Maksym “Max-Strafe” Stadniuk was laser-focused as the circle closed around his team during a 2020 championship match in the futuristic battle royale “Apex Legends.” The final enemy team stood just a few meters away, on the other side of a digital mountain. Sitting in his gaming chair in his parents’ home in Kyiv, Ukraine, (covid-19 had forced all tournaments to be played from home) he wouldn’t let anything get in the way between him and victory. Not the other team, not the pandemic and certainly not his own teammates’ premature celebration.
As the final seconds ticked away, his teammates Casper “Gnaske” Præstensgaard and Matthew “SirDel” Biggins began celebrating the win — as if the trophy were already in their hands. Stadniuk couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Shut up, shut up!” yelled Stadniuk, 26, sometimes known as the “machine man” to the rest of his team for his steadfast demeanor. “The match isn’t over yet.”
A few seconds later, the Danish squad North rushed the trio around the mountain, outside the ring, to flank them. A risky maneuver, and one that Præstensgaard saw coming. North emerged from the mountain, only to meet their deaths.
Stadniuk and his team were champions, but it hadn’t quite registered yet. He could hear his teammates shouting through the mic, but Stadniuk was still processing the moment. Ten seconds passed before he realized what they had accomplished.
“We won $36,000!” he yelled in English, Præstensgaard recalled in an interview with The Washington Post.
Stadniuk is known for keeping his emotions in check during hectic moments, as he did in the European Apex Legends Championship Series Playoffs in September 2020. His steady presence is something that has kept his team grounded in the past.
“That’s what I mean by the machine man,” Præstensgaard said. “If the job isn’t done, then no emotions.”
It’s that sort of control that has helped the Kyiv native get through the most difficult period of his life: the past 10 months since Russia launched its invasion. From taking cover in his basement during rocket barrages to standing for 12 hours on a train while fleeing the city to practicing for an upcoming tournament while living in someone else’s home in Lviv, more than 330 miles from his home, he’s done everything in his power to remain in control, even as everything around him began to unravel.
“Of course I’m not a machine,” Stadniuk told The Washington Post in a Discord call from his parents’ home in Kyiv. “I’ve struggled a lot inside and keep things inside most of the time.”
Stadniuk said he hasn’t slept much since the Russians began sending rockets into his hometown around 4 a.m. in February 2022. He’s been afraid ever since that moment, but he’s tried to remain strong for his mother, brother, grandmother and all his friends and teammates in the “Apex Legends” community. Like the championship in 2020, he only let his quiet demeanor lift once.
After fleeing in early March, Stadniuk and his family decided it was safe enough to return to his home at the end of May once the Ukrainian army had cleared Russian forces from the city. His father had remained home to take care of their house, dog and neighbors. Both men cried when they saw each other for the first time in months.
“I felt peace and joy,” Stadniuk’s father, Oleksandr, said. “I was glad that the family was together, nearby, alive and healthy.”
Stadniuk is living with his family in Kyiv now, even though the war rages on. Russian forces may have been pushed out of Kyiv and the surrounding areas, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed annexation papers for four regions of Ukraine, and has vowed to claim further territory.
Stadniuk and his “Apex Legends” squad are among many players and teams whose esports careers have been impacted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They — like competitive “Valorant” and “Fortnite” players — have been unable to travel to many tournaments, find a safe place to compete online or completely focus on anything but the threat facing their loved ones and home.
In 2022, FunPlus Phoenix (FPX), a “Valorant” team made up of both Ukrainians and Russians, was widely seen as one of the best “Valorant” teams in Europe and even the world. But Russian members of the squad were unable to travel to several in-person events in 2022, and stress weighed on the Ukrainian players.
“It’s always in my head,” Kyrylo “ANGE1” Karasov, a former FPX player who lives in Kyiv, said of the conflict. “I’m always worried about my family, I’m always checking the news to see what’s happening.”
