How three pro-Hong Kong gamers protested their way into an international storm

Protesters congregated outside BlizzCon, Blizzard's annual convention, to voice their dissatisfaction with the company's treatment of gamers who spoke out in support of Hong Kong. Bethany Mollenkof for ESPN

CASEY CHAMBERS SEES it over breakfast in his dorm room, scrolling through his social feeds one October morning, a story so surprising he thinks, They wouldn't actually do this. "They" being Blizzard Entertainment, the American company that makes some of the world's most beloved video games. "This" being Blizzard's apparent ban of Blitzchung, a professional Hearthstone player from Hong Kong who two days ago shouted, after a livestreamed match, "Liberate Hong Kong! The revolution of our age!"

Yet it appears they had, in fact, done this. Blizzard had banned Blitzchung from playing Hearthstone for a year and reclaimed his prize money.

Why? Chambers wonders, his cereal getting soggy. It doesn't make sense. Chambers is a meticulous 19-year-old, the sort who schedules his six-days-a-week runs in an online planner and keeps a spreadsheet of his heart rates. After Blitzchung's protest, Chambers had Googled how severely other gamers had been punished for rules violations. While Blizzard prohibits players from any act that "brings [them] into public disrepute, offends a portion or a group of the public or otherwise damages [the company's] image," Chambers' research led him to a story from 2018 in which he learned that Blizzard had fined one Overwatch player $1,000 for sharing his official account with someone else, while another player who had thrown matches was suspended five games. Chambers believed Blitzchung might get something similar: a $1,000 fine, maybe a game suspension.

But a ban?

Chambers obsesses over Hearthstone, a statistically intense digital game in which opponents duel using a 30-card deck heavy on dragons and warriors. He captains American University's Hearthstone team, which competes against other collegiate squads in tournaments that Blizzard organizes. He loves Blizzard Entertainment, the publisher of not only Hearthstone but also Starcraft, Overwatch and World of Warcraft, games that boasted, in the most recent fiscal quarter, 33 million players per month and $1.2 billion in revenue. Chambers has played Hearthstone compulsively since he was 15, and a few years ago, on a family trip to Southern California, he begged his parents to take a detour to Blizzard's campus in Irvine.

That's what makes today's news feel like such an affront. The more he's played Hearthstone, the more he's learned about Blizzard's mission statement: "Every voice matters." The company has lived this ethos too. It introduced LGBTQ characters to Overwatch in 2016 as a way to increase representation. In 2014, in response to Gamergate, an online harassment campaign against women, Blizzard co-founder Mike Morhaime issued a statement that said, "Let's take a stand to reject hate ... and let's redouble our efforts to be kind and respectful to one another."

So for Blizzard to ban Blitzchung -- it's inconsistent, and Chambers wonders about the motivation. Was it politics? Economics? Both? But he believes one thing to be true. "It's very clearly an injustice," he says.

Chambers can get righteous when he's mad, the residual effect, his mother believes, of the years he was bullied as a kid in Northern California, when other boys mocked and pushed the second-grader who read at a 12th-grade level. Casey was in junior high when he found his release: the cross country team, where it didn't matter that he was the undersized kid who every day pored over his father's Wall Street Journal. On that open stretch of grass, he competed against his own limitations, and every time he strained beyond them he stood a little taller the next day in the halls. The self-confidence repelled the bullies and pushed him to run ever longer, ever harder. He pushed so hard for so long that as a sophomore in high school he had alignment issues in the hips and knees. His injuries healed, but the ghosts of his formative years still trail him, have shaped him into the kind of young man who quickly sides with the underdog.

And Chambers sees one here.

He finishes his breakfast and his thoughts sprint ahead to this evening, when his AU Hearthstone team will play Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Readying himself for classes, he smirks: We're going to make the stream interesting tonight.

This thought will have consequences. It will lead, ultimately, to two normally opposing members of Congress siding -- together -- with his cause. It will drive the CEO of a multinational company to align against Chambers and his community of college gamers. And it will set Chambers on a journey that will mold him as surely as those bullies did.

