July 22, 2024

Tyna Woods

Technology does the job

NAVI CEO talks cutting Russian players, running an esports org in wartime

“I don’t even know if my house still exists,” he said in an interview last week.

As the invasion continues, some of the employees of NAVI, as the club is better known, spread across Europe. A few members of the financial and legal departments, for example, moved to Cyprus to keep the organization running. Others stayed in Ukraine, including some employees in the besieged capital, Kyiv. NAVI’s tone on social media also shifted. On Twitter, the organization shared posts raising money — including for bulletproof vests — photos and videos of the chaos across the country, and statements updating fans on the club’s ongoing work.

“If you wanna help,” reads one recent post, “stand against the war.”

In one of its statements on social media, the club referenced that it would be undergoing some personnel changes in response to the war — mostly relating to Russian players. Over the coming days and weeks, those changes will be announced in a rolling series of updates. Certain mobile teams, Zolotarov says, will likely be cut. The conflict will also likely impact the club’s “Dota 2” prospects.

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

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. Some phrases have also been translated from Russian.

Launcher: I’m sure esports and competing are the farthest things from your mind right now. How does it feel to balance living through a historic invasion with having to continue to work to keep your organization going?

Zolotarov: A little difficult because we are unable to forecast anything. You don’t know what’s going to happen next, you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. However, you need to work. It’s not about just NAVI, but it’s about your thoughts. It helps if you’re not only thinking about war or, I don’t know, kids who are dying, civil people, etc.

Right now, we can say we’re back on track. However, we are unable to do our job, media-wise, because we can’t do memes, we can’t do promotions. We’re trying to use our media to help our country, mostly to inform our fans — including Russian fans — about what’s happening. To crowdfund. To help child clinics, etc. So I won’t say that we are 100 percent doing esports-related work. Every NAVI employee is doing something connected to this war, and we are okay with it. Our main goal right now is not to lose anyone, to keep on paying employees — even if we do have a couple who are currently in the army. We will keep paying them because they are protecting our homeland, and us as well.

In some recent Russian and Ukrainian language statements on social media from NAVI, the club states that it won’t retain staff who support the military aggression against Ukraine. What does that mean for NAVI?

Zolotarov: We are not going to work with people who live in Russia and who pay taxes to the Russian Federation. We have a lot of Russians who have played for NAVI for years, and they understand that everything that is happening on Russian TV is bulls—. I mean, they understand that because they spend a lot of time in Ukraine. They boot camp here. They know us.

I am a Russian speaking Ukrainian. I never used Ukrainian, even if I’m in Lviv or Ivano-Frankivsk. [Editors note: The Russian government has made a big issue of Russian speakers being ostracized in Ukraine as part of a justification for the invasion. Research suggests, however, that Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine tend to identify closely with Ukraine.] Nobody cares. We didn’t have any nationalistic leaders. In our election, nationalists got up to 2 percent — up to 2 percent! Our president is a Jew, a Russian-speaking Jew.

Obviously, our players, they understand that. However, there are legislative issues. If you’re Russian, it is super difficult to even have a post right now to express your thoughts or the attitude to this war. I mean, you can be put in prison! However, we won’t be able to work with players who will liv
e there and will pay taxes there. So, we are ready to help relocate players who don’t share the Russian Federation’s politics.

So, if I understand correctly, one of the factors at play is the political perspectives of the players, because, of course, you won’t be able to work with somebody who supports Russian aggression.

Zolotarov: There are not many Russian gamers who support the war or propaganda because, you know, they are modern people. They use the Internet. They play on the same servers with Ukrainians for their whole life. I mean, in esports, it’s not about propaganda. I mean, I do understand that a huge part of the nation in general supports the war, but that’s just because they’re watching TV, and it’s not about the gaming community.

I don’t see anyone from the gaming industry who is actively supporting the war. And not even just actively — I don’t see anyone who’s supporting the war. I just see a lot of silent people. And I do understand why they’re silent, especially after some recent changes in local Russian legislation. But, anyway, it’s their country. It’s their president.

What rosters are impacted? Where are we going to see those changes happening?

Zolotarov: I do believe all of our major rosters will remain the same. We will definitely disband a couple smaller disciplines, mostly mobile. We do have some issues with “Dota 2,” but it’s not about political positions, or the political thoughts of our players or their nationalities. It’s more about Valve [the game’s publisher] deciding not to do the second season for the CIS region because of the war. And the third major [change] is going to happen in the United States.

