s1mple: The icon that nearly wasn’t

s1mple ukraine speechESL

For many of us, even those who would rather not admit it, sports is a refuge. The average existence requires a shitty five-day working week in a job that demands more hours than you’re paid for and less benefits than you were promised but the weekend belongs to you. And so for a few hours, you can sit on the sofa with a cold beer, drone out the cacophonous noise of our modern lives, and engage in the type of catharsis that only sports can bring.

Because of the sheer number of people who take part in this shared ritual, it becomes a type of escapism in plain sight, a weekly moment where people can come together and focus on a common cause. They can’t get you here.

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Of course, the world outside continues to exist in all its relentless awfulness and when things are truly at their worst, not even sports get to shut out reality. You can cut through the propaganda, spin, and history to recognise the invasion of Ukraine as the dreadful destruction of human life it is. Every day since it started we’ve seen it in graphic detail. Homes utterly destroyed by errant missiles and artillery, schools and hospitals levelled on the pretext they harbour soldiers, and dead women and children left in the streets until their bodies can be safely recovered. We only have to engage with the horror as much as we want to and our world mostly remains unchanged, but sports is global. How can it ignore these events that affect so many people within the ecosystem, competitors and fans alike?

On February 25 in Katowice, as refugees flooded across the Poland border, teams featuring players from all across the world had to try and play Counter-Strike as if that was the most important thing that day. It would prove to be an impossible task of course, so many of the players there being directly impacted. There were concerns that a Polish crowd, made up of a people with their own historical grievances against the nation that had aggressively started a war, would pepper Russian competitors with vitriol. Some had questioned the wisdom of continuing the tournament at all in such circumstances and many expected tensions to spill over in ways that would go on to be portrayed as unsavoury but understandable.

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ESL Katowice 2022ESL
ESL Katowice is a highlight of the CS:GO calendar, but 2022’s edition fell against a dire geopolitical backdrop.

It was against this backdrop that the best player in the world, Oleksandr ‘s1mple’ Kostyliev, took to the stage. A Ukrainian, someone whose home city had been shelled the eve of the competition, there was no expectation he would even compete, let alone speak. But it had to be him if it was anyone at all,

“I don’t have a lot of words to say but I want you to know that esports is out of politics and all our players, all players from different teams and all of you have nothing to do with government decisions. My whole career I played with Ukrainian players, I played with Russian players and I played with American players and all of them were great guys. And right now I stand with my friends, with my real friends. We win together and we lose together and all of us want peace for Ukraine and for the whole world. All of us are scared but all of us need to show an example on this tournament for the whole world. We need to stay together as a unit, with our fans, with our friends, with everyone who is going to watch and we all need to stay humans first.”

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I have seen such moments before in sports history. Their significance resonates for two reasons. The first is that it is inspiring to see someone already blessed with greatness become transcendent and use that status for good. The second is that what does it say about how mad the world can be that it takes the world of sports to make some sense of it all? While Oleksandr was on the stage, I couldn’t help but think about the ranks of icons that had to rise to occasions more difficult than the comparatively easy act of winning. I thought about Muhammed Ali speaking out about the Vietnam War. I thought about John Carlos and Tommie Smith on that podium in 1968. I thought about Jack Buck battling both cancer and Parkinson’s disease delivering a speech in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Moments that are about the right words and the right gestures coming at the right time from the right sources, rare alignments in history that make legends of mortals.

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I’d always wondered when esports would ever see such a moment and against what backdrop. I’ve covered multiple disciplines in a sixteen-year career and there wasn’t one that springs to mind. I’ve seen trite tributes and lip service, I’ve seen people cry at the joy of winning and the despair of losing and some have articulated those sentiments in fine and memorable ways. But until that day on the Katowice stage I hadn’t seen a moment that was bigger than us. I don’t care if it ends up a footnote in the history of CS:GO. I’ll not forget it.