THE PRACTICE FOR this evening's match starts at 2 in AU's technology building, and as Chambers walks toward it, he thinks he understands why Blizzard carried out the ban: China. He's learned that Blizzard is partially owned by Chinese conglomerate Tencent and that the Chinese Communist Party effectively controls mainland Chinese corporations and Western companies' access to China's 1.4 billion consumers. (ESPN has a licensing agreement with Tencent, and ESPN's parent company, Disney, has numerous business holdings in China.) Chambers has also followed the news from Hong Kong, a former British colony whose sovereignty was transferred back to China in 1997 under an agreement called the Basic Law, which preserved the territory's semi-autonomous, capitalist system. There, millions of anti-government protesters have taken to the streets over the past six months, in opposition to proposed legislation that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to China. That has made many people in Hong Kong fear an erosion of its judicial independence.

It seems to Chambers that Blizzard banned Blitzchung to placate the Chinese government, and Twitter is aflame with anti-Blizzard takes. "#BoycottBlizzard" trends on Twitter, where one former World of Warcraft developer, Mark Kern, posts a screen grab of him canceling his Blizzard subscription: "I made this game with the team. I am opposed to Blizzard's fear of China and its silencing of Blitzchung. I am calling on Blizzard to stand up for what is right." The tweet ultimately gets 30,000 likes.

The online fury convinces Chambers and his teammates, Corwin Dark and Torin Wright, of the need to make some sort of protest tonight. All three are either majoring in international relations (Chambers and Wright) or interested in it (Dark), and they skew to the political response in almost any situation. "Blizzard's positioning themselves as the cop who will enforce China's rules," Dark says. They spend 90 minutes of their two-hour practice weighing what to say and how to say it. Many gamers have criticized Blizzard today from the safe planks of third-party platforms like Twitter and Reddit. The AU guys realize the stream of tonight's match is an opportunity: They can distinguish themselves by protesting on a broadcast authorized by Blizzard itself.

They decide they'll need something analog, something they can sneak past Blizzard cameras. They agree on a sign.

At 6:40 p.m., more than an hour before the match against WPI, Chambers arrives at the computer lab in the basement of AU's science hall. He busies himself with the webcam that'll broadcast his team's reactions during the match. He wants to make sure the webcam will capture the sign.

Dark arrives around 7. The sign was his idea, though it pained him this afternoon to make it. Dark has played Blizzard titles since he was 5, often with his dad. To protest tonight is to cancel his Hearthstone account tomorrow, and to cancel tomorrow is to shatter a thousand framed family photos. He's willing to do it, as is Wright. Hong Kong is half a world away, but the three undergrads believe in minimizing that distance and standing in solidarity with the protesters by calling on all collegiate Hearthstone players to unite around Blitzchung and boycott Blizzard. "The goal," Wright says, "is to at least get some people to gain more awareness about the issues going on in Hong Kong."

Though Blizzard is not the only gaming company owned in part by a Chinese conglomerate, the AU guys feel the need to call out what they see as China's abuses of power. AU is a politically active campus, and attending college in Washington, D.C., means constant exposure to current affairs. "You learn a lot," Dark says. The three Hearthstone players have learned over the past few months about China's authoritarianism -- its dearth of civil liberties, its internment camps of 1 million people from ethnic minorities and its proposed extradition rule. "It was a very serious risk that the extradition rule would be used to silence pro-democracy protesters," Chambers later says. "If I was an activist in Hong Kong, I would be terrified." The AU guys have read stories about how the protests in Hong Kong have grown not only larger but more violent, and if their own protest against Blizzard means quitting the game they love, the one that forged their friendships, so be it. As Chambers will later say, "We weren't risking anything ... like someone in Hong Kong was."

The AU kids buzz with adrenaline as the clock edges closer to the match's start time of 7:45. The plan is simple: Win this match so they are assured a postgame Q&A, where they'll say a phrase they've been tweaking throughout the afternoon, something akin to, "We want to forgo our interview and let this be our message," at which point they'll hold up the sign. They've phoned their parents, telling them without specifics that they should watch online. The stakes seem small: Maybe a few thousand people will tune in to the stream, and yet never has the AU team wanted to win a match as much as this one.