Many Ukrainian players from other esports circuits like “Apex Legends,” “Fortnite” and “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” haven’t had a chance to compete at all. Local events have been canceled, prize money has dried up and their dreams of competing onstage again are slowly evaporating. More broadly, the war has dramatically reshaped many Ukrainian youths’ visions of the future.
Stadniuk considers himself lucky. Even though he is the main breadwinner in his family, they have a home and enough funds to hopefully survive through the conflict. The “Apex Legends” community, including his team, rallied around him as well. They offered him money and places to stay outside Ukraine if he chose to leave.
Still, Stadniuk laments missing what could have been pivotal moments of his professional “Apex Legends” career. GnaskeStrafeDel, his squad with Præstensgaard and Biggins, disbanded after the 2020 championship, but all three were set to come together once more under the GMT Esports banner at the beginning of 2022; the highly anticipated reunion was announced just weeks before the invasion. Stadniuk couldn’t attend either the Apex Legends Global Series: Split 2 Playoffs LAN in Stockholm in April or the 2022 Championship in Raleigh, N.C., in July. His team won $13,000 without him at the ReWired Festival 2022 in October in Fayetteville, Arkansas. These three tournaments boasted international competition, million-dollar prize pools and more than 40 teams.
In July, Stadniuk watched from a studio in Kyiv as his team played in Raleigh with a substitute.
“I’m the guy who was working my heart out for that moment. I was waiting for these moments, moments that we were qualified for,” Stadniuk said. “Now I’ve had to skip the two biggest LAN tournaments in a row because of the war. I’ve skipped so many life opportunities to be there. I’ve missed so much in my own life to try to make it there, and now I couldn’t even be there.”
His team qualified for the first major Apex Legend LAN of 2023, the Split One Playoffs in February at the Copper Box Arena in London. Stadniuk does not know if he will be able to attend.
The average career of a player in any esport is less than five years, which means that missing a few major events runs the risk of significantly stunting a player’s professional growth. Stadniuk is approaching the end of his third year competing at the highest level.
“It’s heartbreaking. [There is a difference] between missing an event where you know there is another one coming up or you’ve just competed in one,” said “Apex Legends” caster Mark “Onset” Hatcher. “With ‘Apex,’ everything has been online due to covid up until now. They’ve already missed so much. To miss out on more [is like] taking a dream away from these players.”
Stadniuk’s teammates have seen major growth since those tournaments he missed in the form of thousands of Twitter followers and hundreds of Twitch subscribers, especially after viral moments like the team singing a Backstreet Boys song in the middle of a match spread on Twitter. While Stadniuk considers growing his presence on social media and streaming platforms to be pivotal for his post-professional career, he’s “never been good” at cultivating a following outside of competitions. In his experience, that kind of exposure comes naturally when you’re able to play on camera, though, he said.
Missing sincere moments like that is all the more painful since the Stockholm tournament was supposed to see Præstensgaard, Biggins and Stadniuk reunite in a tournament for the first time since their championship win in 2020. Stadniuk and his teammates have signed with a new team for the upcoming “Apex Legends” esports season, and he hopes that he’ll have new opportunities to travel to events and compete, but there’s no way to guarantee he’ll be able to leave Ukraine for tournaments in the immediate future.
Even as life in Kyiv has returned to semi-normalcy, he knows that can change at a moment’s notice.
“The Russians can try again and again. Who knows what’s going to happen,” he said. “They’re still trying to occupy our territories. They’re still trying to [destroy] our government. It’s still happening in our cities. They want more. More territory. More expansion.”
Stadniuk’s definition of normal is completely different now that his life revolves around war and stress. He, like many others in his home city, has adapted to that new normal. He’s pushed through a pandemic and rockets exploding on his street without giving up hope. And he’s still holding out that he’ll have the chance to pursue his dream at the highest level again in person — without having to worry about the people he cares about most while he’s away.
Aron Garst is a Los Angeles-based writer exploring the future of video games. You can find more of his work in WIRED, GameSpot, and The Verge. Follow him on Twitter @GarstProduction.