ESL suspends Russian esports teams and competitions over invasion of Ukraine

Major esports operator ESL has announced that “entities with clear ties to the Russian government, including individuals or entities under alleged or confirmed EU sanctions in connection with [Ukrainian] conflict” will not be allowed to participate in Pro League tournaments. ESL events to take place in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) region, which includes Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, have also been suspended.

“We are all shocked and saddened by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and look forward to a swift and peaceful resolution,” ESL said in a statement. “After observing the situation, we are now implementing an initial set of actions.

“Together with our partners and staff, we are currently working on actions to support people affected by the current tragedy through donations to UNHCR, pay to leave for humanitarian aid staff, and pay leave for affected colleagues.”

Two teams, Virtus pro, and Gambit have been identified for elimination so far. However, as in the Olympics, players from these teams will be allowed to take part in the events “under a neutral name, without representing their country, organization or sponsors of their teams on clothing or otherwise”.

Neither Virtus pro nor Gambit have commented on the suspension, but Virtus pro issued a statement yesterday stating that it was in danger of being disqualified from Gamers Galaxy: Dota 2 International Series Dubai 2022 if it did not make a public statement about the invasion (presumably supporting Ukraine) or agreed to “give up our tag and jerseys and play without affiliation to any particular club or country”. The team accused the “Ukrainians” of forcing the tournament organizers to make a move by “threatening to sabotage the event” if they did not.

“Many clubs from Russia/CIS are under a lot of pressure right now,” the team said. “Some tournament operators are already running witch hunts. We urge them to stop and not think about traditional sports where politics rules. Esports is beautiful in its diversity: people from different countries and different backgrounds can play together under the same tag, and territorial affiliation is measured only by ping and time zones.

“Virtus pro will not fall for this intimidation. We won’t take off our shirts and we won’t tolerate this pressure.”

In their own statement released on February 25, Gambit said they are also “under intense pressure”, which is mainly expressed through social media. The tone of the statement is less inflammatory, but the message is the same. “We ask for one thing – let’s remain human in any situation, let’s support each other at this difficult moment,” the message says. “Let’s not get into politics in esports, but get into mutual respect and support. We are for peace.”

ESL’s decision to suspend Russian teams and events is the latest in a growing series of actions that have made Russia increasingly isolated both in the real world and in the video game ecosystem. The move comes just hours after Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister called on game developers and esports platforms to stop doing business in and with Russia, and almost simultaneously with EA’s decision to exclude Russian teams from its FIFA and NHL games. Game studios around the world have also spoken out strongly against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and many of them are raising funds to support its victims.

I’ve reached out to Virtus pro and Gambit for more comments and will update if I get a response.

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