Play begins -- and the team plays poorly. Maybe the AU guys are pressing, or maybe the luck every team needs from Hearthstone's 30-card deck just isn't breaking their way. AU loses the first two games in the best-of-five match, then rallies to win Game 3. WPI gets a not-great hand to start Game 4, and AU quickly calculates that WPI will need one card in particular to win the game, a card called Inner Fire.

On WPI's next turn, it gets Inner Fire.

The AU guys recalibrate. It might be time to turn to Plan B.

They had talked about this possibility earlier. If it appeared they were going to lose, they would do two things. First, they would stall. Collegiate Hearthstone matches stream on a 15-minute delay. The AU guys knew this and believed, in turn, that they would have to make sure the decisive game lasted at least that long. Otherwise Blizzard could, they worried, cut the stream after the penultimate game and no one would see the end of the match. Blizzard is a closed circuit in which the company develops the game, distributes it to a mass audience, broadcasts competitive matches and establishes rules that allow the company to regulate the expressions of gamers across platforms. Any protest against Blizzard, then, must be planned out, calibrating all contingencies. And so there was not only a Plan B but two parts to Plan B, the second to occur at the end of the lost match: Just before the Blizzard cameras cut away from the AU undergrads, Dark would slide the sign to Chambers, who would hold it directly in front of the lens, aimed to offend Blizzard and delight the gaming world. It would be fun and illicit, and something Blizzard would have to acknowledge. Or so the team hoped.

Now, in Game 4, after WPI gets Inner Fire, the AU undergrads glance at one another and without a word -- because the camera is on them at all times -- agree to stall. A team gets 75 seconds to make a move, and the AU guys push each move to its limit, laying down a card and then hoping the WPI team deliberates for nearly as long.

WPI doesn't. Or does it? It's tough to tell. No one thinks straight. No one even tries to play well. Five minutes pass, then seven. WPI plays more aggressively. Keep stalling keep stalling keep stalling. Nine minutes, 10, WPI so close to victory: How much longer can they hold out? Stall stall stall. The bio-wearable that's monitoring Chambers' heart rate shows 189 beats per minute, 95% of his max. Keep stalling! Eleven minutes. Twelve. The guys watch every second now.

Then the game's over, at 12:37.

Dark slides the sign hard to Chambers, who picks it up and pushes it toward the camera so it won't be out of focus:

"Free Hong Kong. Boycott Blizz."

The sign fills the frame. The casters pause, unsure how to respond, and decide to ignore the sign and congratulate WPI for the win. The stream then cuts from AU's camera.

With no time to celebrate, Chambers clips the last 30 seconds of the broadcast, fearing Blizzard might quickly take down the whole thing, wiping it from the record. He then whips out his phone and takes a video of the streamed clip. This way there'll be at least one record of their protest. Dark nods his head. Quick thinking.

Sure that Blizzard won't show the fourth game because it wasn't long enough, the guys, with nothing else to do, watch the third game a bit despondently. When it ends, they're positive the screen will go dark.

It doesn't. The fourth game starts. Tiny shrieks of joy and then more silence: What if Blizzard cuts away just before the close? The seconds pass, impossible to endure.

The game ends.

The audience sees the sign.

The guys erupt.

"That's probably the loudest the basement of the science building has been," Dark will later say.

The production crew broadcasting the match allows the fourth game to air in full.

Chambers tweets their video. Dark calls his girlfriend. Wright texts some friends. They call their parents, who tell them they watched and say over and over how proud they are.

Back in his dorm, just before he slips into bed, Chambers looks at his phone. His tweet has 1,000 likes, the subreddit post around 100 upvotes. Before tonight, anything he'd put on social from the team had received maybe a dozen reactions, most of which came from their friends.

He did indeed make the stream interesting tonight.

His statement made, Chambers exhales. He looks forward to a new day, one that will bring the return of a normal life.

NOTHING IS NORMAL. It started overnight. Someone who'd watched the stream had then made a video of the protest on Reddit. This new post goes viral, and the AU kids soon trend on Twitter and become the talk of the gaming press: The Verge, Polygon, Vice. At one point, Chambers texts Dark and Wright to ditch class because "we're doing an interview with The Washington Post in 10 minutes."

