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Azur Lane's English language team removes winning Halloween art contest loading screen[updated]

*Editor's note, the game was incorrectly stated as being from Japan instead of China. We have corrected the error and docked our writer's pay.

*Editor's note 2: a member of the Azur Lane staff, Intern-Kun gave a personal statement on the issue to our writer and it was added to the end.

*Editor's note 3: The Azur Lane staff has said they have heard the people asking for a loading screen toggle and internal discussions about it are ongoing. As such a line about it in the article was slightly altered.

 If you clicked on this article then you probably have an idea what kind of game Azur Lane is so if that is the case you can skip past this paragraph. If you're still reading, then allow me to quickly summarize this game. Azur Lane is a gacha game that features real life warships anthropomorphized into loli girls and busty maidens. You command these shipgirls in sidescrolling battles against other shipgirls and warships, partake in minigames, and collect waifus. It is a game heavy on the fanservice and not shy about letting you know it knows why you're playing. As you may have guessed, this game was originally released in China and brought over to the West sometime later. 

Not that we are all on the same page, you might be wondering why a game filled to the brim with fanservice and a IDGAF attitude would remove a loading screen for lewdness. Well, I wondered the exact thing when I first became aware of the situation. Not willing to give a knee jerk reaction and blame the SJWs, I actually did a fair bit of research on everything that went down. I was even able to speak to the staff of the English version of Azur Lane as well as the artist whose art was removed.
The official contest announcement on Discord
On September 30, 2019 the official Azur Lane English language version Discord server announced they were holding a Halloween themed art contest. This contest was similar to past art contests and featured in game rewards as well as having your art featured as an in game loading screen as the rewards for placing in the top 5 or being the staff pick. The winners of the contest would be chosen by popularity poll just like all previous contests. Artist Piukute062, who had won 2 other Azur Lane art contests, teamed up with his friend Linka to enter this contest. Piukute062 has a small following on Pixiv and Linka runs a few Facebook groups so they were pretty confident they could win this contest.
Piukute062 and Linka managed to finish 5th in the contest
Since you know the art was removed it is fairly obvious that Piukute062 and Linka won the contest. The duo managed to finish up in 5th place after trailing behind in 7th for a while. Almost immediately after the winners were announced there was quite an uproar on the Azur Lane Discord server. Fans who had expressed reservations about a bathing loading screen were now upset about Piukute062 and Linka's winning entry. (Yes, both those screens are too lewd for Google Adsense.) While you may laugh at people playing a waifu collecting game being embarrassed by a lewd loading screen, this was an ongoing complaint from fans of the English language version of Azur Lane.
Piukute062's winning National Holiday Art Extravaganza drawing
The idea that some fans of Azur Lane felt they couldn't play the game around friends, family, or the general public was something that had been expressed to the Azur Lane staff several times. Members of the community had asked for the ability to select which loading screens they would see with a toggle switch or some similar mechanic implemented into game. These pleas from fans seemingly fell on deaf ears as Azur Lane staffers appeared to completely ignore the issue. Piukute062 himself had expressed that it would be disrespectful to the artists to allow players to hide certain loading screens. This loading screen issue finally boiled over when all Azur Lane English language social media areas became a clash between fans/supporters of Piukute062 and Linka's art and those who hated/opposed its inclusion in the game.
In about 12 hours the Azur Lane team removed the "offensive" artwork
According to information I have come across, Piukute062 and Linka's artwork was only in the game for about 12 hours before being removed. This was done without talking to Piukute062 or Linka, although attempts to reach them were made. I posted the official response above, but I will also transcribe it below in case the picture doesn't load for any reason.
In answer to your recent feedback, we removed a Halloween artwork, which had brought inconvenience to commanders when the game was played in public, from the current loading screens during yesterday’s hotfix. We intended to make a contact with the artist to clarify such situation before the artwork was removed, but he/she was unable to be reached on our Discord server. Hereby, we want to express our sincerest apology to the artist, and to all his/her fans. We will keep trying to contact the artist and solve the issue in a proper way.

We reiterate our respect to all kinds of fan arts, and we will be more careful with such issues in the future. Thanks for your understanding and support for HQ.
This reply from the English language staff of Azur Lane left people with all kinds of questions and several theories as to what really happened. Accusations of Azur Lane bending the knee to the SJW outrage mob surfaced. Accusations that Azur Lane wanted to cut ties with a "rude" artist or that Piukute062 and Linka "bought" votes were also trotted out. However, all of these wild conspiracy theories would turn out to be false.
The "evidence" of Piukute062 buying votes
First off, anyone in the Azur Lane English language community will admit the issue of lewd loading screens was brought up many, many times in the past by actual Azur Lane fans. Now, it is possible and highly likely these people are SJWs or have SJW leanings but to imply they are not players of the game is absurd. Those tossing around the accusation of Azur Lane bending the knee are the exact same type of people who scream video game companies should listen to their fans. Azur Lane listened to their fans, unfortunately it wasn't the fans some would have suggested listening to.

