A somber Oleksandr Olegovich “S1mple” Kostyliev, esport superstar, was lent a microphone in front of a swarming crowd in Katowice, Poland. This wasn’t the typical post-game interview that Kostyliev has done hundreds of times before.
Instead, Kostyliev took the chance to speak about the importance of solidarity in the wake of the Ukrainian invasion, saying, “All of us need to show [a positive] example in this tournament, for the whole world,” he continued. “We all need to stay humans first.”
Not long after, Russian missiles rained down on Kyiv, the hometown of the Ukrainian-born Kostyliev.
From Hitler’s promotion of the 1936 Olympics to “ping-pong diplomacy,” NBA and NFL players wearing “I can’t breathe” shirts, politics has always been a part of sports. There is something immutable about the relationship between sports and politics, and there’s no reason to think esports will be different. Amid the invasion of Ukraine, the recent Katowice CSGO tournament and Kostyliev’s words showed positive glimpses of how much impact esports can have on the political climate.
You probably know that esports, organized competitive video gaming, is huge. The gaming industry is now larger than the film and music industries combined. Though still the little brother to the NFL in terms of eyeballs, esports’ viewership rivals the likes of the NBA, NHL, and MLS.
“CSGO,” short for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, was released in 2012. CSGO is the current iteration of the Counter-Strike franchise, which began in 1999. Counterstrike has consistently been among the most popular esports globally over the last twenty years. It is currently the second most popular in viewership, only behind the multiplayer online battle arena League of Legends.
Considered a “tactical first-person shooter,” CSGO isn’t just some run and gun shoot ’em up. It’s a strategic team-based game that is just as much about mental prowess as it is about who can click their mouse button first. Likened by some to “chess with guns,” CSGO has a high learning curve and an even higher skill ceiling. Almost universally considered the best ever is Kostyliev.
Over the past few weeks, the CSGO tournament IEM Katowice has been a “must watch” viewing on Twitch, as the number one team in the world—Ukraine’s Natus Vincere, Kostyliev’s team—was set to follow up on their historic 2021 run.
“S1mple,” as Kostyliev goes by in-game, is in a unique position. After quick stints with minor teams and the American squad Team Liquid, Kostyliev joined Natus Vincere, or NAVI, in 2016. Despite its founding in Kyiv, NAVI’s CSGO outfit is mainly composed of Russian players. But this very background gives Kostyliev’s words a unique air to them.
On the stage, shoulder to shoulder with his fellow teammates, three Russian, one Ukrainian, Kostyliev declared, “My whole career, I’ve played with Russian players, I’ve played with Ukrainian players, and I’ve played with American players.” Referring to his cohort as friends, Kostyliev continued, “All of us want peace for Ukraine and for the whole world.”
Roaring applause sprung out from the crowd listening to Kostyliev’s speech. The message was solidarity—Russians and Ukrainians playing on a team together, as friends. Since then, NAVI’s Twitter has transitioned into an online hub of shared compassion and encouragement, not only in support of the Ukrainians affected but also speaking highly of the Russians protesting Moskow’s actions.
In a ripple effect, others joined. Since Russia’s military operation began, the Russian esports organization Team Spirit, which Putin congratulated after winning a recent Dota 2 championship, released a statement condemning the war. Gambit, another Russian esports organization, voiced their condemnation, including tweets with #StandWithUkraine.
I cry thinking about my family and friends in Kyiv
I’m “lucky” that I’m not at home, but you can’t even imagine how much I want to be there
Tomorrow I want to think about IEM Katowice and only
We don’t need regrets, We need support, thank you everyone who cares #navination
— Sasha (@s1mpleO) February 24, 2022
Shortly after the IEM Katowice tournament, which saw the French team, G2, beat NAVI in the semifinal, NAVI broke away from its Russian holding company, ESFORCE. NAVI’s Twitter stated that the holding company “denies the horror that is now happening in Ukraine.”
BLAST Premier, one of the largest organizations of international CSGO tournaments, announced they would cancel their upcoming regional tournament where the Russian teams would typically play. They went as far as to say that Russian-based teams wouldn’t be invited to their events for the foreseeable future. Despite the ban, BLAST organizers said they hoped that there would be a return to normalcy and that “Gaming and esports unites people from all races, countries, and beliefs.”
Russia is one of the few countries that officially recognize esports as a sports discipline.
With esports now in the mainstream, there is vast room for optimism that esports can be an essential venue for civil society and a place where people from across the world can come together. Esports can bring into the mix the people who are less interested in conventional sports and are more likely to watch Twitch than television. And although Kostyliev maintains that esports isn’t political, it’s okay for esports to be a platform for social issues; and examples like this show the future impact esports will have.
— FaZe Clan CHAMPIONS #IEM (@ESLCS) February 25, 2022
Jonathan Hofer is a public policy research associate at the Independent Institute. A political science graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, his research interests includes privacy law, local-level surveillance, and the impact of emerging technologies on civil liberties.