Blizzard, meanwhile, does not ban the AU team from Hearthstone, but it does take down the stream of the AU match, ban collegiate Hearthstone players' cams and ban postmatch interviews on the college circuit. Now this becomes part of the story, this seeming fear of more protests, of Blizzard hearing from more voices. And, as the interviews continue, the days for the AU students become a blur of classes, public statements and media calls. "We were the first thing on Blizzard's stream [after the Blitzchung protest]," Dark says. "If we did nothing, we were missing a pretty big opportunity." Meanwhile, Blizzard issues a statement about Blitzchung on Weibo, the Chinese social media channel: "We are very angered and disappointed at what happened ... and highly object [to] the spreading of personal political beliefs." The statement calls China "our country" and says Blizzard will "protect our national dignity." Within a week, Chambers gets an email saying Blizzard has reversed course and banned the team from competing for six months. Chambers scoffs as he reads it.

Their ban sparks a second round of media requests. Only now, for some, the story is no longer just about Blitzchung but about Blizzard stifling Americans' free expression. Which is how on Oct. 18, two days after the AU guys' ban, five members of Congress who typically do not agree on anything -- Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York among them -- sign their names to a letter that urges Blizzard to "decide whether to look beyond the bottom line and promote American values -- like freedom of speech and thought -- or give in to Beijing's demands in order to preserve market access."

The letter does not name the AU students, but it doesn't have to. Civil liberty and internet freedom groups from Hong Kong to Vancouver to L.A. coalesce, and one such group, Fight for the Future, contacts the guys, asking if they'll not only join the protests planned for BlizzCon, Blizzard's annual convention, to be held in a couple of weeks in Anaheim, California, but also be among the protests' featured speakers.

The AU guys are stunned by the invitation. They are also increasingly aware of how the stakes have been heightened. Before their own ban, Chambers thought that Blizzard's big sin was, he believes, its "hypocritical" enforcement of its rules. Chambers and his teammates now feel that the bigger sin is in being an American company that, in their view, punishes its fellow Americans for exercising their free speech rights in an effort to mollify a foreign political power.

"I'll tell you," Dark says to Chambers one night as the two eat dinner at an Italian restaurant in Bethesda, Maryland. "No Chinese people are currently being banned by international companies for saying Hong Kong should be part of China. But people in America are being banned for the opposite."

He pauses.

"Free speech is a wondrous thing."

"For real," Chambers says.

Still, they're unsure about BlizzCon. The three guys are only 19, can't miss too much class, can't even afford the airfare to L.A., so they ultimately tell the nonprofit that they're tentative about attending. That's fine, says Fight for the Future. "We'll pay for everything."

The trio deliberate again. None of them had expected this; they hadn't thought their sign would be seen outside their little corner of the internet. And now to go on? To become the face of a movement they are only beginning to understand? Dark, for his part, isn't sure. He says he's "ready for the media whirlwind to be over." Chambers can sympathize. He says "too many" people -- like 400,000 -- have responded to his initial protest tweet. Some trolls lurk in their social feeds, convinced the guys took a stand for the same reason anyone is provocative online: to become famous.

And yet what does it say if they stop now?

CHAMBERS TOUCHES DOWN at Los Angeles International Airport on Nov. 1, before BlizzCon begins. He finds Wright at the airport -- Dark had a personal family commitment -- and the two ride to the Anaheim Convention Center.

They arrive to a climate of heightened tension. Cops and private security guide people through a chute of hip-high gates that curve and corral from the crosswalk of the Anaheim Hilton to a long tent that rises in its parking lot. Under it, Blizzard personnel saunter between stations of metal detectors and various TSA-inspired scanners, all 40,000 BlizzCon attendees getting not only a lanyard but also a bracelet that wraps around their wrists, monitors their whereabouts and cannot be taken off over the coming two days.

