Stories of war: NAVI founder talks being on the Ukraine frontline

Luís Mira
Facebook Alexander Kokhanovskyy/Dexerto

NAVI founder Alexander Kokhanovskyy spoke to Dexerto about signing up to defend Ukraine in the war against Russia and how the conflict will impact the esports scene in his country.

A few days into Russia’s attack on Ukraine, there was no doubt in Alexander Kokhanovskyy’s mind that he had to take part in his country’s defensive efforts and help repel the invasion.

Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, had declared a general mobilization and called on citizens to take up arms and protect their country. “We will give weapons to anyone who wants to defend the country,” Zelenskiy wrote on Twitter.

But Kokhanovskyy didn’t need a weapon. He has his own AK-47, which he carries with him around Kyiv, his hometown.  Like him, tens of thousands of ordinary Ukrainian civilians from all walks of life have joined the resistance. Engineers, musicians, businessmen – or, in Kokhanovskyy’s case, the founder of NAVI and one of the most influential figures in Ukrainian esports.

“I would never forgive myself if I didn’t do it,” he said in an interview last week about signing up to fight. “I pulled back in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea and Donbass, but this time I said ‘no way’, and that I wanted to help and defend my country.”

Kokhanovskyy answered my questions by audio messages during a brief period of respite from the frenzy of the war. He is part of a 20-man quick reaction force unit tasked with “enhancing police territorial defence and other forces during certain missions” in the Ukrainian capital, which has been under attack for 42 days now.

His squad’s days are structured, with a good portion of his time spent getting military training in Kyiv or close to the capital’s borders, doing anything from shooting to tactical drills and basic combat medicine exercises. “When we’re done with those tasks, we have different requests. We assist with evacuation and help friends, family and strangers in need.”

Kokhanovskyy had no military experience prior to the war, but he pointed out, in a half-joking manner, that he’s putting his videogame knowledge to use. “My Counter-Strike skills help me a little bit,” he said, laughing. “I’m good at shooting. Reactions, teamwork, tactical sense – you can use some of that from Counter-Strike in real life.”

Initial reactions to his decision to join in the fighting were mixed. Friends and most of his family expressed support, while his mother was “speechless at first.” “But then she said, ‘I’m proud of you. If you think that’s the right thing and what you need to do, go ahead.’”

A key figure in Ukrainian esports

A former Counter-Strike player who competed under the nickname ‘ZeroGravity’ during the early 2000s, Kokhanovskyy played a central role in the creation of the team that would go on to establish an era of dominance never seen before in the region.

Андрей 'Xeo' Яценко
Alexander Kokhanovskyy was NAVI’s manager when the team won ESWC 2010 in Paris

As team manager, he watched up close as NAVI (then shortened to Na`Vi), became the best in the world in 2010, when it won a series of international tournaments, including IEM IV, ESWC and WCG. That team, featuring players like Yegor “markeloff” Markelov, Ioan “Edward” Sukharev and Danylo “Zeus” Teslenko, helped put Ukrainian esports on the map. At the same time, it also laid the foundations for the current success the organization is enjoying as countless Ukrainian youngsters, including a certain Aleksandr ‘s1mple’ Kostyliev, began dreaming that they, too, could one day put on the yellow and black mantle and scale the greatest heights.

As NAVI grew in size and scale, Kokhanovskyy took on the role of Chief Executive Officer, which he held until being replaced by Yevhen Zolotarov in 2017. He has ceased day-to-day involvement in the company, though his name is still the first one that appears on NAVI’s staff page.

Over the last five years, Kokhanovskyy has had a hand in multiple gaming-related projects. He co-founded DreamTeam, an infrastructure platform and payment gateway for esports, and DMarket.io, a decentralised marketplace. He was also involved in the $41 million purchase of the Dnipro Hotel, in Kyiv, which he wants to turn into the first esports-dedicated hotel in Europe.

In July 2020, he became the president of the Ukrainian Professional Esports Association (UPEA), which is already “the number one tournament organizer in Ukraine”, running competitions on all levels and playing an important social and educational role in Ukrainian society.

“We have a responsibility league, a league for our veterans and one for people with disabilities,” he explains. “We are also involved in research about how, for example, esports can help the veterans who come back from the war with post-traumatic stress.

“As an association, we are helping to push esports within schools and universities. We’re trying to build an esports model that is similar to South Korea’s.”

Prior to the war, UPEA’s goal was to make esports “the second-most popular discipline” in Ukraine after football by 2025.

Kokhanovskyy knows that such plans have been scuppered and that if the conflict drags on, it could take years for Ukrainian esports to go back to the level they were at before the turn of the year.

“The impact of war will largely depend on how long it lasts,” he says. “The longer it takes, the worse off esports in Ukraine will be. We’re going to have to rebuild the country, and esports will not be a priority.

