Checkpoint #19: Blitzchung Blitzkrieg

An Activision-Blizzard catastrophe, Fortnite's second chapter, the next PlayStation, and new Riot games

Hey readers,

Welcome back to Checkpoint. I’m back from holiday and feeling refreshed, but the gaming world seems decidedly more frazzled than it was before my departure. With stories from the gaming world regularly breaking into mainstream news over the past few weeks, you’re probably no stranger to some of the news we’ll look at today.

Planning to be back with regular programming and a regular cadence from today, but let’s get caught up first.

Activision-Blizzard Makes a Geopolitics Debut

Blizzard Entertainment suspended Hong Kong Hearthstone pro Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai from Hearthstone Grandmasters earlier this month, after he made a statement in support of the Hong Kong protesters in a post-match interview. The company also fired the two casters hosting the interview. Blizzard quoted a tournament rule that disallows participants from offending any group or damaging Blizzard’s image, a rather broad catch-all that seems designed to enable wide-reaching discretion.

The backlash from large segments of the playerbase, especially in the West, has been fierce and prolonged. A call to boycott has led to many users cancelling World of Warcraft subscriptions and uninstalling games.

In the same vein as last year’s Diablo Immortal debacle, Blizzard is creating headaches for itself by trying to straddle the divide between Western and Eastern markets and access the revenue within both. But fundamental incompatibilities between the two systems — from player tastes to Communist Party values — mean that the company may have to make a choice in order to move forward.

Players aren’t the only ones enraged by these events. Brian Kibler, a Grandmasters caster, responded by quitting, followed shortly thereafter by Nathan Zamora. Original World of Warcraft team lead Mark Kern, who had a hand in encouraging Blizzard to pursue the Classic revival, joined the boycott and cancelled his own subscription. Blizzard employees have staged walkouts, gathering at the iconic orc statue surrounded by plaques enshrining the company’s values. And yesterday, a bipartisan letter from US Congress members asked Activision-Blizzard to reconsider its stance. The letter stopped just short of accusing Blizzard of complicity with the Chinese government — something it saved for Apple — but remained a strong rebuke.

Gamers have even attempted to make Overwatch’s Mei a symbol of the Hong Kong protests in order to get the game banned in China, as happened to the bear himself, Winnie the Pooh.

After nearly a week of radio silence, Blizzard responded by defending its original decision, while halving Blitzchung’s 12-month suspension, and converting the firing of the two casters into a six-month suspension. The company claims that its relationship with China was not a factor in the decision — despite the official Blizzard Weibo account vowing to “respect and defend the pride of our country.”

Blizzard made it clear that it had entrenched itself in this position when, a week after the original event, it also banned a college team for six months after it held up “Free Hong Kong” signs during a livestreamed Hearthstone event.

The company has opted to cancel a New York City launch event for Overwatch on the Nintendo Switch and a Taiwanese World of Warcraft anniversary event to avoid the spectre of protests. 

The controversy has had longer legs than we usually see with scandals in gaming, and with BlizzCon only weeks away, it’s hard to imagine how the company can resolve the matter in time. Protests are planned, and if Blizzard chooses to take a hard stance on ticket-holding protesters, the furore will clearly blow open again.

To make things more interesting, players have crowdfunded the Hong Kong Overwatch team to compete in BlizzCon’s Overwatch World Cup. There’s no doubt that Blizzard will do anything it can to prevent Hong Kong and China from meeting in a match, but there are clearly ways this could go wrong for the company.

Other giants of gaming have added their voices to the conversation. Riot Games, which is wholly owned by Chinese mega-corporation Tencent, has made it clear that it will not allow political statements at its events. Tim Sweeney of Epic Games, 25% of which is owned by Tencent, has said that it will never ban anyone for political speech, with Sweeney pointing to his controlling share in the business for assurance.

Of course, one can argue that proliferate human rights abuses, such as those the Chinese government enacts, transcend politics as much as they are intertwined with them. And we should not allow any Western company that has wooed us for decades with its strong values to cosy up to a repressive regime that runs city-sized concentration camps — not without paying a price.

If you’ve uninstalled Hearthstone, you may be able to find your CCG fix in one of these alternative games.

Link ‘Em Up

Facebook held another Oculus Connect in late September. Aside from some new titles, including a VR Medal of Honor game, the Oculus Quest received a lot of love. A planned update will enable accessory-free hand-tracking, improvements to camera Passthrough, and Oculus Link. Oculus Link will allow users to connect their Quest to a gaming PC over USB-C and access all Rift titles by making use of the PC’s hardware.

The company also announced that Gear VR will not be supported on future Samsung phones.

But if you want to fly around like Tony Stark, you’ll want to grab a PS4 and PSVR ahead of Iron Man VR’s February 2020 release.

That’s Not All, Folks

Fortnite pulled a big stunt this week when it ended its 10th season by sucking the entire map into a black hole, in-game, for players to enjoy in real-time. It then kept the game offline for almost two days, leaving players to wonder what was coming to next — or even if it was coming back at all, as a few openly fretted.

But return it did, with the announcement of Chapter 2. Chapter 2 introduces a completely new map, but as there were no patch notes, players had to figure out the rest for themselves. Those surprises include motorboat vehicles, swimming and fishing for items, and improvements to the battle pass system.

Sony has confirmed that the next PlayStation will be called the PS5, and will come out in time for the 2020 holiday period. It’ll feature an SSD, a new controller with a speaker, variable levels of trigger resistance, and a launch title from the developers of 2018’s Shadow of the Colossus remake.

Riot Games, which we should bear in mind is wholly Tencent-owned, had a lot to announce for its 10th birthday, drastically expanding the number of titles that it plans to have on the market. These include a CCG of its own, a new MOBA for mobile and console, a tactical shooter that seems like a cross between Overwatch and Counter-Strike, and even an animated TV series.

It’s official: Red Dead Redemption 2 is coming to PC in November. You can check out some of the game’s PC enhancements and 4K visuals in this stunning trailer. Just don’t expect any single-player DLC in the future: Rockstar says it is wholly focused on Red Dead Online.

Paradox has announced Crusader Kings 3, a followup to the series’ eight year-old second instalment. The grand strategy title is expected to land in 2020, and is intended to be more accessible than its predecessor — a fault or feature of Paradox games, depending on who you ask.

Finally, Call of Duty: Mobile is out for Android and iOS devices, and despite all assumptions — well, mine, at least — people reckon it’s actually good. If you’re a run-and-gun fan, your next train ride is probably going to be a lot more entertaining.

That’s it for this edition.

Thanks for reading Checkpoint, and bearing with me while I attended to the wellbeing of my mortal coil. If you enjoyed reading, please let your gamer friends know about the newsletter — keeping Checkpoint growing helps me keep it going. And don’t forget to follow the newsletter on social media:

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Thanks for your support. See you next time,

- Flob

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