Chambers and Wright see that the protest will take place within the open space of this snaking chute of gates. The guys will be thisclose to the security guards at the tent's border, but everyone at BlizzCon will have to walk past the protesters to get into the conference. Along the fence line, people check the PA system while a Hong Kong-backed group hands out black T-shirts -- the calling card of the protesters in the territory -- to any passing gamer who wants one. The shirts picture Mei, Overwatch's Chinese character who in the past few weeks has become synonymous with the Hong Kong protests. Under the image of Mei, the shirts read, in all caps, "Our world is worth fighting for." Chambers and Wright grab two. Soon the Hong Kong group runs out of the 4,000 it made.

Inside, BlizzCon begins. On a dramatically lit stage within a cavernous and packed hall, Blizzard CEO J. Allen Brack steps to the dais to deliver his keynote address. He wears a charcoal short-sleeved button-up and long brown hair, graying at the temple, that falls well past his shoulders. These keynotes are normally an Apple-style product launch, but this year Brack opens differently. "Blizzard had the opportunity to bring the world together in a tough Hearthstone esports moment about a month ago," he says from the stage. "And we did not. We moved too quickly in our decision-making, and then, to make matters worse, we were too slow to talk with all of you. When I think about what I'm most unhappy about, it's really two things. The first one is, we didn't live up to the high standards that we set for ourselves. And the second is, we failed in our purpose. And for that I am sorry, and I accept accountability." (Blizzard did not return ESPN's requests for comment on this story.)

Brack's statement travels quickly to the hundreds of people outside, where it baffles a number of protesters and BlizzCon-goers. To whom did he just apologize? And for what? Some note that Brack did not say the word Blitzchung or China or, for that matter, the name Casey Chambers. He didn't say the word ban, much less whether he would lift the one on the American University players or the one on Blitzchung, which was recently reduced from a year to six months, satisfying no one -- at least no one out here. Out here, Brack's statement smacks flat against the hot pavement in this Hilton parking lot, and now the protest begins in earnest.

Chambers and Wright shout with the rest: "Free Hong Kong! Blitzchung did nothing wrong!" and "Hu-man rights! Hu-man rights!" and "Every voice matters! Every voice matters!" There are maybe 50 protesters here crowding and narrowing the walkway through which conference attendees travel to check in. Some people quickly move past Chambers and Wright, while others smile and throw up a we're-with-you fist. The pair take turns holding a corner of a massive 10-foot-wide sign that says "Gamers for Freedom." Other signs read "Down with CCP" and "Blizzard = China's Bitch." For a long time, it's a lot of fun for the AU undergrads, people all around dressed in the Mei T-shirts or in wild and way-too-revealing cosplay. One guy near the check-in table, playing off a popular meme of Chinese president Xi Jinping, is wearing a Winnie the Pooh costume and a paper mask of Xi's face. (According to reports, the Chinese government banned Winnie the Pooh on social media in response to the meme, because it finds the comparison disrespectful.) The guy in the costume hands out fake coins and dollar bills. "Want my money? Want my money?" he beckons. When asked why, he responds: "I'm buying favors. I'm buying obedience. I'm buying compliance. I'm buying silence."

The energy builds, and by 2 p.m., a short, wiry man in blue jeans and a Dodgers cap grabs the mic. His nonprofit, Fight for the Future, covered Wright's expenses, and now he introduces him and Chambers as "a couple of people who've been affected by this."

Wright walks up, takes the mic and recites a poem he wrote -- all oblique metaphors and dark and rusted imagery -- before handing the microphone to Chambers, who unfolds his own piece of paper. His message is more direct. He rewrote it three times on the flight, hoping to reflect the ever-larger beliefs he's adopted the past few weeks. Blizzard execs "need to balance their business relationships while maintaining their integrity ... because we the community ... we won't forget about this," Chambers says. "We need to be prepared for hard, difficult discussions about the role American companies should play in a diverse world. But we can't have that if there's no discussion at all. So Bobby Kotick" -- CEO of Blizzard's parent company, Activision Blizzard -- "and J. Allen Brack, I ask you: We're here. Are you?!"

