The Esports Iron Curtain: A patchwork of confused inconsistency

. 2 weeks ago
Michal Konkol/BLAST

The esports industry has not worked in lockstep on its response to the war in Ukraine. This has left us with a confusing mixture of sanctions against some Russian organizations and players that together make no coherent sense. 

Having established the impact of global sanctions against Russians and its contribution to shrinking the esports globe for the foreseeable future, let us now assess our own industry-wide reaction. It was uncharted territory, the first time I can think of that a war has had a profound impact on competition, discounting the war on terror, of course. Esports is downstream of culture, and so we knew we needed to do something even if it wasn’t clear what that would be. There certainly was a moral question being posed, but did we answer it correctly? Is that even possible in a space that now has all the same blood money flowing into it that every other major industry does?

Now, it is the conventional wisdom that when you speak on matters relating to how these things affect esports you have to add a number of caveats, all of which underscore how unimportant we are by contrast. I’m becoming less inclined to play that linguistic game for two reasons. The first is that it is obvious that matters of life and death eclipse anything else when it comes to importance. The second is that our industry impacts the lives of millions, typically young people, all around the world. Sports and politics have intersected for decades. Either we matter and we’re important or we don’t and this is all a waste of time. There isn’t an intellectual no man’s land you can occupy on this issue.

João Ferreira/PGL
Different TOs have adopted different sanctions as a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Indeed, there are no such qualifiers required when discussing these matters in sports because it is deemed important enough. Sports Illustrated ran a feature exploring the question that often gets you called a Putin sympathizer if you asked it before an esports audience. The question? To what degree is it fair to hold Russian sportspeople accountable for the invasion of Ukraine. Or as they put it, “Americans and Brits in favor of any blanket ban should ask themselves if they, too, would like to be held personally accountable for the actions of their own government.

In sports, the decisions taken were made swiftly and with little consideration to arguments around fairness. UEFA banned all Russian football teams from their competitions at all levels for the foreseeable future. FIFA also banned the Russian national team from competing in the European qualifiers, something that means they would miss the resulting World Cup 2022 held in the human rights violating hub of Qatar. Their federation attempted to fight both bans in court only to have their request thrown out, with a highly unlikely successful appeal being their only way back.

Iconic tennis tournament Wimbledon banned Russian and Belarusian competitors, too, no small move since Daniil Medvedev is currently ranked number one in the world. Medvedev was not spared despite his choice to speak out against the invasion and the fact he lives in Monaco. Despite many saying this ban was too much, the organizers stuck to their guns and were stripped of ranking points, making the tournament basically an exhibition, as well as threatened with further action from the player associations.  A not exhaustive list of the sanctions from the rest of the sporting world can be found here. It’s too much to go into, but you can split them into mostly two camps: one including examples such as the above, which advocate for total bans, and one which allows Russians to compete but without any open reference to their nationality.

In esports, we have created a winding hotch-potch of “sanctions” against some Russian organizations and players that together make no coherent sense. ESL were the first that had decisions to make, their Katowice-based CS:GO tournament entering the playoff phase the day after the invasion took place. Initially, there was a strong uptake for the sentiment that esports doesn’t do politics, which of course is utterly nonsensical, especially coming from a company now owned by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund and that openly advertise war criminals on their broadcasts.

“I hope that esports this week will unite us and that we will not be divided by that shit that’s going on out there,” ESL VP Product Development Michal Blicharz said to the IEM Katowice crowd before adding: “The other players love and respect because that is the value of esports, that is the lesson of esports that we’ve learned.” Moments later, the Ukrainian organization had the world’s greatest player stand on the stage, side by side with his Russian teammates, and say that they were his brothers and friends, that in esports we were all equal and politics couldn’t change that. It was a fine speech, a standout moment in esports history, so much so that I wrote about its significance. It was also a moment of willful naivety on behalf of the esports community. There was no avoiding what would come next.

BLAST, sensing they could earn the plaudits, acted in line with the rest of the sports world and just decided to end their Russian competitions and remove all Russia-based teams from their events. Because BLAST’s PR can and will consistently fuck up messaging even around the most basic of things, the statement was inherently contradictory, suiting the times. “Gaming and esports unite people from all races, countries and beliefs,” they said while making a decision that explicitly divided people.

