Illegitimate “Officials”: The History of Creating the russian Esports Federation
Esports, in the modern world, is one of the fastest-growing sports disciplines. The russian Esports Federation (FCS) was established on March 24, 2000, with the aim of developing esports as a new form of competition. By 2001, russia became the first country to officially recognize esports as a sport. This meant that tournaments in esports disciplines were subject to mandatory registration procedures and were granted official status as sporting events. At that time, popular esports disciplines in Russia included Counter-Strike, Dota, and Warcraft. However, in 2006, esports was excluded from the All-Russian Register of Sports due to the lack of breakthroughs and prospects for its development, surprisingly.
Starting from 2014, the russian State University of Physical Education (RGUFKSMiT) began training specialists in the field of “Theory and Methodology of Computer Sports (Esports),” with support from the FCS in developing the curriculum. Then, in 2016, the Ministry of Sport of russia reinstated the official status of esports. Rankings and titles were introduced for esports players, along with the opportunity to hold official national championships. In 2017, the russian Cup was organized for multiple games, including League of Legends, Dota 2, and Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).
In 2022, russia approved a state standard for the training of esports athletes, which requires players to allocate time not only to computer training but also to physical preparation. It is expected that physical preparation will constitute 25% to 40% of the overall training process.
Essentially, Crimean “esports” found itself on “equal footing” with “russian” regions. In 2016, the “Crimean Esports Federation” emerged on the occupied peninsula, founded by 22-year-old Alexander Malov, a student at the “Mathematics Department of CFU”. He was also the “initiator of the first esports arena” in Crimea.
“In June 2016, when the russian government recognized computer sports as a sport, I was thinking about how to elevate it to “a worthy level”. I sent my project to numerous investment emails until I found the Crimean “Investment Portal”. I published it there and found an “investor” – in the fall, we were already discussing the terms of “cooperation in advance”.”
The “investor” turned out to be Alexander Zenkin, who justified his decision as follows: “I have a friend who organizes similar events in Ryazan, he looked into it and said that the idea is viable. We looked at the regions on the map of russia. In Moscow, of course, it’s impossible to engage in this because there is the Yota Arena (russia’s main esports arena), and there is no way to compete with it. Accordingly, we looked at the “new region” that emerged in russia – “it’s warm, fresh, and, according to feedback, has a good investment climate”.”
Furthermore, Crimea already had a successful player from Ukraine, Alexander Dashkevich, known by the pseudonym “XBOCT,” who gained fame in the esports world. During the official russian-language broadcast of The International 2022 for Dota 2, he made a statement about the war in Ukraine, saying: “I want to add something. At the moment, there is a war going on in Ukraine. I wanted to say a big thank you to the defenders, to the defenders and to everyone who openly opposes the war. Support them with information, support Ukraine in any way you can. Together, we can make it.” So, there is indeed an occupier whom they can look up to.
Forecasts for the “development” of esports in the occupied territory of Crimea
In 2021, the “president” of the “Republic’s Esports Federation”, Alexander Malov, mentioned that a “gaming house” for local “professionals” in the field of video games appeared in the town of Orlivka, located near the occupied Sevastopol. The “training base” called “Crimean Coliseum” illegally “emerged” on the peninsula through a “competition” for youth, in which the boys “won a grant”. The “best gamers” were accommodated there.
One of the most successful esports players in Crimea, Sviatoslav Dovbakh, known to gamers as svyat, believes that: “Esports in Crimea is practically dead and is sustained through the efforts of individuals who organize tournaments in their clubs.”
Vitaliy Volochai, a Ukrainian representative in esports, who started as a commentator for Dota 2 and has commentated on dozens of different disciplines, is now the founder and owner of one of the largest esports studios in Eastern Europe, Maincast. In a recent interview, he mentioned Crimean esports and stated: “The market of subsidiary companies is developing: when russian companies create studios in intermediary countries. These countries include Kazakhstan, Serbia, and others. For example, the studio Paragon, supposedly Latvian, operates in Kazakhstan, but it is actually russian. Such studios try to funnel money from russian bookmakers. But these are not global players in esports; they are short-term or one-year placeholders to drain money. russian esports is slowly dying. Their clubs are prohibited from playing under their own names. russian players are signed to teams, but these are isolated cases. Their esports federation will be banned by everyone.”
Volochai also mentioned: “They opened branches of the esports federation in Simferopol and the so-called “LNR”. It sounds surreal. Who is going to organize Counter-Strike tournaments in Luhansk…? I’m sorry, but I can’t comprehend that. And they think these will be tournaments recognized by someone. It’s a parallel reality. The entire esports scene in russia is owned by Mail.ru, which is a state corporation, so it’s a vertical structure created solely to ‘whiten’ russia’s image. It doesn’t work anymore, but it used to work.”
