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As Ukrainian pro gamers flee from war, esports community offers aid

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)

When Viktor Orudzhev went to bed in Kyiv on Feb. 23, the professional esports player was thinking about upcoming matches and how to make his team one of the best in the world. He, like his family and friends, was convinced war would not come.

“It was four in the morning when I heard the first explosion outside,” Orudzhev told The Washington Post in a call from Kostopil, a small town in northwest Ukraine. He said that morning he remembered checking his phone, already flooded with messages, as more Russian missiles and ordnance mixed with sirens in a horrific cacophony.

Along with his parents, Orudzhev and his seven younger siblings grabbed whatever they could — “the most important stuff,” he said — including passports, cash, and legal documents relating to their flat, before running out.

The frenzy in their home immediately gave way to an even more terrifying feeling: They were stuck. The roads were choked with traffic as others sought to flee the city. The usual four-hour journey to Kostopil, where Orudzhev was born and where his grandmother lives, took the family 18 hours.

“For me, it was really hard to understand what’s going on in the beginning — who’s going to start a war in these times?” said Orudzhev said, who competes on the professional “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” (“CS:GO”) circuit under the gamertag “somedieyoung.” “And for now my life is completely changed because I was playing ‘CS:GO’ professionally. I can’t do it because I don’t have proper Internet. And we are building a bunker in the house.”

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As of Tuesday, the United Nations said it believed 2 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion began. As a result, a number of Ukrainian esports players and other game industry workers have had to rapidly recalibrate their lives, while friends and colleagues outside of Ukraine have offered whatever aid they can. People working in the gaming sector are an increasingly large community in Ukraine. According to ValuesValue, a consulting company focused on game development in Ukraine, before the Russian invasion, the country was home to more than 30,000 employees in the gaming industry who worked for studios such as Ubisoft and Wargaming. Ukraine is also home to some of the world’s top esports athletes in titles such as “CS:GO” and “Dota 2.”

Orudzhev and his family were able to escape Kyiv, but other pro gamers and people associated with the industry needed more assistance to find safety. Jérôme Coupez, founder and CEO of Prodigy Talent Agency, which represents a number of esports players, has four Ukrainian clients and one Ukrainian employee. He received news of the invasion while at Poland’s IEM Katowice “CS:GO” tournament, which was hosting an international group of players, coaches, staff and fans, including those from Ukraine and Russia.

“It felt unreal. I asked, ‘Is it really happening?’” Coupez said. “And then it became real when the players started to send me messages saying they have to hide in shelters. They were really scared. … A player wanted to enroll into the army, but they wouldn’t let him because he wasn’t trained.”

Describing the scene among Russian and Ukrainian players, some of whom play for the same teams, Coupez said there was a feeling of unity, even as no one was quite sure what to do.

“They were all wishing that everything was not real and we go back to normal life,” he said.

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After the initial shock wore off, Coupez worked to help his clients, employees and others he knew in the country. On Feb. 24, his goal was to help people get out of Ukraine. To that end, he posted on Twitter asking his followers for help with transport and logistics, offering to pay the associated costs.

He said he received 200 direct messages from around the world in response and was awake into the early morning hours trying to track down leads to help his clients and others who reached out. The following day, Ukraine banned men between 18 and 60 years old from leaving the country. Still, Coupez was able to help a dual national player, Yaroslav “isk” Issakov, and a few others leave Ukraine.

Coupez has also assisted his Russian clients who sought to leave their country this week after they asked for his assistance, citing fears about Russia’s future. He said he booked hotels and helped with on-the-ground logistics in Turkey for four of his Russian players.

“When it happened, I felt so powerless in the global situation and I just wanted to find ways to help with the means I had,” Coupez said. “I can’t change the big picture, but I can help a few people.”

James Banks, an esports host and interviewer, added to the assistance efforts. Banks had found an adopted home in Ukraine after he moved there in 2019 with his late Ukrainian partner, Mariia. After the invasion, one of Mariia’s childhood friends, Renata Bogatskaya, reached out to Banks and said she wanted to get out of the country, but didn’t have a car. Banks, a British citizen who left Ukraine before the invasion after a warning from the British government, helped facilitate transportation and accommodations for her, sending her the booking details via a screenshot since she was in transit.

Banks has also used his platform on Twitch and Twitter to help Ukrainian refugees. He said the response has been overwhelming — both in terms of the number of people who offered to help, as well as emotionally.

“I was crying in my apartment in London, the kindness is just so wild,” Banks said. “It’s so touching. … This is the beauty of esports.”

Banks noted that total strangers from across Europe had messaged him and said they had extra rooms or could provide food.

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Once out of Ukraine, refugees face a host of new challenges, such as where to go and where to stay. Paweł Książek, head of the Kinguin Esports Performance Center in Warsaw, decided to open the doors of the venue to refugees. Beyond housing up to 21 people free of charge, including Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev, a top “CS:GO” player, support staff for the athletes and at least one dog, Książek said his facility fulfills another important role.

“It’s very important to them to play [video games] because they don’t think about the situation for this time,” Książek said.

Książek said some Kinguin employees are also hosting Ukrainian refugees at their homes, and have taken to helping them with critical errands like getting a local SIM card and renting a car. He said most of their guests contacted them directly, having been familiar with the facility. While many of their guests have money for food, others do not, and Książek and his workers are supporting them as well.

“We are taking care of them too, in order to make this difficult situation better for them,” Książek said, mentioning how news of friends who have been killed or families in peril can be forgotten, for a moment, while watching TV, playing video games or going to a restaurant. For a couple of refugees, both esports fans, having the opportunity to meet Kostyliev was one such moment.

“They had smiles on their faces,” Książek recalled.

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

But for those still in Ukraine, forgetting is not as easy. In Kostopil, Orudzhev said he had received devastating news about a former university classmate who had been killed in Kharkiv, where he studied law.

“It’s hard for me to understand some of my friends already died,” Orudzhev said.

Regarding his team and teammates, past and present, Orudzhev said many have tried to help, but there is not much they can do except send money and protest in their own countries. Some of those former teammates include Russian nationals. Orudzhev himself played on a Russian team last season. He said he never had any issues with his former Russian teammates, nor any Russian player before the invasion.

“Basically we were all good friends,” he said.

Those pro gaming days seem distant, Orudzhev said, as he has joined the civil guard, though has not yet taken up arms.

“If war comes [to Kostopil] and we don’t have a choice, that’s when I am going to defend my family and safety,” he said.

Mikhail Klimentov contributed reporting for this story.

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