Esports in Wartime: How NAVI Copes with the Ukraine Crisis

NAVI Chief Operating Officer (COO) Aleksey ‘xaoc’ Kucherov spoke to Dexerto about the steps the organization has taken to continue operating amid the conflict with Russia.

Last tweet from NAVI on February 23rd was a Dota2 meme with the head of Squeeone of the three characters that make up the hero known as Techies was photoshopped onto Sonic’s body in a scene from the 2020 film Sonic the Hedgehog. The tweet came 20 minutes after Valve released gameplay patch 7.31, which featured a major overhaul of the polarizing hero. The possibility of an impending war seemed like a distant scenario to many at the time.

The following day, as explosions echoed across Ukraine, NAVI’s tone on social media changed drastically, the memes and feel-good posts giving way to condemning the Russian invasion and calling for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Since then, NAVI, a Kyiv-based organization, has primarily used its social media platforms to raise awareness and support for Ukraine. The only video uploaded to her YouTube channel in the last two weeks was a collection of statements by Ukrainian esports players calling for peace and unity.

For an organization the size of NAVI, with about 170 employees between management, operations staff and players, the work never stops even in these times of war. Many of the company’s Kiev employees have since relocated to other areas, but some still remain in the capital, a city on the brink as Russian troops continue to push deep into the country.

NAVI has two main areas of focus at the moment: making sure the company can operate and helping the people of Ukraine in any way we can – this includes assisting with resettlement, helping with donations and showing the world what’s happening in Ukraine happens country.

With some staff still seeking shelter in temporary shelters and others having joined the Ukraine Territorial Defense Forces (including NAVI founder Alexander “ZeroGravity” Kokhanovskyy), available staff have their hands full.

“A lot has changed, so everyone who can work has different jobs,” NAVI COO Aleksey “xaoc” Kucherov told Dexerto.

Xaoc, a former professional Counter-Strike player who worked for HellRaisers and Heroic before joining NAVI in 2020, left Ukraine with his family a few days before the invasion began “just in case”.

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NAVI COO xaoc left Ukraine a few days before the invasion began

He has relocated to another country along with members of NAVI’s financial and legal teams – a decision that will protect the company’s interests if the war escalates further.

“Without that, it would be even more difficult for the employees,” he explains. “The risk had to be reduced.”

Help the CS:GO players

NAVI CS:GO team learned about the invasion while attending IEM Katowice in Poland, one of the biggest and most prestigious events on the calendar.

On February 25th, an emotional and distraught Aleksandr ‘s1mple’ Kostyliev delivered a powerful message of peace as he took the stage at Spodek Arena. The Ukrainian superstar, who lives in Kyiv, spoke about all the friends he’s made throughout his career and how esports players have nothing to do with government decisions.

He was sure to mention that he has Russian teammates and they remain a tight-knit group in these trying times. The speech, viewed over 3 million times on Twitter alone as of March 10th, perfectly encapsulated s1mple’s special quality reserved for the greats, those global icons who go beyond the game they play.

After the event ended, the team traveled in different directions, with s1mple, Valeriy ‘b1t’ Vakhovskiy and team coach Andrey ‘B1ad3’ Gorodenskiy staying in Poland, while the Russian trio Kirill ‘Boombl4’ Mikhailov, Ilya ‘Perfecto’ Zalutskiy and Denis ‘electronic ‘ Sharipov returned home.

“We’re considering how best to proceed,” says xaoc. “We hope that the Russians will be able to leave the country in the near future. Flights are being canceled and it is becoming increasingly difficult to let people out at the border. The situation with visas, whether new ones will be issued, is not entirely clear.

“The team was in shock for the first few days, but now they realize there are no other options.”

S1mple, who is staying at the Kinguin Esports Performance Center in Warsaw, has spoken openly about the mental and emotional toll the war and the distance from his family and friends has taken on him.

S1mple at csgo major

In a recent stream from his room, he revealed he missed his mother’s birthday because of the conflict and that she had to celebrate the occasion with the lights off for fear her house might be bombed. He also confessed that he hadn’t felt like playing the game lately.

“We try to help their loved ones because it’s impossible to do anything when they are in such danger,” xaoc said of the support given to the team’s Ukrainians.

“We deal with their future place of residence, travel and visas. Many things change every day.”

But not only the Ukrainians in the ranks of the NAVI need help. According to xaoc, “some of the organization’s Russian players are trying to flee the country while they still can” for fear of what may come next as the conflict drags on and may take many new forms.

“They think about changing citizenship if possible because they already know what to expect in the near future,” he says.

Impact on Ukrainian esports

Two weeks into the full-scale invasion of Russia, war continues to threaten much of Ukraine, permeating every aspect of its society. After years of sustained growth in multiple areas, Ukrainian esports are now being forced to adjust to a new reality: that things will not be the same for a long time.

On March 2, the Ukrainian organization HellRaisers, founded in 2014, announced that it would suspend operations for the duration of the conflict. 24-year-old Viktor ‘sdy’ Orudzhev, who plays for CS:GO team MAD Lions, joined the small Civil Guard in Kostopil in north-western Ukraine after moving from Kyiv.

Staff at WePlay Esports, a Kyiv-based tournament organizer, have been working remotely since February 24, and while the company has vowed to “continue all of our legal and financial obligations to us and our partners,” questions remain about the future of its CS: GO Academy League.

The LAN component of the tournament, one of the most valuable aspects as it gives young players much-needed stage experience, was already absent from Season 3 in early February due to concerns over the geopolitical situation in Ukraine.

Xaoc believes the impact on the country’s esports scene will largely depend on the length of the war. NAVI, which will discuss the possibility of moving the organization’s headquarters from Kyiv to another location “in the near future,” has had to put some projects on hold pending some clarity about the future.


NAVI does not rule out moving its headquarters to another location

“Many partners understand everything and support us, for which we are very grateful,” says xaoc. “They know our approach to working together and are confident that everything will be fine in the future.”

NAVI’s social media accounts have been silent for a few days, but there’s a frantic activity going on behind the scenes to get the company back to normal – whatever normalcy means in these dark times when the lives of millions are falling apart was torn.

On the agenda is an attempt to bring the Russian players of the CS:GO team to Germany for the ESL Pro League 15. If they can make the journey – NAVI is confident they will – it will be another opportunity for esports to send a message of unity and coexistence. And for the team to give their loyal supporters, especially those in Ukraine, a reason to smile.

“We want to thank our fans for their support during these times,” xaoc said. “For your active attitude and understanding.” Esports in Wartime: How NAVI Copes with the Ukraine Crisis

Emma Bowman

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