The untold stories of esports pros escaping war in Ukraine

Meg Kay
Starladder

The shockwaves of the current humanitarian crisis in Ukraine have been felt across the world. The testimonies from the country are harrowing, but there are those working tirelessly to provide hope and relief to those affected. Esports players and organizations have also been caught in the storm.

Ukrainian CS:GO professional Yaroslav ‘isk’ Issakov was at home in Kyiv on February 24 when Russia invaded Ukraine after weeks of posturing at the country’s borders.

When the first bombs hit, the shockwaves were so strong that the doors of that house shook on their hinges, and a quick check of social media confirmed to him that the invasion had begun in earnest.

“Instantly, I knew it was a blast wave from an explosion, and I checked my phone to see other people saying they’d heard the explosion too.”

The decision to leave Kyiv was almost instantaneous, and he set off with his family on February 25. Despite living in Ukraine, Isk is a British passport holder, and therefore was exempt from the general mobilization decree that prohibits men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country. If not for that passport, he’d likely still be in Ukraine now.

Their destination was Poland, with a brief stay in the border city of Lviv for one night with some family friends. Securing passage out of the country wasn’t too difficult – Isk’s family had a car, and although the roads were busy, it wasn’t impossible to make the over 300-mile journey from Kyiv to Lviv in a day.

The problem lay in where they would go next. While they were traveling, Isk was communicating with player agent Jérôme Coupez via Whatsapp. Coupez, the founder of Prodigy Agency, was able to secure them a spot at the Kinguin Esports player facility in Warsaw, a training center for bootcamping esports pros. All Isk and his family had to do was get there.

Kinguin Esports
The Kinguin Centre in Warsaw offers displaced players a place to live, practice, and compete.

The drive from Lviv to Warsaw was around another 250 miles. Combined with a seven-hour wait at the Ukrainian/Polish border, it was a tense and arduous journey, but Isk and his family were finally able to reach the Kinguin center, where they were welcomed with open arms.

His family only stayed there one night before heading on to more permanent accommodation in Germany, but Isk remains in Warsaw. Throughout everything, being able to continue competing was his top priority. Previously the AWPer for UK org Into the Breach, he was benched on March 16 and is actively seeking new opportunities while still playing from the Kinguin center.

A ten-hour train from Kyiv to Lviv

Starladder
KrizzeN had lived in Ukraine for five years before war forced him to flee to Poland.

Aidyn ‘KrizzeN’ Turlybekov, a professional CS:GO player from Khazakstan, moved to Kyiv five years ago fresh out of high school alongside his former CS:GO team AVANGAR, the core of which now plays under Virtus.pro.

As he watched the Russian President’s speech announcing imminent invasion, and heard the bombs fall not far from his house, he knew it was time to leave.

“After we heard the explosions we went straight to the train station, but there were already a lot of people there. We were standing in line for a bus, but we heard the sirens and we decided to go to my girlfriend’s grandmother’s village for a while.”

The pair had left their house so fast they’d had no time to pack clothes. After a week staying in a tiny village near Kyiv, they returned to the city to attempt to catch a train to Lviv, where they knew easier passage out of the country could be secured.

The train journey KrizzeN described from Kyiv to Lviv is a harrowing one. He recounted how the carriages were full of women and children, and how “kids were screaming, and everybody was thirsty.” Where a normal journey from Kyiv to Lviv would take around five hours by train, he and his girlfriend spent over ten hours cramped into a train car.

Once the pair arrived in Lviv, they were able to secure passage on another train bound for Poland, another leg of an already arduous journey. In Kyiv, he’d been given Jérôme Coupez’s contact details by a friend, who’d told him that Coupez had helped him secure accommodation in Poland.

Much like Isk, KrizzeN contacted Coupez, who helped him secure a spot for both himself and his girlfriend at the Kinguin center, where they currently remain.

But the solution isn’t permanent. The two have been at the center for over two weeks already, and their next plans involve another long journey, this time to Germany. Both he and his partner have family currently living in Germany, and their plan is to stay with family until they can find a more permanent solution.