What was crucial to the resonance of the moment was the level-headed maturity coming from a source that would be forgiven for expressing unfiltered emotion. It’s hard enough to imagine how anyone could compete under such circumstances but to not be overwhelmed when placed in front of a camera shows exceptional poise. I also felt for a fleeting moment that maybe esports could finally hold true to its own values. It was still early in the conflict then, but even amidst the universal calls for peace, there were few calls for unity. I thought it profoundly brave for a Ukrainian to stand there next to a Russian and say we are friends and the heinous actions of a dictator cannot break that bond. I was naive to think that could hold up. Make no mistake, the world is now forever changed, the horrific actions of the past month destined to resonate throughout history, every day a new atrocity that cannot and will not be forgiven. The end result is one country in ruins and another cut off from half the global community, its people turned into the world’s pariahs regardless of their thoughts about the invasion.

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s1mple’s career in the crosshairs

Even as things have gone from bad to worse, s1mple has been unwavering in his message. If you’ve followed his career it would make total sense that he would want people to save their vitriol for appropriate targets. He understands better than most what it is like to be in everyone’s crosshairs. His journey to this point has been anything but in line with his name. The player has always been identified as supremely talented but for many years it was deemed to be not enough of an upside for the baggage that came with it.

He could very easily have been one of the biggest wastes of talent ever seen in any esport. He experienced the type of humiliation that drives many into obscurity. Not only was he removed from a team where he was very clearly the best player on the roster, but he was also publicly ridiculed by another player who had been his hero. When kicked from Flipsid3 in 2015, Counter-Strike legend  Yegor ”Markeloff” Markelov said, “I do feel really awesome that he left, we all feel much better. Now we can concentrate on our personal and team game instead of fighting with a toxic kid.”

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s1mple with liquidDreamHack
s1mple’s time with Liquid ended on a sour note, earning him a reputation as “toxic.”

That reputation would be cemented after helping Team Liquid to a semi-final at a Major when the in-game leader Eric ‘adreN’ Hoag said in an interview that s1mple was “worse than people thought” and that he “had a lot maturing to do.”

Well of course he did. He was an eighteen-year-old esports professional who was already being earmarked to be the best player in the world. I don’t think people really understand all the potential pitfalls that come with that. In my experience, people who excel at things such as sports or music tend to be undersocialised – a necessary compromise for the huge amount of practice required.

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The advent of the internet may have changed that dynamic but with it comes other issues. A teenager now exists in a world of digital celebrity, where you are simultaneously expected to understand that every action speaks to “optics” and is about “your brand.” You must walk a line of expressing swagger and confidence to attain the online currency of “clout” without ever being perceived as undeservedly arrogant. You have to be funny without ever being offensive, opinionated without ever being wrong, and you have a very limited window within which to snowball your popularity and “get the bag.” That last part casts an especially large shadow if your career represents a singular opportunity to ensure your family is financially comfortable.

Our expectation levels for esports competitors are frankly ridiculous but let’s also be clear, many of his transgressions as a young man are exactly the type of things we almost never give second chances for anymore. I won’t list them here as it would really undermine the point of this, making as much of a cop as the average social media user. Needless to say, if you can conceive of a critical misstep to make as a public figure, then it’s safe to say he did it and often did so without contrition. Each and every time it happened there was a digital crowd waiting to make proclamations about what it said about Kostyliev as a person and the person he would always be. Most agreed that the competitive scene would be much better off without him, that isolating him until he quit was the preferable strategy.

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That is because the internet is particularly good at one thing and that is taking a person at their worst moment and forever preserving it, enabling all who come in the future to witness it and make judgments. And by the time they do, the likelihood is that person doesn’t exist anymore for who goes through any experience without changing? Of course for the terminally online that fact doesn’t matter. They habitually engage in recreational outrage veiled as critique.

But there is one exception to this nasty little rule and that is if you are the best at something, truly talented in ways simultaneously envy-inducing and aspirational, then the mob will make exceptions. They have to because if they didn’t it would taint their admiration, make them supportive of and complicit in behaviours they never waste a chance to condemn. So in place of that condemnation comes context and caveats, things all too eagerly eschewed when it’s time to demonise someone who’s good but ultimately won’t be missed. It is a type of hypocrisy we welcome in the same way we indulge in white lies to protect those we love from awkward truths. Prior to the moment you are conferred this status, the rabble will do everything they can to make sure it doesn’t happen.

