reconsider its decision to penalize two commentators at the tournament where he made his remarks.

The Hong Kong protests began in opposition to a bill allowing extradition to mainland China but have since evolved into broader calls for democracy in the former British colony, with activists throwing petrol bombs, setting street fires and trashing metro stations.

China has accused the West of stirring up anti-Beijing sentiment in Hong Kong and reacted strongly to expressions of support for the protests.

Last week, the NBA became the target of a fierce backlash in China after one of its team managers posted a now-deleted tweet that expressed support for the Hong Kong protesters, which Chinese state media characterized as the latest example of meddling in China’s own affairs.

The furor prompted Chinese companies from ANTA Sports Products to smartphone maker Vivo to say that they would halt cooperation or contract renewal talks with the NBA while Tencent halted broadcasting pre-season games held in the country, leading some Chinese fans to ask for streaming subscription refunds.

But Tencent, which reportedly spent $1.5 billion for a new five-year broadcasting contract in China, on Monday resumed broadcasting two NBA pre-season games, one of which was played in Toronto while the other was played in Minneapolis.

Reporting by Brenda Goh; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Nick Macfie