But a total ban on Russia-based players was always going to be a hard sell in esports. They are not traditional sports fans in that sense and will routinely follow players as they hop from organization to organization rather than stay loyal to something that is for the most part just a brand. So there’s a sentiment that it is players that earn the right to compete, not the companies that pay their salaries and enter them into the competitions, and anything that takes away their ability to play and earn prize money is generally viewed as a bad thing. BLAST haven’t walked back this decision and will be able to take comfort in the fact that the same type of ban was mirrored by EA’s esports divisions in FIFA and Apex Legends.

ESL, having seen the reaction to BLAST’s response, were able to dilute their action in such a way that it stopped the brands from gaining the recognition but still allowed the players to compete, which most people in the esports community agreed was the way we should handle it. After all, it’s generally the agreed-upon standard that the average person has absolutely no influence over what their government does, especially when you’re being ruled over by a despot. If we shift that standard — and some are certainly trying —, we’re in for some very awkward conversations with our American friends somewhere down the road.

Anyway, ESL agreed to allow the affected players to compete as long as they wore neutral jerseys and removed references to their employers from social media for the duration of the competition. “We recognize that players are not complicit with this situation, and we do not think it is in the spirit of esports to impose sanctions on individual players” they would say. As we would later find out, some of their Louvre Agreement partnered organizations did not feel this way, removing players from their rosters on the basis of things they or their spouses said. The spirit of esports be damned.

Across the CS:GO landscape in particular there have been all manner of strange inconsistencies that really illustrate the issue of the space being so fractured. We cannot achieve any consistency when even those that operate tournaments for the same game refuse to agree with each other almost on a point of petty principle. The decision-making process around the whole CS:GO Major was a typical mess, with people not even being sure going into the competition whose approach PGL would mirror.

Measures against Virtus.pro make sense if you think a stance should be taken at all. Owned by ESForce Holdings, a group that in turn is owned by VK, a company that used to be owned by Uzbeki billionaire Alisher Usmanov, a longtime supporter and orbiter of Vladimir Putin. In addition to this detail, ESForce and Virtus.pro themselves have repeatedly thrown kerosene on the raging bonfire of outrage about the invasion of Ukraine. RuHub, their content creation subsidiary, tweeted “RuHub, Epic Esports Events, Virtus.pro, and other units of [ESforce] holding support the decision to send troops to Ukraine” before deleting it and claiming they were hacked. Virtus.pro claimed they were threatened by a tournament organizer with fake COVID tests if they refused to release a public statement about Ukraine, later blamed the sanctions against them on “the cancel culture”, then one of their Dota 2 players, Ivan “Pure” Moskalenko, drew the pro-war symbol ‘Z’ in an official Dota 2 Pro Circuit game against a Ukrainian team. Not long after these debacles, their Ukrainian CEO, Sergey Glamazda, left the company after two years in the role.

João Ferreira/PGL
Virtus.pro’s CS:GO team has had to compete under a neutral name, Outsiders

So, OK, fuck those guys, right? But also among the sanctioned were Gambit Esports, an organization owned by Russian telecommunications company MTS. Their ties to Putin seem less clear and as a company, they haven’t been directly sanctioned despite several companies terminating their provider partnerships. Their parent company, Sistema, was headed up by a billionaire called Vladimir Evtushenkov, who also oversaw the development of the Orion drones used by the Russian military at another Sistema company called Kronshtadt. As a result of the international backlash, he ceded enough shares so he was no longer in control of Sistema, but his individual sanctions remain in place.

One has to assume then, despite the many degrees of separation, this is the reason for Gambit’s sanctions, although we cannot be sure. . ESL’s statement on the matter simply said “organizations with apparent ties to the Russian government, including individuals or organizations under alleged or confirmed EU sanctions related to the conflict, will not be allowed to be represented” and never specified what those ties actually were. It’s all academic in the end. Sensing that the window in which to sell Russian players was closing, the organization offloaded their CS:GO squad quietly to a Norwegian talent agency, who then in turn sold them to North American powerhouse Cloud9.

