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How CEO Yevhen Zolotarov charts a course for NAVI through war – “It’s surreal that this happens in the 21st century.”

We reached out to Natus Vincere's CEO Yevhan Zolotarov to talk about his organisation's struggles and challenges amidst the War in Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine has been raging on for a month now with no sign of ending any time soon. Amidst the countless tragedies that are occuring there every day, esports is of course not exempt from the situation.


Esports in times of war

As teams suspend activities or relocate to not-affected areas others decide to stay in order to support their employees and country. Ukrainian esports organisation Natus Vincere has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Russian invasion and its players and staff are now facing the anything but normal situation of keeping a team running as war is knocking on their front door.

It’s surreal that this happens in the 21st century.

“It’s surreal that this happens in the 21st century, when we have metaverses, artificial intelligences and more.” NAVIs CEO Yevhen “HarisPilton” Zolotarov tells us from Na`Vi’s temporary offices. Surreal is perhaps the only way to describe his personal experience at the outbreak of war.

“Everything started like 500 meters from my house for me. I live near Kyiv and there is an airport, which the Russians wanted to use, (Editor’s note: Hostomel Airfield) so I saw airplanes and helicopters going right past my house. As I have a 9-month-old, we decided to leave the very next day in the morning. I did not have a choice and I do not know what happened to my house.”

Prior to the war Natus Vincere operated out of the capital Kyiv, but since the invasion the majority of the staff have relocated to the comparative safety of Western Ukraine. Members of their legal and finance team even moved to Cyprus as safety precaution a couple days before the actual invasion as rumours of the Russian attack mounted. However several are still in the beleagured capital.


“We are able to continue. We are relatively safe.”

This has allowed NAVI to continue its operations even as the Russian army continues shelling and bombing Ukrainian cities. But even from the relative safety of Western Ukraine the war dominates the daily routine.

“It is difficult to conduct sponsorship obligations. Not just technically.” After a sigh Zolotarov continues: “It’s impossible to give some promotional messages when things like these happen.”

But Natus Vincere is able to keep up their work due to the support of many of their partner brands in the West. “Everyone has supported us and they are okay with not doing some obligations for a while. Some even offered pre-payments and more, but in general, financial-wise we are doing fine.”

Even so their daily operations are far from the pre-war normality. Especially on social media the war overshadows all.

How long Natus Vincere will be able to keep it up in the current situation is difficult to say for Zolotarov. Not so much on the raw financial challenges as he explains:

“I know that we are able to work online and pay salaries to our staff and players. We kept all our employees, including the ones that joined the Ukrainian Army, but nobody knows what happens next.”

The problem is more in the uncertainty regarding the ability of their players to keep competing. Some rosters, like the CS:GO team, are abroad and can participate in tournaments that are still happening, but others like the Dota 2 team do not even have a competition to play in right now as Valve has paused the Dota Pro Circuit in Eastern Europe.


Helping Ukraine

Regardless of the uncertainties Natus Vincere are doing their best to support not only their employees, but also the Ukrainian army and humanitarian aid organisations.

Some of their workers are also actively serving in the Ukrainian army and the esports team is doing their best by organizing crowdfunding and using their cars from the sponsorships for humanitarian missions among other support they can offer.


Mending rifts as war tears the Eastern European region apart

As one of the premier esports teams in Eastern Europe, NAVI also has Russian players in their ranks across many games. Most famous among them perhaps their mixed Ukrainian/Russian squad in CS:GO, which is ranked as the world’s best at the moment.

A situation that seems ripe for conflict, but for many of the Russian players on Na`Vi the events are just as devastating. They have played for years on Na`Vi, some also live in Ukraine and are experiencing their own country shelling them.

What matters in the end for the team is the political opinion of each player and not their passport. More worrying for him is the situation of his players currently in Russia. Their hands are effectively tied as new laws have gone into effect cracking down on information and criticism of the war. So neither they or their players can say anything.

The changes to Russia have also massively impacted the Eastern European esport scene in its entirety. For Zolotarov Russian esports is in huge trouble as many of their top teams such as Virtus.Pro or Gambit have ties to the Russian government. As sanctions continue to mount against Russia and Belarus, the outlook is bleak:

I feel like there is no more CIS as a region. Eastern Europe may continue to exist, but much more limited.

Even privately-owned organisations are affected and will have to relocate. An assessment seemingly confirmed by Team Spirit’s relocation on Friday.

In the end he believes that Russian players across all disciplines will have to at least change their country of residence to continue their careers.


Western support is much appreciated

Esports is an industry is quite limited in its reach and influence on the war in Ukraine. Nevertheless Zolotarov has been very grateful for the support they have received across the scene. These include monetary, but also assistance in production and more.

While these little things might not be the sweeping changes that can profoundly change the situation in Ukraine, Zolotarov is happy to receive the outpour of support. For the fans worldwide he has a simple message:

“I have no forecast on when it ends, but I believe everything will be fine. So I hope we will become stronger and please keep cheering for NAVI.”

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Image Credits: Natus Vincere, ESL/Helena Kristiansson
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