The Esports Iron Curtain: How war has exposed the hypocrisy of esports

ESL one cologne trophy

In his latest opinion piece, Richard Lewis explores how the PIF-backed takeover of ESL has highlighted a hypocrisy in esports, when compared to the response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has seen the world of esports make many decisions around how best to proceed when it comes to the treatment of Russian competitors and the organizations that fund them. As we’ve already discussed, they have been wide-ranging and inconsistent.

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We exist in an industry that has essentially forced Russian organization Gambit to not only shed itself of its name but also sell its premier team while simultaneously allowing ForZe, who are funded by a Russian oil company, to play at the CS:GO world championships without any sanctions at all. Some esports, such as Apex Legends, have banned Russians and Belarussians from competing entirely, even in amateur tournaments with cash prizes, while others, such as CS:GO, went the other way and said they were welcome to compete as long as they don’t show their country’s flag.

The consensus was that everything we did in the industry, whatever it was, was absolutely the right thing to do and in fact the only wrong thing you could do was do nothing. Now, months into the conflict, a few voices have started to ask questions about how fair it is to hold any individual person responsible for the actions of a government they cannot influence. We’re years away from a rational inquiry into how well the esports industry handled things but I know one thing at least: We’ll forgive ourselves, even if we did make a bunch of mistakes, because we were doing it to try and stop a war.

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When is a war not a war?

So here’s the all-important question – when is a war not a war? It’s one esports can’t answer coherently but for now let’s just focus on ESL and their partner teams since they have been vocal about how terrible war is. I agree with that sentiment, but we know ESL do not think all wars are equal because, for one thing, they have still refused to end their sponsorship deal with the US Airforce, an entity that not only fights wars but is also accused of war crimes. Not lefty rhetoric by the way, and if you want to read on that further simply put the words “Azizabad Airstrike” into Google.

We also know they are happy to be owned by an entity that is fighting its own aggressive war against a sovereign nation. Remember, ESL is owned by the Savvy Gaming Group, who, in turn, are wholly owned by the Saudi Arabian government with the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the chairman of the board. Bin Salman also serves as the chairman of The Council of Political and Security Affairs that orchestrated Operation Decisive Storm, the military “intervention” in Yemen by a Saudi-led coalition.

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If you’re not sure about why the war in Yemen is happening, here are the broad strokes. The country had been in the grips of a fiercely fought civil war between the Saudi-backed Sunni establishment and the Shia Houthi rebels. In 2011, as part of the Arab Spring intifadas, the Yemeni people rebelled against brutal tyrant President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In 2014 the Houthis captured Sanaa, the former capital city of Yemen, former because this occupation forced Yemen to move the government to Aden and declare it the new capital. Shortly afterward, a peace deal was negotiated but with neither side honoring it the conflict increased in scale until a Saudi Arabian coalition started to airstrike strategic Houthi targets and deploy a naval blockade around the coastline. Just to add to the global tensions, many geopolitical experts believe it is essentially a proxy war being fought between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the latter having been accused of supporting Houthi efforts in violation of a UN weapons embargo.

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Just this month, that Saudi-led coalition deployed 150 airstrikes on civilian targets in Yemen, bombing homes and hospitals, contributing thousands more fatalities to a campaign that has claimed an estimated 377,000 lives. Human rights groups have called these attacks war crimes. For perspective, a 2019 estimate stated that 37 Yemeni children are killed by bombs every month and since then bombings have increased. The bombs aren’t even the worst of it. The ongoing blockade of the country prevents fuel, food and medical supplies being dispersed among the people who desperately need it and UN numbers now state that 19 million Yemenis will be without food and clean water unless they can raise $4.3 billion and lift the blockade to start a wide-reaching aid effort. Paradoxically, one the biggest contributors to that aid is Saudi Arabia themselves, often cited as a sign of their good intentions rather than what it is, namely the amount to purchase a form of absolution from the international community. Regardless, it is a largely token gesture for as long as the blockade is in place.

It’s not a great feeling to know that the owners of one of the single largest esports properties are owned by people directly responsible for these atrocities. Then you also have to consider that under the CS:GO Louvre Agreement for their ESL Pro League, 14 of the biggest esports organisations in the world are their business partners. Not in an abstract sense but directly. They all co-own the league and share profits from sponsors and merchandising. It’s now the case that these organizations, should they deliver on their end of the bargain, are making money for the Saudi state.

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Louvre agreement teamsESL
14 esports organizations are part of the Louvre agreement with ESL as of 2022.

