HONG KONG — Activision Blizzard became the latest American company to find itself caught between its business interests in China and the values of its core customers after it suspended an e-sports player who voiced support for the Hong Kong protests during a live broadcast.
The decision to suspend Chung Ng Wai, a professional Hearthstone player in Hong Kong, for a year, while forcing him to forfeit a reported $10,000 in prize money, prompted a backlash in the United States similar to the public relations debacle the N.B.A. has faced this week. Gamers posted angrily on social media and in forums, while politicians saw it as another troubling sign of China’s chilling clampdown on speech worldwide.
“Recognize what’s happening here. People who don’t live in #China must either self censor or face dismissal & suspensions,” Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, wrote on Twitter. “China using access to market as leverage to crush free speech globally.”
Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democrat, concurred, saying on Twitter that Activision Blizzard showed “it is willing to humiliate itself to please the Chinese Communist Party.”
“No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck,” he said.
Activision Blizzard, which has created some of the most popular games in e-sports, including Overwatch and World of Warcraft, said Mr. Chung had run afoul of a rule barring players from any act that “brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages” the company’s image.
In a post-match interview with the Taiwan stream of Hearthstone, Mr. Chung, who is known as Blitzchung, appeared with ballistic goggles and a gas mask, protective gear often worn by protesters during demonstrations in Hong Kong. Mr. Chung shouted in Mandarin: “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” a popular slogan of the protesters.
Mr. Chung did not respond to an interview request on Wednesday. But in a chat with fans on Tuesday on Twitch, a live-streaming service, he expressed no regret.
“Today, what I have lost in Hearthstone is four years of time,” he said, referring to the years he spent playing the game. “But if Hong Kong loses, it would be the matter of a lifetime.”
In the second quarter of 2019, Activision Blizzard earned $173 million from the Asia Pacific region, about 12 percent of its $1.4 billion worldwide total revenues.
Blizzard did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
Several companies have recently apologized after offending Chinese sensitivities, or have pre-emptively self-censored to ensure that they do not lose access to the lucrative Chinese market.
This week, the N.B.A. was forced onto a tightrope after Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted support of the Hong Kong protests. An initial statement from the N.B.A. was widely seen as insufficiently supportive of Mr. Morey, prompting accusations that the league was more interested in its Chinese business interests than supporting free speech.
Last week’s “South Park” episodes mocked Chinese censors and American businesses that compromise their values for the Chinese market, causing the show to be pulled from Chinese platforms.
It was not yet clear what commercial impact the backlash to Blizzard would have, but many of its users reacted strongly. Threads on Reddit forums dedicated to Blizzard games lit up with criticism, while calls to boycott the company or cancel subscriptions spread throughout Twitter.
One person to cancel his World of Warcraft subscription was Mark Kern, who led the team that created the game.
In an interview, Mr. Kern said China was a major source of revenue for the gaming industry, and he knew he was “closing many doors” careerwise by speaking out on Twitter.
But Mr. Kern, who lived in Hong Kong as a teenager, said the company’s actions were “a deterioration of Blizzard values that really broke my heart.”
“It’s one thing to stay out of politics in games, quite another to take harsh, punitive actions designed to appease a government whose values are against what Blizzard has traditionally stood for,” he said.
Patrick Chow, 20, who works at an e-sports stadium in Hong Kong, said he used to play Hearthstone a lot but would immediately stop playing Blizzard games. He said Mr. Chung had the right to use his influence to help the people of Hong Kong, and that the company shouldn’t have “controlled the player’s freedom of speech.”
“It breaks my impression of Blizzard,” he said.
Tiffany May contributed reporting.