The Esports Iron Curtain: From Workers to Pariahs
In his latest opinion piece, Dexerto’s Editor-at-Large Richard Lewis highlights how some in the esports industry and the CIS region are struggling to return to normal with insight from some industry members who are affected.
Despite the continued war in Ukraine, you could be fooled into thinking that the world of esports is largely returning to normal. Translation: collectively people are running out of the steam required to keep up righteous indignation for the more than 150 days of the conflict. What started out as good intentions have led us to a strange place indeed. The decision to mirror international sports and issue sanctions against many Russian organizations and competitors seemed to make sense initially but in there here and now have come to seem almost absurd.
ESL continues to be sponsored by the Russian ran gambling site 1xbet despite having demanded that Russian organizations censor their brands in their competitions. This sponsor is especially egregious as the company was banned in Ukraine for supposedly “acting in the interests” of the Russian state.
North American organizations, despite international business sanctions, continue to plunder beleaguered Russian organizations for talent without any public criticism. This is happening against a backdrop of Saudi Arabia increasing their esports position on a daily basis without anyone ever calling for boycotts and blacklists despite their foreign policy leading us into the largest humanitarian crisis in history. Apparently, there’s just nothing that can be done about these things.
And, of course, the permanent alterations to the esports landscape brought about by both our own and geopolitical decisions continue to play out. The CIS region’s esports infrastructure is decimated with many tournament operators and games developers excluding competitors on the basis of nationality alone. Increasingly a coalition of CIS states and China looking to build something to counteract this exclusion is mounting, a huge blow to the global mission statement that esports has often trumpeted down the years. Of course, Ukraine esports representatives are also facing quandaries almost impossible to process within an esports context. Destruction of buildings, economic collapse, competitors unable to return home lest they be conscripted into a brutal guerilla war and an uncertain future.
The tone of discourse around these issues has been erratic and confusing at the best of times. Initially, the messaging was that the Russian people would be exempt from penalty, that rather the focus would be on the brands, the sponsors, the owners, in simple terms the money that it was believed would flow back to the Kremlin in one capacity or another. At the other end of the spectrum, Kyiv-based organization Na’Vi couldn’t have made their views clearer. In an interview in the Washington Post their CEO, Yevhen Zolotarov, stated that they would no longer house anyone who pays tax in Russia, making it impossible for them to employ anyone living in that country.
“We are not going to work with people who live in Russia and who pay taxes to the Russian Federation,” he said. “We have a lot of Russians who have played for NAVI for years, and they understand that everything that is happening on Russian TV is bullshit. I mean, they understand that because they spend a lot of time in Ukraine. They boot camp here. They know us. However, there are legislative issues. If you’re Russian, it is super difficult to even have a post right now to express your thoughts or the attitude to this war. I mean, you can be put in prison! However, we won’t be able to work with players who will live there and will pay taxes there. So, we are ready to help relocate players who don’t share the Russian Federation’s politics.”
Despite Zolotarov’s proclamations that he understood the situation facing potential Russian protestors, Na’Vi continued to purge their ranks of Russian representatives, even ones that didn’t comply with the above logical standard. For example, their junior and youth academy teams contained multiple Russians on the roster most of whom still lived with their parents and whose salaried status reportedly varied. It’s not clear what contribution 16 and 17-year-olds make to the Russian state but they were not spared and had their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity taken from them in the interests of cruel consistency.
Na’Vi were so determined to have as few Russians associated with the brand as possible that they even removed Russian admins from their FACEIT hub.
Yet that consistency seems to have only gone so far. While the two Russian players left on their main CS:GO roster agreed to relocate in June, according to sources familiar with the situation, that has been on hiatus. The original plan was reputedly for them to head to Serbia but for multiple reasons, including geopolitical within that country, this has been placed on hold and so those players are still operating as before, contrary to the express statements of their management.
The Na’Vi CEO has also placed his star player Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev in a difficult position. While Kostyliev made a point of talking up the prospects of peace and unity in a difficult time. While Zolotarov has talked about the need to force Russian players into relocating, The founder of the org, Oleksandr “ZeroGravity” Kokhanovskyi instead made it clear he would never forgive himself if he didn’t go to the frontlines. The organization since also used the naming of his women’s team, called the Javelins after the anti-tank missile being sold to the Ukrainian armed forces by the United States, to make a defiant statement. It’s hard to imagine that this backdrop hasn’t hugely contributed to the volume of hate Kostyliev has had to publicly face, being called a traitor and a coward by esports fans who demand he follows in his CEO’s footsteps.
As one Na’Vi staff member I interviewed put it “S1mple did things on twitter, to stop hate against Russians. He stuck his neck out. It was thoughtless. From this moment on he became the enemy for Ukraine in their eyes because he didn’t support the hate.” So it comes to pass that we can exist in a time where even Ukraine’s greatest esports representative can be considered an enemy to his own people for wanting a greater understanding of the separation between government and citizens, as well as not wanting to put himself in harms way in the same manner some of Ukraine’s other sporting heroes have. There is little appreciation for a conscientious objector in this conflict it seems.
