Some major esports leagues are following the lead of their traditional sports counterparts in banning Russian-based teams and canceling events planned to be held in the region amid Russia’s continuing invasion of Ukraine. But at least one affected team is lashing out at the decision, blaming it on “prejudice” and “the cancel culture.”
On Wednesday, the popular ESL Pro League became the latest to announce it was barring “organizations with apparent ties to the Russian government, including individuals or organizations under alleged or confirmed EU sanctions related to the conflict” from participating in its events. The league stopped short of sanctioning individual players on those teams, though, saying they were “not complicit with this situation” and were welcome to still compete “under a neutral name, without representing their country, organization, or their teams’ sponsors on their clothing or otherwise.”
ESL identified two teams that would be initially affected by these sanctions, Virtus.pro and Gambit. The former is owned by ESFORCE, which is in turn owned by a partnership between Russian oil company Gazprom, insurance company Sogaz, and defense company Rostec, all of which have faced sanctions from the international community.
Despite that linkage, though, Virtus.pro said in a defiant statement that “we are not connected to the government” of Russia and that the team was being punished only because “we make an impression” of such a government link. “There are no rational reasons to suspend us from playing in tournaments, apart from prejudice and pressure from the outside,” the team wrote. “We are facing a prime example of ‘the cancel culture.'”
— Virtus.pro (@virtuspro) March 4, 2022
That said, Virtus.pro added that it will not forbid its players from participating in tournaments individually under ESL’s proposed neutrality rules. “They spend lots of time to become pro players, and unlike some tournament operators, we are not ready to invalidate someone else’s efforts.”
Gambit is owned by Russian telecom company Mobile TeleSystems, which is effectively controlled by Russian billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov, who was included on a 2018 list of Russian oligarchs. In a statement posted last week, before ESL’s decision, the team noted that many players “have family and friends living in Ukraine” and urged followers to “stay human in any situation, let’s support each other during this difficult moment. Let’s not engage politics in esports, but engage [in] mutual respect and support.”
A growing wave across sports organizations
ESL’s decision mirrors a previous move by the International Olympic Committee, which in 2017 barred Russia from participating in the games as punishment for a state-sponsored doping program. But individual athletes from the country had still been allowed to compete under the “neutral” flag of the Russian Olympic Committee.
More recently, though, both the IOC and FIFA have proposed a full ban of Russian and Belarussian athletes following the invasion of Ukraine. That includes expelling those athletes from the ongoing Paralympic Games in Beijing, China, after an outcry from other national committees participating in those games.
ESL’s decision follows Tuesday ban by Danish esports league BLAST Premier on participation by Russian-based teams in tournaments for the “foreseeable future.” On Wednesday, they were also joined by Elisa Esports, a Finnish CS: GO tournament organizer that said it was suspending Russian-owned organizations “until further notice.”
All three of those esports leagues have also canceled planned events that were to be hosted in or around Russia in the future. Riot Games and Valve have also decided to postpone Valorant, League of Legends, and Dota 2 esports events in Eastern Europe for the time being. “Our community’s welfare is integral to us and at this time, our number one priority is to support the players, casters, staff, and fans affected by the escalating crisis in Ukraine,” the Valorant Champions Tour wrote of its decision.
All of these responses follow an open letter from Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov posted early Tuesday morning. That letter called on esports platforms to cancel events in Russia and Belarus and bar their players in an attempt to “motivate the citizens of Russia to proactively stop the disgraceful military aggression.” Companies including CD Projekt Red and Microsoft have responded to Fedorov’s call to halt sales of new games and products in Russia and Belarus.