NAVI, Ukraine’s esports powerhouse, will drop some Russian players, says CEO

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Yevhen Zolotarov, CEO of Ukrainian esports organization Natus Vincere, evacuated his hometown of Hostomel, just northwest of kyiv, in no time. On the first day of the Russian invasion, Zolotarov’s infant son was awakened by explosions and a local military airport was seized by Russian forces.

The next day, with his neighborhood barely in the rearview mirror, the electricity went out in the neighborhood. Zolotarov isn’t sure he would have walked through the electronic garage door without electricity. His family would have been trapped.

“I don’t even know if my house still exists,” he said two weeks ago.

Some employees of NAVI, as the club is known, have spread across Europe. Some members of the finance and legal departments have moved to Cyprus to ensure the functioning of the organization. Others remained in Ukraine, including some employed in the besieged capital, kyiv. NAVI’s tone on social media has also changed. On Twitter, the organization shared posts raising funds – including for body armor – photos and videos of the mayhem across the country, and statements updating fans on the club’s work.

The Washington Post spoke to Zolotarov about his organization’s stance on Russian esports athletes, working in wartime and the disorienting feeling of watching Russian propaganda on TV.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

A: A bit difficult as we are unable to predict anything. You don’t know what will happen next. However, you have to work. It’s not just about NAVI, it’s about your thoughts. It helps if you don’t just think about war or children dying.

At present, we can say that we are back on track. However, we’re unable to do our job, media-wise, because we can’t do memes, we can’t do promotions. We try to use our media to help our country, mainly to inform our fans – including Russian fans – about what’s going on. To fund crowdfunding. To help children’s clinics, etc. So I won’t say that we do 100% esports-related work.

Every NAVI employee is doing something related to this war, and we agree with that. Our main focus right now is not to lose anyone, to keep paying employees – even if we have a few who are in the military. We will continue to pay them because they protect our country, and us too.

A: We will not work with people who live in Russia and pay taxes to the Russian Federation. We have a lot of Russians who have been playing for NAVI for years, and they understand that everything on Russian television is [nonsense]. They understand it because they spend a lot of time in Ukraine. They [go through] training camp here. They know us.

I am a Russian-speaking Ukrainian. I have never used Ukrainian, even though I am in Lviv. Nobody cares. We had no nationalist leaders. In our election, the nationalists got up to 2%—up to 2%! Our president is a Russian-speaking Jew.

Obviously, our players understand that. If you are Russian, it is even very difficult to have a message at this time to express your thoughts or your attitude towards this war. I mean, you can be put in jail! We are therefore ready to help relocate players who do not share the policy of the Russian Federation.

A: There are not many Russian players who support war or propaganda because they are modern people. They use the Internet. They play on the same servers with Ukrainians all their lives. In esports, it’s not about propaganda. I understand that a large part of the nation in general supports the war, but that’s just because they watch television.

I don’t see anyone in the gaming industry actively supporting war. I just see a lot of silent people.

A: All of our main rosters will remain the same. We will definitely be disbanding a few smaller, mostly mobile disciplines. We have some issues with “Dota 2”, but it’s not about the political thoughts of our players or their nationalities. It’s more about Valve [the game’s publisher] decide not to do the second season for the CIS region because of the war.

A: I’ll give you an example. We have NAVI Junior, which is basically a “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” academy roster. One of our players, he spent like a week in his basement with his family. He is 17 years old, so he was able to leave the country and we managed to transfer him to Europe, and he can practice again. It’s so surreal for all of us. We are normal people. We are Europeans — at least we think we are Europeans. We don’t think about territory. We have no imperial ambitions.

We couldn’t figure out what was going on for the first week or so. Of course, in a month, we got used to it. You have become accustomed to these sirens, several times a day. We have employees who are still in Kyiv. They sleep in shelters. They spend their days normally in their apartments, but then go to shelter to sleep. Every night for a month.

A: Yes, I was. I followed politics. But when I became CEO of NAVI, [Russia’s annexation of] Crimea has arrived. So, honestly, I had to comply. It was easier not to talk about it when you manage a club that has a lot of Russian fans. So I would say that I was upset with what I had seen on Russian television since 2005, when we [in Ukraine] had our first revolution, because I was part of that revolution as a student. And I remember that way [the Orange Revolution] was shown on Russian TV was totally different from what I had seen while being part of it.

A: We mentioned [a return to normal] because of our partners. Most of our partners are based in the EU or the United States. So, financially, we are doing well. We only lost one partner and it was our own decision – a Russian bank, Tinkoff, which supported NAVI. The guys working there are great guys and can’t stand what’s going on, but we can’t work with Russian brands anymore.

We have had discussions with all our partners, with all our sponsors, to explain the situation. And after those discussions, we feel pretty comfortable because they’re OK with that. They understand that some of our promotional messages may seem strange, at least for now.

However, this is our new reality. Some of our partners have even offered us prepayments. They will do whatever is necessary to continue cooperating with us. So I’m pretty positive. We are able to keep our staff, we are able to keep our rosters, our players, etc. The only thing that is unknown at the moment is how long this war will last and where it will take us all.

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