There are some wounds it feels like not even time can heal and certainly, the latest round of Russian aggression against Ukraine not only brutally inflicted a fresh one but it reopened several that were nowhere near to fully closing. Any illusion about esports being somehow insulated from the results of this were shattered months ago. The collective reaction has been mixed, sometimes successful as it has with charity and aid drives, sometimes misguided. Increasingly though the distaste for Putin’s actions has trickled down and splashed on those who do not deserve it, leaving many Russian contributors to esports between a rock and a hard place.
I spoke with many different esports workers (all of whom requested anonymity for what should be obvious reasons) from Russia at this time and the story is largely the same for all of them. They do not support the invasion of Ukraine and are sympathetic with not only the Ukrainian people but their many Ukrainian friends and colleagues who work in the esports industry. Na’Vi, a Ukrainian-based organization, enjoy a huge following in Russia and up until recently included many Russian representatives both as competitors and staff. Starladder, a tournament operator that has run some of the most prestigious in CS:GO history, is based in Kyiv. Maincast, a studio that was an offshoot of RuHub created by Ukrainian esports talent, has been the de facto place to watch Dota 2 broadcasts for that region. Now, with tensions only increasing between the two nations, increasingly Russian workers are being turned away from these operations irrespective of their individual political leanings or past contributions.
This has created a knock-on effect. As many former esports staffers are now having to return to jobs outside of the industry something that makes condemning Putin’s actions publicly even more of a risk. Since the invasion new aggressive anti-protest measurements have been deployed by the Russian government making it an even more authoritarian regime than before. It is has been made clear though that in all but a few exceptions the door will remain closed to Russian esports workers wanting to return to the industry should they not protest now.
For these people, the tonal difference between what they have encountered in their work and their everyday life has been jarring. At home, there is a quiet understanding about the situation in Ukraine, one that families feel powerless to do anything about. I spoke with a staff member currently holding on to a job at a large esports organization about their situation. They had shown me evidence of threats, verbal abuse and had even had their payments withheld while it was determined, for want of a better phrase, which side they were on.
“Nobody hates anybody here because my region has had many refugees from there since 2014. People here just always help each other. In my school, there were people from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, etc and nobody hates anybody. There are people from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Africa, Iraq, Iran, and more in my University and nobody hates anybody. When we are online groups like Maincast and some Ukrainian fans have been very aggressive. We [Russian esports workers] are being told to do illegal things and they just insult everyone they see on the internet. We are just tired of it all… Regular people can do nothing about it and do nothing to deserve this hate.”
To be clear about the laws people are facing for speaking out against Putin they confirmed my earlier reporting about this in their own words. The same staffer added that they were more than aware of the risks.
“The media can’t tell information from unofficial Russian sources or they could be Arrested for 5 years and have problems in the future and problems for their families. People can’t go to a rally, which wasn’t agreed by the government. If you do a fine and administrative detention of 15 days as well as many problems in the future. You could also be accused of High treason, which includes helping any Ukrainian people. You could be arrested and imprisoned for 12 or even 20 years. Who wants to risk this to have an esports job?”
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There has been an increasing trend of esports organizations in the region withholding money from their Russian workforce. Sometimes this is simply unavoidable. As part of the international sanctions against Russia SWIFT halted its services in the region. Then Visa and Mastercard suspended activities in Russia which effectively stopped all cards issued in Russia from working and all cards issued outside of Russia from working with Russian merchants. Next in line was Paypal and even some cryptocurrency exchanges such as Coinbase blocked a significant amount of wallets. However, for others, it has been stated that their salaries are being held back for the rationale that the resultant taxes would fund the Russian war machine.
I talked to one worker who hadn’t been paid for three months despite the fact they were still being expected to complete their duties.
“Many people just hear things like ‘oh, your money goes to the Russian army and you should take responsibility for this’” they explained. “Nobody asked us, nobody cared. Everybody knows protests from a small group like esports will do nothing and now there are things like you will be arrested because [your employer] asked you to do some illegal thing? This is a bad situation.”
Another told me that they had been labeled a terrorist and that the subsequent abuse had made them feel like leaving Russia was both an impossibility and not safe. “Today is a day when everybody in Russia feels the world’s hate” they said. “From this moment I understand I really wouldn’t move anywhere, because I’m the enemy. I’m Russian.”
This culture of fear has spread among the rank and file of organizations either based in Ukraine or Russian organizations who have elected to move their operations abroad in order to ensure they are allowed to participate in international events. This has been enhanced by a number of high-profile incidents where Russian competitors have been placed in the impossible position low profile workers dread – to speak out against the state or to speak out against the influencers in the region.
