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At esports tournament, Ukrainian ‘Counter-Strike’ star calls for ‘peace for Ukraine’

(Washington Post illustration; Simon Howar/ESL)

On the big stage at the Intel Extreme Masters “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” tournament in Katowice, Poland, a host’s simple question prompted one of the biggest moments of the event so far.

“How are you, you all right?” stage host Oliver James Borg D’Anastasi asked Ukrainian pro player Aleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev, who has been recognized as one of the greatest “Counter-Strike” players in the world.

“My whole career I’ve played with Ukrainian players, I played with Russian players, and I played with American players, and all of them [are] great guys,” Kostyliev said. He gestured toward his teammates onstage with him, three Russians and one Ukrainian. “Right now, I stay with my friends, with my real friends. We win together, and we lose together. And all of us want peace for Ukraine and for [the] whole world. All of us [are] scared.”

On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the beginning of a “special military operation” in Ukraine after months of a massive military buildup on the border between the two countries. Since then, the United Nations reports more than 50,000 Ukrainians have fled the country as Russian forces have moved closer toward the capital city, Kyiv.

For the latest developments from Ukraine, follow our live coverage.

Onstage Friday, Kostyliev’s speech positioned his team as a positive example of coexistence and friendship. “All of us need to show [an] example in this tournament for [the] whole world,” he continued, after a bout of sustained applause in the venue. “We all need to stay humans first.”

Kostyliev is widely considered one of the all-time greatest “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” players. In 2021, the “Counter-Strike” news and stats portal HLTV ranked him the best player of the year, writing that “an argument can even be made that this was the strongest year anyone has ever had in the history of the game.” The 24-year-old plays for Natus Vincere, or NAVI, an esports organization based in Kyiv that, like Kostyliev, has the record of an esports powerhouse. On Thursday, the organization posted a series of messages in English, Ukrainian and Russian on its Twitter feed outlining the situation.

“Russia attacked Ukraine,” reads NAVI’s statement. “We are devastated. Our main goal right now is to try to stay calm and take care of ourselves, our loved ones and those who need help.”

Since the invasion, a number of esports organizations around the world have changed their profile pictures on social media to the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag. In a subsequent tweet from NAVI, the organization expressed its appreciation for the support, in particular for those in Russia who had spoken out against the war.

Since Russia’s military operation began, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made repeated overtures to the Russian people to vocally oppose the war. Some Russian esports athletes, notably, have spoken up on Twitter. The esports organization Team Spirit, which in October was congratulated by Putin after winning the “Dota 2” International championship, released the following statement on Twitter: “We are against war and we are against violence.” Multiple players for the Moscow-based Gambit Esports posted tweets ranging from expressions of disbelief to outright support for Ukraine. One shared the hashtag #StandWithUkraine, alongside a Ukrainian flag and a heart emoji.

On Thursday morning in Ukraine, Kostyliev tweeted from Poland, where he was preparing to compete, that his city was being “shelled.”