The idea that Azur Lane wanted to cut ties with a "rude" or disrespectful artist stems from 2 separate incidents. The first incident had nothing to do with the artist behind the removed art. Apparently a couple of different artist created art for the game then went on to badmouth Azur Lane. When this was brought to the attention of the Azur Lane team the art was removed from the game and the artist blacklisted. People tried to apply this first incident to an incident that actually involved Piukute062. As I wrote earlier, Piukute062 was very vocal about not adding a loading screen toggle switch to the game. This resulted in several heated arguments, some trolling, a few choice comments from Piukute062, and eventually a warning from the Discord server mods. As the Azur Lane staff were very upfront as to why they removed the other artwork and blacklisted the artist, this theory makes little sense given the official statement.

The last theory, and the only one with "evidence", was that Piukute062 cheated and bought votes. This theory seems plausible, more so if you see the evidence, but it is full of holes if you look past the surface. The vote was held on the Discord server, so mods and admins of the Azur Lane would have noticed a sudden influx in new members. Additionally, the prize for the contest was about $60 worth of in game goods so if the artist simply wanted the goods then paying for votes would be counter-intuitive. Piukute062 told me himself that he is not wealthy enough to throw money away on buying votes. He went on to say he only suggested that route to the other guy because he felt the other guy's art was not good enough to win fairly. It was an attempt to make fun of another artist by someone who speaks English as a second language.

So, what exactly happened? It is my belief, based on conversations with Azur Lane staff, Piukute062, and Linka that the art was pulled to protect Azur Lane's ESRB rating. If you don't know, the ESRB has had many problems with its rating system highlighted over the last few months. It is quite likely that threats of contacting the Google store or even reporting the game to Google could have triggered a reassessment of the game's rating. Azur Lane currently sits at a "Teen" or 13+ rating on the Google app store. From the talks I had it was clear Piukute062 and Linka's art was considered "Mature" or 18+. Getting an M rating could have cost Azur Lane quite a lot of money, so it is my belief they removed the art to avoid this.
Piukute's statement on the removal of his art
Talking to Piukute062, he admits he left the Discord server before staff could get a hold of him so he bears no ill will toward them removing his art before talking to him. He did say he was okay with everything, tho he was a little sad that his art would not be in a game he really enjoyed playing. He has recently made a statement on Twitter, which I posted above, about everything and it reflects the same level of humbleness and understanding I perceived when speaking with him.
The Azur Lane English staff released an apology of sorts
The Azur Lane English staff also released one more statement about this incident on Twitter. The English language staff of Azur Lane have made statements in the past about no wanting to censor the game in any way, shape, or form. While it is clear there was censorship here, players are still divided as to whether it was a good thing or not. Hopefully the new art contest rules will keep this from happening again in the future but the damage has already been done. As the loading screen was a holiday themed one, and assuming I am wrong about the ESRB rating being a factor, they could have simply rode it out for a month until they added in Thanksgiving loading screens.

As much as I am against censorship, I realize their are things you can get away with in other countries that simply will not fly here in the USA. I'm not saying this is a good thing, I am simply acknowledging a truth. If gamers want to have lewder games they need to stop looking toward developers to take one for the team and instead focus on the people who are shaping the laws. Video game censorship happens because of laws and regulations or societal pressures. We may might be able to change the beliefs of certain prudes but we can at least work toward changing the laws and regulations.
Intern-Kun, an Azur Lane English language staffer, gave a personal statement to me which I posted a pic of above and a transcript below.
Personally, I dig into the whole issue and here goes my opinion.
First of all, we need to improve the rules of our art contest, becasue the arts of the winners will be added into the loading screens collection, if there are some mixed causes, we may need to remove them.
Secondly, I've checked the posts & replies on the social media, I want to say thank you to all the commanders who keep defending us, but we should not spread hatred/harass the artist.
I want to say thank you to all the commanders who criticize us too, we won't improve without the public supervision.
This is a wonderful community, it should not be divided.
Last but not least, this could be sovled with a better way if we could have a better communication. Staff & artist should respect each other.

*All images are owned by their respective copyright holders and are used under fair use guidelines