The CEO of Epic Games wants you to know it won’t punish esports players for chanting Hong Kong protest slogans… even though China’s biggest game company owns 40% of Epic.

“Epic supports everyone’s right to speak freely,” CEO Tim Sweeney wrote on Twitter. “China players of Fortnite are free to criticize the US or criticize Epic just as equally as all others.”

That’s in stark contrast to the route Blizzard recently took when it banned an esports player for using a slogan supporting the ongoing protests in Hong Kong at the end of an interview. The company also stripped the player of his US$10,000 prize money.

After Blizzard faced a backlash in the US, Epic Games issued a statement supporting the rights of players and content creators to speak out on politics and human rights.

The company’s CEO also chimed in on Twitter, saying that he would support players who chant protest slogans. Since he’s the controlling shareholder, he said, it doesn’t matter that Chinese tech giant Tencent owns 40% of the company. He’s the one who calls the shots.

Fortnite hasn’t been approved for monetization in China, but it’s not as popular as other battle royale titles like PUBG. (Picture: Epic Games)

Netizens in China quickly lashed out at the game developer known for its popular battle royale game Fortnite. But in trying to draw parallels with the US, some of the criticism took a strange turn.

“Do I get to voice support for the Confederacy in Fortnite?” one Chinese netizen asked on Weibo.

“Let's flood [Fortnite] with slogans like 'Hawaii Independence,' 'Native Americans Resist Invasion,’” another said.

Some people decided to take things further, defending the 9/11 attacks that brought down the World Trade Center buildings in New York as justified. This is in spite of the fact that the Chinese government itself characterizes the attacks as terrorism. 

Video games have become the latest battleground for people voicing public opinions about the anti-government protests in Hong Kong. Blizzard’s trouble started when a Hearthstone player Blitzchung shouted out “Liberate Hong Kong; Revolution of Our Times” in an interview after winning a game during the Hearthstone Grandmasters.

While people in China were happy to hear of Blitzchung’s punishment, it didn’t go over well in the gaming company’s home market. Gamers in the US started calling for boycotts of Blizzard games and trying to get Overwatch banned in China by turning a Chinese character in the game into a pro-protest figure.

But things could be worse for Blizzard. Its apology in Chinese stating that it would “firmly safeguard national dignity” has gone over much better in China than the NBA’s recent apology for a similar controversy. The NBA has been getting criticized both at home and abroad for its response to a tweet from Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey showing support for the protests.

Right in the middle of all these controversies is Tencent. In addition to the company’s 40% stake in Epic, it has a 5% stake in Activision Blizzard and is the NBA’s official streaming partner in China. We reached out to Tencent to comment on this story, but did not receive a reply by publication time.

“Tencent is probably feeling some kidney pain these past few days,” a Weibo user wrote

Tencent ultimately joined CCTV and stopped showing preseason games. This may not continue into the regular season, but the idea of Tencent distancing itself from Epic seems even less workable to some netizens.

“Tencent can't afford to start this fight. Its games are built using Unreal," a Weibo user commented, referencing the rendering engine developed by Epic Games.

Epic Games is also less likely to be affected by potential backlash in China. Rankings on the Twitch-like live streaming site Douyu show Fortnite isn’t nearly as popular as other battle royale games like PUBG on PC or Game for Peace on mobile.

But not penalizing players and developers is different from taking a position as a company, which Epic Games is firmly avoiding.

“Epic doesn’t take a position on politics and we don’t endorse players’ political views,” Sweeney said on Twitter. “We just seek to be neutral and non-judgmental of players, and hope everyone reaches an amicable conclusion.”