There are cheers and rounds of applause and whistles and ultimately more chants. And when that is over there's the midafternoon heat and sweaty backs and fatigue and the sense that it will be hard to keep up this energy for two days and that it may not matter if they do. There are thousands, tens of thousands, more gamers streaming past, excited about the release of Diablo IV and not any message Casey Chambers can offer.

The afternoon moves from rally cries against Blizzard to conversations among tired and clustered protesters about what they see as a culture of corporate capitulation. "I'm not mad at their business deals," one male protester says. "I'm mad at their censorship." They talk about what they think Blizzard sacrificed for the $173 million, or 12% of revenue, it gained from the Asia-Pacific market in the second fiscal quarter. They talk about the NBA, which reportedly earns $500 million a year in China. (ESPN owns a stake in NBA China.) They talk about LeBron James and Warriors coach Steve Kerr -- two advocates of progressive policies in the U.S. -- who repeatedly declined to comment on Hong Kong after Rockets GM Daryl Morey voiced his support for the movement in a tweet. James and Kerr have said their stance reflects a lack of comfort addressing the issues. But for Chambers and many of the protesters, their silence is self-censorship on behalf of an authoritarian regime. "They prefer profits over the actual human rights issues," one woman protester says.

It doesn't end there. In the two weeks since Chambers was invited to these protests, he and Wright and Dark have discussed the actions taken by other multinational corporations -- such as Marriott, Apple, American Airlines, Delta Airlines and United Airlines -- when faced with similar pressure from China. Now, in Anaheim, conversations start anew among protesters about what they see as Western companies' deference to China. "These are American companies," says one protester, whose family fled Beijing after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. "And they should support American values. ... Can they all be controlled because of the financial ties to China? I think the deeper answer to that is yes." Elsewhere, Torin Wright talks with a reporter about the control that he believes China exerts. "I think it's outrageous," Wright says. "But I feel like a lot of companies just follow the incentives for economics."

An anxiety charges through these conversations, as does its accompanying implication -- that the freedoms of increasing numbers of Americans are at risk. "China is now in a position where they can essentially censor the world if they want to," says one protester. Chambers has his own realization: that by protesting publicly against China, he will probably never be allowed to visit. Inside the convention center, all may be frivolity and games, but out here on the pavement, an undercurrent of fear rumbles beneath the protesters, so palpable it is almost tactile.

Many of the protesters are from Hong Kong, and it is impossible to ignore that each one wears a mask, a surgeon's mask or full-on gas mask. In talking with them, Chambers and Wright learn that their masks are not worn to show solidarity with the protesters in the streets of Hong Kong. They're worn to protect their identities here, in Anaheim. According to multiple reports, China has the world's foremost facial-recognition software and employs it aggressively against its citizens and the Chinese diaspora. The people protesting here fear that if they were to be identified, it could jeopardize the safety of their families in Hong Kong or mainland China; some worry they could jeopardize their own livelihoods. No one in a mask uses his or her full name. Many use fake names. "I'm afraid of the Chinese government," says one woman, whose parents sent her to live in L.A. from Hong Kong in 1997, after the handover from Britain to China. They did so, she says, so she might be free of the fear they suspected they would never escape. The irony is not lost on her that 22 years later, in Anaheim, she is so worried about the Chinese government that she won't reveal even her first name or slide her mask off her nose and lips. "I'm just, yeah ... I don't want repercussions," she says.

When evening comes and Chambers surveys the parking lot, his unmasked face exposed, a final realization settles over him: One month ago, he'd held up a sign to stand alongside the people of Hong Kong. But the problems Hong Kong faces were here all the while.


Editor's note: In recent weeks, the Hong Kong protests were first overshadowed, then all but halted by the outbreak of the coronavirus in mainland China and its subsequent spread to surrounding areas, while the government's handling of the crisis has deepened tensions with Hong Kong. In response to the outbreak, Blizzard announced on Feb. 23 that it would cancel a series of Overwatch League games in South Korea from Feb. 29 to March 22. This came a month after Blizzard canceled all OWL games in China scheduled for February and March.

In late January, Blitzchung, who remains banned by Blizzard, said in an interview on YouTube that he does not regret his actions. The AU Hearthstone team's ban is set to expire in May. The AU players do not plan to return to the game.