Russian esports team Virtus.pro says its suspension from ESL competition, announced earlier this week (opens in new tab) in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, is "a prime example of 'the cancel culture'." It won't prevent its players from competing under a neutral name, however, a compromise allowed by ESL similar to the approach the International Olympic Committee took for Russia when it was discovered in 2015 that the country ran a state-sponsored doping program for athletes.
ESL, one of the world's largest and best-known esports organizers, announced on March 2 that it will not allow "organizations with apparent ties to the Russian government, including individuals or organizations under alleged or confirmed EU sanctions related to the [Ukrainian] conflict" to compete in its events. Two Russian esports teams were initially targeted for sanctions: Virtus.pro and Gambit.
Virtus.pro has now issued a statement in response to the ESL action, and it is clearly not pleased. "There are no rational reasons to suspend us from playing in tournaments, apart from prejudice and pressure from the outside," the team said in a statement released today. "It happened in Dubai with a WePlay event, and it keeps on happening."
Addressing ESL Pro League statement on https://t.co/RghpmPyTHr. pic.twitter.com/sfNliB4rGUMarch 4, 2022
The Dubai WePlay event in question is the Gamers Galaxy: Dota 2 Invitational Series Dubai, which reportedly asked Virtus.pro to play without its tag, jersey, and "affiliation to any particular club or country." In a statement released on March 1, one day before the tournament began, Virtus.pro refused the offer (opens in new tab), saying it would "not fall for this intimidation." According to a Yahoo! News (opens in new tab) report, the team was subsequently disqualified.
WePlay is not affiliated with ESL, but it appears that the line it drew—and its willingness to stand by it—made an impression on Virtus.pro management. The team derided the ESL suspension as "a prime example of 'the cancel culture'" in its most recent statement, but also said that it will not forbid its players from taking part in competition in non-Virtus colors if they want to.
"They spend lots of time to become pro players, and unlike some tournament operators, we are not ready to invalidate someone else’s efforts," the team said. "Our players will always be 'The Bears.' If they decide to play at the tournament, we will support their decision."
Virtus.pro is a significant presence on the global esports scene, having won a record five Dota 2 Majors, as well as the EMS One Katowice 2014 CS:GO Major. Interestingly, another big Russian esports outfit—Team Spirit, which won the 2021 International (opens in new tab)—took a very different approach to the Invitational Series Dubai by wearing "Peace" jerseys during its first playoff game "in order to call for a peaceful end to the war." It also thanked tournament organizers for their support of the initiative.
pic.twitter.com/pLBC6cwrUkMarch 4, 2022
Reactions to the two teams' statements could not be more different. Team Spirit—which, to be clear, has not been sanctioned by ESL because it's not taking part in the Pro League season 15—was widely lauded for its stance, while Virtus.pro faced a concerted backlash.
Disgusting to imply what's going on has anything to do with "cancel culture".Let me be clear in case anyone didn't understand my recent tweets on the topic: The https://t.co/FJE9prihNC organization should absolutely be banned from every esports competition. https://t.co/N8gsDmomvHMarch 4, 2022
Virtus Pro actually blaming “cancel culture” for the reason ESL won’t allow their Russian based Org to compete during a time where Russia has waged war holy crap no you’re literally cancelling yourselves pic.twitter.com/xgl4P5fcUDMarch 4, 2022
seriously? pic.twitter.com/iSXOCUSxPIMarch 4, 2022
Gambit, the other Russian team suspended by ESL, has not yet commented on the situation. I've reached out to the team for more information and will update if I receive a reply.
Update: The Virtus.pro team will compete in ESL Pro League Season 15 under the name of "The Outsiders." The team name is now listed in the ESL Pro League schedule (opens in new tab) with a generic CS:GO logo and no indication of its qualification history. ESL said it is still in discussion with Gambit about the participation of its players.
We confirm that VP players will compete under the name "Outsiders" throughout the competition. Regarding Gambit players, we are still in discussion and will update once concluded.March 9, 2022