For example, two days after the invasion Ukrainian Starcraft commentator Oleksii “Alex007” Trushliakov went on to a public Discord and asked which Russian players supported their country. Discord is a public platform that is certainly capable of being monitored and so regardless of how they felt – and I cannot profess to know one way or the other – players either said nothing or yes. Trushliakov then posted this publicly on Twitter and stated he would never work at a tournament allowing the players that answered in the affirmative to compete. It also ensured that hostility, appropriately or not, would be directed their way. By September Trushliakov had been appointed as the Senior Product Manager for the Starcraft 2 Pro Tour at ESL.
One of the most prominent esports organizations in Europe, fnatic, suspended a Andrey “BraveAF” Gorchakov, a Russian Valorant player after private messages between him and a Ukrainian girl were leaked. The messages took place literally just a few hours after the invasion occurred and he said they were motivated from concern for her. In the messages, he said that the West “have achieved the collapse of the USSR” and now “want the collapse of the CIS.” He also added “isn’t a full scale war” and that it’s “not about civilians,” which would of course be erroneous in light of several atrocities perpetrated against Ukrainian settlements. Once the messages were seized upon by Ukrainian CS:GO commentator Aleksei “yXo” Maletskyi, his position was untenable. The general consensus at the time was that this was proportionate.
And in one of the most strange examples of all Ukraine’s most popular commentator Vitalii “v1lat” Volochai, demanded that a Russian player publicly apologize for drawing the pro-war symbol of a letter “Z” on the minimap of a Dota 2 match. The player’s organization, Virtus Pro, immediately terminated the player’s contract and made the player publicly apologize. At this point, Volochai tweeted to his almost 200,000 followers that in denouncing the Russian state the player should be reported to the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation and the FSB. As established earlier the apology itself could come with a prison sentence of anything from weeks to years.
For many repulsed by Putin’s actions this is all fair game and maybe that’s a reasonable viewpoint. However, a blind eye has certainly been turned to some of the inarguably repellant actions done in the name of weeding out Putin sympathizers. Volochai, the loudest of the group, has publicly expressed support for a nazi group and, as I have seen personally, runs a Telegram account where he has vowed that he will bring about “the end” of anyone who works in esports and remains silent on the issue. He has publicly declared that all Russians will “burn in hell.” Regardless of money, the Russian esports workers I spoke to were just as fearful of being brought into the spotlight and placed in a situation where they could be in danger. Many stated they had received their first death threats since the invasion began and they come from all sides.
“I am not even known,” a Russian administrative worker at one organization told me “but I got a message from a Ukrainian fan that said ‘you should die like we all are dying here’ and in my opinion, there is only thing you can do – just accept everything, delete negative things, ban people and be positive with people’s hate. You just try to stay human and do things you always do and don’t spread hate back.”
Predictably though the esports world is increasingly shutting its doors to Russian people irrespective of politics and beliefs. The invasion of Ukraine began while ESL hosted one of the larger tournaments on its calendar, Intel Extreme Masters Katowice. There, with the world in shock, many speeches were made mid-tournament about how the external forces of war wouldn’t alter the unity within our space and it felt real for a moment when a majority Polish crowd applauded the efforts of Russian players representing Gambit and Na’Vi. As of this month, Poland followed up its suspension of visas being issued to Russians with a law stating that even Russian citizens with a Schengen-approved visa will be banned from entering the country. With the next event in Katowice due to take place in January, one would have to assume there won’t be any Russian competitors present.
This is the sign of the times. There are reports for the upcoming CS:GO Regional Major Ranking (RMR) events that, after the decision was taken to merge Europe, Ukraine, and CIS into one competitive region (grimly unfortunate in retrospect), many of the qualified Russian teams cannot get their players and staff into the countries the tournaments are taking place in. Some can’t get into Malta. Another was denied a French visa supposedly on the basis he might not return home to Russia.
This is only going to get worse and the inevitable outcome is that those Russian teams without the means and the desire to relocate will no longer be part of the international esports community. They will have to turn their attention to domestic and Asian competitions. Many are likely to simply stop operations altogether, leaving many staff with backpay they are unlikely to ever see and no real options to continue in the world of esports.
Some of the workers I interviewed are already moving on. Esports is an uncertain future at the best of times but with large institutions no longer hiring Russians, payment problems, unemployment looming on the horizon, and increasingly limited opportunities to travel internationally, it just doesn’t make sense to keep trying. For the men, there is even the prospect of being called up to the military as Ukraine continues to defy Putin’s efforts. They expressed a genuine concern that they wouldn’t even be able to get out of their country as they weren’t sure who would grant them asylum. Better to find one of the jobs that would render them exempt if such an opportunity came along. The main contributor among the interviewees already had one foot out the door even though they never wanted to quit.
“I’ve started working for a site in the Russian news media… A new set of problems but it should be OK. Just follow Russian laws. One of my good friends lost his job and now should work as a cafe courier. Overall, the situation there is stable. Now we have exams season at schools/colleges/universities. Jobs are available for those leaving esports.”
Editors Note: This article was started before recent developments in Russia that has seen the state implement conscription.