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s1mpleJoão Ferreira/Dexerto
s1mple’s individual dominance of Counter-Strike has made him the undisputed greatest of all time.

After the Katowice speech, the general consensus on social media seemed to match my own. People expressed pride in having watched the player develop into someone who can also lay claim to being an ambassador for the entire sport. The praise was universal even if in the aftermath esports has mostly ignored the messaging. Something rankled though… It was knowing that the moment was being lauded by people who steadfastly do not believe in concepts like personal growth or forgiveness. Though they chose not to admit it in that moment, they were people who would rather we never got here to begin with. I looked at some of their comments from the times their new icon was at fault.

“Seriously, it’s not even about being 17. I wasn’t like that when I was 17. He is just acting like an arrogant prick who thinks he is the best, really sad. Modesty would suit him, he isn’t the best yet even though he has the potential.”

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“There’s going to be no need to explain anything, s1mple has always been a scummy person”

“Good riddance, I hope no one picks up this little shit”

“It’s funny how everyone is saying that s1mple is just too young and insecure and has issues he needs to address. MAYBE that’s the case, but have you ever considered that he is just an asshole? Some people are just shitty, they don’t need a reason to be toxic. S1mple might just be a shitty person fullstop.”

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I’ll leave this one with all the spelling errors in place.

“This retarded kid never learns. And he thought this would go unnoticed? Im so happy hes withour a team. He literary does not deserve to be a part of one. Yes, hes skilled but having an attitude and childish behavors like that will stll beat his skill abilities and no team would want him with such aweak u trustful personality. I am also hoping that the whole csgo scene with all the pros gets to know about this i lncident to keep in mind who they play those faceit pugs with and id appreciate top players refuse to play even pugs with him maybe then itll click in his 10 year old brain what is really valuable in life once hes left alone.”

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I’m sure many would explain this away by saying “well, yes, when he was bad we said he was bad but now he’s good we say so, dummy” but that’s not an accurate summation. The sentiment has spanned the two extremes, both absolutist in their viewpoint. The first was that he was somehow irredeemable on every level, someone to be excommunicated from all of esports. His talents, his potential, the clear and obvious need for genuine mentorship… None of that would have spared him. Had he lacked character, had he been all the things they said he was, he would not be here today. Had the majority prevailed back then we’d exist in a very different timeline today. S1mple wouldn’t be the best player in the world and most likely wouldn’t be on any team at all. He’d most likely be streaming, supplementing that income through the promotion of dodgy websites, crypto scams and account boosting. We wouldn’t have had one of the most compelling narratives around the most recent Stockholm Major and we wouldn’t have had Katowice.

Now we exist at the other extreme. Not only can he do no wrong but actually he never did. People busily retcon his past each time it is brought up, which is now hardly ever. It never happened and if it did it wasn’t that serious. While this is as insanely parasocial as the spiteful hatred, I much prefer this flavour of lunacy as it harms nobody except the fabric of reality and who really cares about that anymore?

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It’d be better if there wasn’t a need to sanitise our idols, to airbrush out their flaws, because it makes their story more inspirational in a way… That yes, even a wretch like you could do something great, that it’s never too late to change, that human complexity is impossible to simplify.

After winning the 14th season of ESL Pro League Kostyliev said, “I need new haters, the old ones became my fans.” This might be the truest thing he has ever said. The problem is that it took becoming the current greatest of all time to enjoy that state of grace.

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The next s1mple might not be able to achieve that in a world where “accountability” for mistakes is synonymous with “metaphorically kicking the shit out of you forever until you disappear from the internet.” What could we stand to lose? What could we have lost? As things get dark and weird greatness is the lodestar that guides us through. As we saw in Katowice, sometimes the most important things you will say and do, don’t even happen in the game.

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