The occupiers’ plans to “create” their own tournaments in esports
In 2022, the Crimean “authorities” proposed the creation of alternative international tournaments in esports. In particular, Karen Sargsyan, the head of the ROC “Center for the Development of Computer Sports of the Republic of Crimea,” stated: “The team had to compete in all major tournaments without the tag of our organization, Virtus.pro. The reason for this is the sanctions imposed by Western organizations… These restrictions have affected the development of russian esports athletes. Some players ended their careers because there were no opportunities for professional advancement. But the Crimean players did not give up and, on the contrary, were eager for cyber battle. During 2021-2022, almost fifty percent of the teams from Crimea reached the playoffs stage in almost all major tournaments. No other region can boast such an achievement. Now we are setting the trend in this sport in various disciplines. Western esports officials are paying more attention to our players.”
Alexander Malov, the aforementioned “president of the occupied Crimea’s esports federation”, also commented on this idea: “Our gamers have never been inferior to Western participants and have repeatedly proven their superiority. Starting from the first International in Dota 2, where a Crimean was part of the russian team, to last year when we claimed the biggest prize in Dota again. This year, it was time for a well-deserved victory in ‘CS:GO.’ Now, more than ever, it is necessary to consolidate and create our own competitive and educational platforms independent of the West.”
The unexpected desire of the IOC to “revive” the Olympic program
On May 5th, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) added the video game Fortnite to the program of the Olympic Esports Series 2023. At first glance, it may seem like nothing unusual, as the IOC, in collaboration with international federations and game publishers, is preparing for virtual and simulation sports competitions, after which the best players will participate in the live finals in Singapore from June 22nd to 25th. However, the interesting aspect is that IOC President Thomas Bach had previously hindered the inclusion of esports under the “auspices” of the IOC. Now, as part of a fair boycott, Bach has decided to “refresh” the Olympic program. The “gamers” competitions are being developed in nine disciplines: archery (Tic Tac Bow), baseball (WBSC eBaseball: Power Pros), chess, cycling (Zwift), dancing (Just Dance), car racing (Gran and sailing (Virtual Regatta), tennis (Tennis Clash), and taekwondo (World Taekwondo VR). The qualification has already begun on March 1st and will run until May 15th, with no restrictions currently imposed on the aggressor or its supporters who endorse putin’s “imperialist campaign” against the Ukrainian people.
It is important to note that IOC President Bach himself previously vehemently dismissed any discussions about the prospects of gamers at the Olympics. He stated, “We cannot include in the Olympic Games program something that promotes violence and discrimination.” The official position of the IOC regarding esports, until recently, was as follows: “If killing someone is required in esports, it cannot correspond to Olympic values.” This decision was made following a shooting incident during a cyber tournament in Jacksonville, Florida. A 24-year-old gamer took up real weapons after losing a virtual match. The incident resulted in the deaths of four people and over 10 injuries. The shooter then took his own life. Now the question arises: what influenced this change of mind?
And here comes the factor of the Olympic youth movement, which the Kremlin exploits to break international isolation and legitimize the criminal occupation of Crimea and the ongoing war in general. In the pursuit of this audience, officials are actively trying to “refresh” the Olympic program by including new and emerging disciplines that were considered subcultures not long ago. The essence of it all is that it affects the income of the IOC, which comes not only from the ranks of member organizations but also from sponsors, including global brands, design and graphic studios, technology businesses, service sector businesses, and so on, some of which, by the way, continue to operate criminally in russia.
According to the data established by companies NewZoo and Nielsen, today the core audience of cybersports (about 600 million people, by 2024 it is projected to grow to 920 million) are aged from 18 to 34 years old. It is less manageable, but more profitable in the future, and most importantly for Moscow – it enjoys the patronage of “businessmen” sweepstakes, illegal betting on sports and is suitable for the laundering of proceeds from crime.
In turn, as mentioned earlier, Vitaliy Volochay pointed out why it is difficult to “eliminate” russians from esports. The main problem lies in the absence of an international federation that could disqualify russian esports athletes. Only game developers can do that, as was the case with Riot, which immediately stated that they would not have a russian championship. However, for companies like Velve, they don’t care about the aggression of the russian federation because 22% of Velve’s revenue comes from Counter-Strike and Dota 2, and that money comes from russia. And the result is clear: the company is not willing to break what brings them money. russian esports athletes still face restrictions in the form of a ban on russian sponsors. Frankly speaking, russians feel more comfortable in the cyberspace than in other sports because there is no single authority to turn to. No one can influence the decisions of private companies, except for the option of global public pressure. However, not the entire world understands the importance of preventing russian athletes from participating in any sport.
For Ukraine, the main risk of allowing russian esports athletes to participate in sports competitions is the use of this platform as a tool for spreading political propaganda or shaping a certain image of the country or ideology. It is also a threat to cybersecurity. For the Kremlin, it is primarily a financial equivalent and another proof that despite the crimes of the aggressor country, there are companies and federations that are not against “getting their hands dirty with blood.”