Up until a week ago, KrizzeN was casting CS:GO with Maincast, a studio that provides Russian coverage of some of the world’s biggest CS:GO and DOTA tournaments. But with continued sanctions being placed on Russian businesses, the security of that job is in jeopardy.

The facilitator

On Thursday 24, player agent Jérôme Coupez tweeted that he was arranging accommodation for players unable to re-enter Ukraine. He’d been at IEM Katowice on the day of the invasion, supporting G2’s Audric ‘JACKZ’ Jug, who is represented by Prodigy Agency, of which Coupez is the founder.

The response was instantaneous, with people across the esports world sharing the message and offering what little they could to assist in the efforts.

Later that same day, Coupez sent out another tweet, this time looking for people able to provide transport from the Ukrainian/Polish border near Lviv to Warsaw. There, the Kinguin Esports Performance Center had opened its doors, free of charge, to provide housing and support for displaced Ukrainian players and their families.

For KrizzeN, the departure from Ukraine was so sudden that he was unable to bring any of his peripherals with him to continue playing and practicing.

Peripherals manufacturers Logitech, Xtrfy, and Razer all stepped up, and provided free equipment to all the displaced players at the center so that they could continue competing or practicing, and have some sense of normalcy in the middle of the chaos.

According to Coupez, the decision to offer aid was a “no-brainer”.

“It’s a war, and I was in Poland when it started, very close to Ukraine… we have players and collaborators in the country, people that I really care about and that I think of as family. I’m aware I have no leverage or power over the political situation, but I knew I wanted to find ways to help as much as I could.”

“That’s why I created a player agency in the first place – to help.”

The power of Esports in Europe

Esports is by no means a perfect industry. But the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine has shown that it’s an industry that looks out for its own, and one that has a great capacity for kindness.

Coupez agrees, and attributes this kindness to the fact that esports is still such a small ecosystem. “We all know each other,” he explained, “and most people in esports will know people in Ukraine or the surrounding region.”

Offers of support and solidarity for Ukrainian players were instantaneous and widespread throughout the esports community. Not just from Coupez and the team at Prodigy, but from organizations and individuals all across the globe.

Team Liquid offered housing for any and all stranded Ukrainian players in their esports facilities in the Netherlands. EXCEL Esports created a limited run of “STOP THE WAR” hoodies, from which all proceeds will go towards the Disasters Emergency Committee to help displaced refugees.

FaZe Clan also created a limited edition blue and yellow hoodie, with 100% of the proceeds being donated to help refugees.

SK Gaming set up a charity League tournament featuring players and casters from across Europe, and raised €3000 for multiple charities providing on-the-ground aid. Innumerable esports teams sported blue and yellow versions of their logos on Twitter in solidarity with Ukraine, and community fundraising events have been widespread.

However small, the esports community is doing what it can to ease the lives of those forced to flee the war in Ukraine – whether it be through direct offers of aid and accommodation or donations to relevant charities.

It’s undeniable that this conflict will fundamentally change the face of esports in Europe. Multiple Russian-based organizations have been barred from tournaments following sanctions placed on Russian businesses by the European Union.

On March 11, Gambit Esports and Virtus.pro announced that they would allow their CS:GO rosters to compete in the ESL Pro League under a neutral name. The organizations were barred from the tournament due to ties with sanctioned Russian businesses. On March 14, Gambit announced that their Valorant roster would follow suit for the 2022 Valorant Champions Tour.

But despite sanctions, tensions, and tournament shutdowns, esports has provided a respite for European players. A sense of normalcy in the midst of one of the scariest and most unforeseen circumstances in recent history.

As Ukrainian esports legend Oleksandr ‘s1mple’ Kostyliev stated in his speech to the crowds at IEM Katowice, esports can “show an example” to the rest of the world in this darkest of times. The acts of kindness by people like Coupez, and the determination and drive to compete in the face of tragedy by players like Isk and KrizzeN, exemplify the very best of the esports community.

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