We’re skipping the second season, and third season is so questionable because of Visa issues that may appear because of the war. So we don’t know what the perspectives are for “Dota 2” in our region in general. I called our region “CIS” before, but I wouldn’t do this anymore. [Editors note: CIS stands for Commonwealth of Independent States. It is a regional designation that includes Russia, Ukraine and a number of post-Soviet republics. The term is often used in esports when organizing regional events to distinguish European teams from those in Russia, Western Europe and certain Asian countries.]

But it’s not about our roster; it’s more about “Dota 2” in our region in general. We will try to keep as many disciplines and players as possible. As far as I know, most of our players are ready to relocate.

A lot of folks will be particularly interested in the “Counter-Strike” roster, which has three Russian players. Can you tell me what’s happening there?

Zolotarov: We hope that we are going to keep this roster and that the Russia-based players are going to relocate.

How have the younger players and staff responded to this conflict?

Zolotarov: 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, so he was able to leave the country, and we managed to transfer him to Europe, and he’s able to practice again. It’s so surreal for all of us. We’re normal people. We’re Europeans — at least we think we are European people. We don’t think about territory. We don’t have any imperial ambitions. I mean, we just want to live in our country.

I guess it’s the same for everyone. We couldn’t understand what was happening for the first week or so. Of course, in a month, you got used to it. You got used to those sirens, several times per day. We do have some employees who are still in Kyiv. They sleep in shelters. They spend their days normally in their flats, but then go to shelter to sleep. Every night, for a month.

Before Russia’s invasion, were you a political person? Did you keep up with politics?

Zolotarov: Yes, I was. I was following politics, obviously. But when I became NAVI’s CEO, [the annexation of] Crimea happened. So maybe, honestly speaking, I had to conform. It was easier not to talk about it when you’re running a club that has a lot of fans from Russia. So, I would say, I was following politics. I was upset with Crimea’s annexation. I was upset with what I’d seen on Russian TV since 2005, when we [in Ukraine] had our first revolution, because I was a part of this revolution as a student. And I remember that the way [the Orange Revolution] was shown on the Russian TV was totally different from what I’d seen as a part of it.

Can you tell me a bit
more about that?

Zolotarov: I was born in the Soviet Union, and I didn’t follow politics [for a time]. I had a lot of friends in Russia and Belarus since I began playing “Counter-Strike.” It was the year 2000. We played the same tournaments. We met in Moscow, in Kyiv, in Donetsk, in St. Petersburg, Minsk, whatever — and we played “Counter-Strike.” I was not super interested in politics at all.

[Then, in 2004] we had elections, and at that time our country divided into two parts. Basically, we had two candidates: one was Western oriented and one was pro-Russian. And we all felt — at least in Kyiv — that the majority of our friends, parents, etc. voted for the Western guy. But in the end, when they announced the results, the pro-Russian candidate won. And that is why students and all the active members of society decided to protest. And then we had this Maidan — the first one — when we were asking about recalculating the votes. All we were asking was just “calculate it again,” because of irregularities. And then they calculated everything again, and the Western guy won.

But the picture I saw on Russian TV was fully different. They started talking about nationalistic movements, that we were all paid for protesting, etc. But I mean, I was a student and I know that all my friends from university, my parents, were voting for this guy. That was the time when I felt like [laughs] something is wrong with Russia.

In a recent social media post, NAVI mentioned a return to normal, but a normal that also acknowledges the reality of the situation. What does that mean on a day-to-day basis? How do you balance running the org with being honest about the conditions of your work?

Zolotarov: We mentioned [a return to normal] because of our partners. Obviously, we have obligations. The good thing is that NAVI, we are from Ukraine, we are a CIS-based powerhouse, but sponsorship-wise, most of our partners are E.U. or U.S. based. So financially, we’re doing fine. We lost only one partner and it was our own decision — a Russian bank, Tinkoff, that supported NAVI. The guys who work there are great guys, and they don’t support what is happening but, I mean, we can’t work with Russian brands anymore. Anyone who pays taxes there is not our partner or employee or player.

We had talks with all of our partners, with all of our sponsors, to explain the situation. And after those talks, we feel quite comfortable because they are okay with it. They are ready to wait. They understand the situation. They understand that some of our promotional posts may look strange, at least at the moment. However, it’s our new reality. Some of our partners even offered us prepayments. They assured us that they don’t want to lose NAVI, and they will do everything that’s needed to keep on cooperating with us. So I’m quite positive. We are able to keep our staff, we are able to keep our rosters, players, etc. The only thing that’s unknown right now is how long this war is going to take and where it’s going to take all of us.