“If it takes longer than six months, it will be challenging to think of anything other than rebuilding the country.”

Strained relationship

One inescapable factor behind the success of multiple esports teams in the CIS region in recent years is the co-existence of players from different countries. NAVI’s Major-winning CS:GO team has two players from Ukraine and three from Russia, and so does Team Spirit’s Dota 2 squad, which pocketed over $18 million when it won The International in 2021.

But as much as esports can provide an escape from reality, there’s no denying that the war has disrupted what was, until a few months ago, a harmonious relationship between two scenes that often joined forces for a greater purpose.

That unity seems to be a thing of the past, as NAVI have demonstrated. On March 1, the Ukrainian organization severed ties with Russia’s ESforce Holding, whose properties include Virtus.pro and tournament organizer Epic Esports Events. “While NAVI employees and players spend their days in bomb shelters, ESforce Holding publicly denies the horror that is now happening in Ukraine,” NAVI wrote.

This is a decision that Kokhanovskyy fully supports, despite his past ties to ESforce. He was a shareholder in the company when it owned the media and advertising sales rights to NAVI between 2016 and 2017. He divested his stake in ESforce in January 2018, according to his LinkedIn page.

“I think it’s the right decision, 100 percent,” he says. “Like any Ukrainian, NAVI should cut ties with any business or government that supports the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”

The loss of partnerships, revenue and talent is a risk that NAVI are prepared to take. On March 31, the organization parted ways with Russian CS:GO academy trio Vladislav ‘latt1kk’ Vydrin, Dmitry ‘fe2nk’ Gladskikh and Vladislav ‘xiELO-‘ Lysov.

It’s the first step in NAVI’s plan to let go of players and staff unwilling – or unable – to leave Russia and relocate to another country, as revealed by Zolotarov, the CEO, in an interview with the Washington Post.

João Ferreira/Dexerto
electronic is one of the three Russian players in NAVI’s CS:GO team

This will affect every area of NAVI’s operation, including the CS:GO team, the jewel of their crown, with a decision expected after their “upcoming championships” – which could mean as late as August as we now enter a busy period of the season that will stretch into July.

Kokhanovskyy has no doubt that the growing division between Russians and Ukrainians generated by the war and the sanctions that are being levied on Russia-based organizations will have a “huge” impact on NAVI and the CIS esports scene as a whole.

“I think the majority of the game developers will try to isolate Russia-based organizations from participating in their tournaments or playing their games,” he says.

“That’s the challenge we need to accept as a team and we need to find the best way to solve it – relocating players and thinking about different things that can help us further down the road. But it’s too early to discuss that because we don’t know when this war will end.”

‘No fear’

Forty-two days into the invasion, there’s still no end in sight to the war, which has killed thousands of people, displaced millions of refugees and devastated many cities across Ukraine.

When we spoke, downtown Kyiv was being shelled indiscriminately on a daily basis. The war has since entered a new phase as Ukrainian forces have gone on the offensive, making considerable gains around the capital and in other parts of the country.

Despite Russia’s superior firepower, optimism is still intact. Kokhanovskyy says he is “100 percent sure” that Ukraine will emerge victorious from the war.

“It’s not possible to occupy a country or win a war against 40 million people,” he says. “It’s not going to happen.

“Each day that passes is moving us closer to victory, but the question is the price we will need to pay for that victory. The longer it goes, the more devastating it will be.”

For now, Russian troops have retreated from occupied areas around Kyiv, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. There is a fleeting and fragile sense of peace in the capital, but Kokhanovskyy points out that the situation out there is much worse. “It’s literal hell in certain cities,” he says. “It’s the worst thing you can imagine.”

Like many other Ukrainians, he never thought that war would erupt on his doorstep, but he is willing to do whatever it takes to defend his country. “I don’t want to live under any other country or under occupation,” he told Anton Ptushkin, the owner of a popular YouTube channel in Ukraine called ‘Anton somewhere’.

I asked him how he feels as he walks the streets of Kyiv in the middle of a war, gun in hand and dressed in military uniform. Is he afraid?

Not anymore, he says. With a sigh, he confesses that he has been numbed by war and the atrocities that have befallen his people.

“At first, you’re scared, but now you hear those explosions every day, different ones,” he says. “You hear shooting, and you are absolutely fine.

“Human beings adapt to any circumstances. So after two or three weeks I was no longer afraid. I feel absolutely safe in Kyiv, despite the explosions, despite the shooting, despite everything I’m seeing with my own eyes, unfortunately.”

Alexander Kokhanovskyy has started a fundraiser to help Ukrainians in need during the war. Please visit the GoFundMe page If you wish to make a donation.

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