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Epic Games promises to protect players’ political speech amid Hong Kong controversy

After a rival video game maker banned one of its players for expressing support for protesters in Hong Kong, Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney vowed publicly that his company would protect its players’ political speech.

The public stance comes after the video game maker Blizzard banned Ng “Blitzchung” Wai Chung for backing Hong Kong protesters during a live stream of a game called “Hearthstone.”

Chung had yelled “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age!” during a live stream of the game, which ultimately prompted Blizzard to ban him from competing in “Hearthstone” tournaments for a year.

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Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games in Cary

It was another example of a company seeking to quell mention of the Hong Kong protests in fear that it would upset business interests in mainland China. The National Basketball Association similarly found itself enmeshed in controversy after the general manager for the Houston Rockets tweeted support for Hong Kong protesters, leading to boycotts from the Chinese government and some Chinese businesses.

On Wednesday, Sweeney — whose Cary-based company has seen its growth skyrocket with the success of the game “Fortnite” — tweeted, “Epic supports the rights of Fortnite players and creators to speak about politics and human rights.”

The tweet came in response to a Twitter user saying they would be interested in hearing Sweeney’s response to the situation because of a Chinese company’s ownership stake in Epic.

Chinese internet giant Tencent owns a significant chunk of Epic Games. Tencent also owns a small percentage of Blizzard, PC Gamer reported.

Another user responded, asking Sweeney a hypothetical: If a “Fortnite” player said “Free Hong Kong” in a post-game interview, would Epic really not do anything?

Sweeney responded by saying “exactly.”

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Epic Games’ current campus has a rock-climbing wall in its cafeteria. Courtesy of Epic Games

Sweeney kept talking afterward to Twitter users who doubted that he wouldn’t do anything in response because of Tencent’s stake in the company.

“Epic is a US company and I’m the controlling shareholder,” he said. “Tencent is an approximately 40% shareholder, and there are many other shareholders including employees and investors.”

In another tweet, he said Epic wouldn’t sever ties to a player in the face of pressure from Chinese boycotts.

“That will never happen on my watch as the founder, CEO, and controlling shareholder [of Epic Games],” he said.

A day later, Sweeney was still actively responding to people on Twitter about the situation, repeating his position.

“I think a healthier view is that individuals are solely responsible for their own statements,” he said in response to one user. “If a gamer says something offensive, one should judge or criticize that gamer, but should not pressure companies or platforms to punish him.”

He added that Chinese players — or anyone else for that matter — were free to criticize the U.S. or Epic Games.

“Fortnite” has been an industry-changing hit in the video game world and a boon to the finances of Epic Games. The game is played by hundreds of millions of players around the world and rakes in billions of dollars in revenue every year.

It has allowed Epic to build its base of operations in Wake County. Earlier this month, the company said it would be expanding its campus in Cary to make space for potentially 2,000 more employees at its Crossroads Boulevard campus.

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.
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