Strangely enough, no-one seemed to care that an organization that had been sanctioned had made money from selling its players, nor that an American organization that had expressed public support for Ukraine might have played a part in that. Perhaps that valid concern was obfuscated by the bizarre moral panic brought about by irresponsible journalists who made claims that one of their players, Dmitriy “sh1ro” Sokolov, had also snuck into his signature a pro-war symbol. Basic research revealed that the squiggle had been part of his signature prior to the invasion and was designed by a Ukrainian whose Twitter feed was filled with calls for peace. A bizarre episode that can be summed up by asking the McCarthesque question, ‘Is there a zed under your bed?’

So far, so inconsistent, but when you really start to look at it you see the full absurdity. For example, forZe competed at the CS:GO Major without being held to the same standard as Virtus.pro. This is a problem because the team is sponsored by Lukoil, Russia’s second-largest oil company, whose now former president, Vagit Alekperov, was a noted ally of Putin’s. Their other sponsor? Spartak Moscow, a team that has been expelled from all European club competitions by FIFA and UEFA and is owned by Leonid Fedun, a director at the same oil company. Both have given relatively milquetoast requests for Putin to halt the invasion, but their businesses are still entwined with the Russian state in ways we are told to disapprove of. Given the huge international debate around the purchasing of Russian oil, it does kind of feel that we probably should have had something to say about an organization literally funded by it.

Team Spirit were the other Russian team in attendance in Antwerp and one of the standouts. Crucially, they relocated to Serbia, as is now the expectation for any Russian player that wants to continue to compete in the global Counter-Strike community. They also have implemented savvy PR, the complete opposite of Virtus.pro’s victimhood approach. For instance, at the same Dota tournament Virtus.pro complained about being blackmailed at, Spirit instead elected to wear jerseys with the word “PEACE” emblazoned across them, an act that if you were to do it on the streets of Moscow would likely come with a two-week jail sentence. By the same token, the organization’s CEO was quick to downplay any notion of them “representing” Russia when they were interviewed about the relocation to Serbia. “There are no national leagues or national teams culture in esports. This is the Internet space, and we gather players to build strong teams no matter the nationality and without a wish to carry any county’s flag. We associate ourselves with the whole Russian-speaking society and that will never change,” he said.

Luc Bouchon/PGL
forZe’s presence at the Major highlighted the inconsistency in the treatment of Russian teams

It seems we are agreed then that this should be the standard that Russian organizations are now held to. Yet neither of these gestures prevented their major sponsor, Parimatch, the international bookmaker that was founded in Ukraine, from putting an end to their partnership citing “difficulties of operating during the war” as the primary reason.  It should also raise a red flag or two that Team Spirit’s management have repeatedly refused to disclose who the owners of the organization are, with one publication declaring them to be “mysterious”. I’m probably something of an idealist but I think any team competing in any high-level sporting competition should have to be transparent about their ownership. How else can any conflict of interest be determined? With the current standard we’ve set, they should have to disclose it to the tournament operators whose competitions they participate in; otherwise, we might just be enabling the enrichment of an oligarch.

Describing this as clumsy would be generous, but that is true to esports form; nominally good ideas devolve into inconsistency and playing favorites, all with the hope that eventually the issue will fade in the memories of an audience trained by social media to be easily distracted by the latest happening. What few are thinking about is what these precedents set for the industry moving forward. Will our landscape become as absurd as that of mainstream sports, where corruption and the resulting hypocrisy are just out in the open? Some might say we’re already there.

I’ll be fair in my summary. There was no way to ace the test especially as it was being graded by the general public. The internet is so vast that it’s not only impossible to please everyone but it’s also highly likely the displeased can find each other and form an incredibly loud and vitriolic group. This reality has slowly turned esports now into an “optics first” culture. People rarely think about the consequences or the contradictions of a decision made in the heat of the moment when it is important to be seen to do something. But if we are saying to the world we are ready to weigh in on these political issues and act in accordance with global consensus, then it’s absolutely imperative that we are fair and consistent, even at times when entities bigger than us aren’t. And today can we say that we are?

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