Strangely there have been few rumblings from these organizations about this new business arrangement. Yes, on matters pertaining to LGBTQ+ rights, a few organizations have voiced concerns. Spoiler: they still gave themselves permission to take the money and said they would monitor the situation. But there have been no vocal condemnations of the deal, nothing about the vile practice of sport washing and how it’s taking over esports, no thoughts and prayers offered to the Yemeni dead and no volunteering to offer at least a cut of the profits to aid efforts for that country.

I use the word strange because, in our Americanized optics-first culture that has become prevalent in esports, these are the types of things that these organizations would be willingly saying if it wasn’t going to eat into their bottom line. Take for example how almost every one of the Louvre Agreement teams made a statement about how they support peace once the invasion of Ukraine got underway. Try not to be disgusted by the way they treated it like it was the fucking ice bucket challenge.

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Team Liquid went with “words may seem empty against armies but actions always register.” FaZe said “we stand for peace. We stand with Ukraine. Our thoughts are with the innocent people & families affected by today’s attacks.” Astralis, always happy to mire themselves in hypocrisy no matter the occasion, tweeted: “We stand with our friends in Ukraine, peace and free people across the world” presumably having missed any and all news about Saudi Arabia and their commitments to freedom. BIG were “shocked by this morning’s events” adding “we stand with the people of Ukraine and for peace in their country.” Complexity were thinking globally, saying “we stand in support of peace and freedom” which is pretty fucking awkward not just because of their new business partners. Peace-loving Complexity have also recently extended their sponsorship deal with the US Army. Who knows what Middle Eastern country they’ll be bringing peace to in the next decade.

Fnatic and G2 Esports obviously “stand for peace” but only when it suits them. NiP at least were accidentally honest saying they only stand for “peace in Europe” and Vitality made it clear they stood for both “peace and freedom”. ENCE seemed to be the only organization that didn’t paint themselves into a corner by saying they wanted to specifically offer support to the victims of the war in Ukraine.

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You see, all these tweets make me really start to question the definition of words such as “stand” and “peace” and “freedom.” What standing are any of these organizations doing exactly? And what can I infer about them not standing up to the Saudis? How much is peace really important to you when your checks are signed by a government bombing a country into extinction? How much do you value freedom when you look the other way at a country that persecutes homosexuals and oppresses women?

Understand this isn’t to detract from the support of people in Ukraine. I’ve loaned my platform to that cause for what it is worth and engaged in my own charitable contributions. Yet I cannot ignore some of the startling and staggeringly unfair measures we’ve taken, including against those who have risked their liberty to vocally oppose Putin. I’ll support any efforts that help move us in the direction of peace but those efforts cannot be for one conflict, one time, when we are letting worse offenders buy the entirety of our industry one piece at a time.

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I have enough compassion in my heart to mourn the loss of Ukrainians and Yemenis alike. I would suspect the overwhelming majority of us do too. I also would assume most of us agree that if you want to be a force for change you have to hit the bad actors in the only place they care about: the wallet. We’ve spent the last few months laying out the framework of how to do exactly that and we’ve executed it a number of times. I propose we continue to do it, this time with a view to saving Yemeni lives.

Obviously, all teams who extended the Louvre Agreement prior to knowing about the Saudi deal now need to denounce their new business partners publicly and withdraw from the project. Those that do not have to be blacklisted by all non-ESL tournaments or, at the very least, forced to compete under a name that does nothing to aggrandize the businesses that profit in line with the Saudis. ESL tournaments must be boycotted by conscientious and the streaming platforms that would show them must reconsider their deals. This response would at least make our anti-war messaging consistent.

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Of course, we know none of that will happen and in fact, the mere suggestion will be ridiculed by the overwhelming majority. You’ll hear the same reasons as to why the proposal is ridiculous. “You’re not going to make them sell,” they’ll say. “You can’t financially pressure Saudi Arabia” is another popular declaration. “There’s no such thing as clean money” is the other apathetic shrug, which is fine as long as you mean it. The sense is that we’ve already lost so why even swing a punch. Just go quietly, pretend none of it is happening, here’s a new hashtag to get behind, here’s an esports tournament brought to you by Raytheon…

This is esports now. Fans that can only express compassion if there’s an accompanying TikTok trend. Developers are so hooked on Chinese money they censor Taiwanese flags and penalize protestors shouting for freedom in Hong Kong. Organizations that only speak up for those suffering when that gesture can be synthesized into likes and follows. Increasingly everyone is taking the grubby Saudi government-stamped envelopes brimming with cash, and writing so much purple prose to explain why it’s actually a good thing. Cheap PR for one of history’s most malignant human rights abusers uttered by those who stand for peace, but only when it’s profitable.

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