With the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CSGO) Major just days away, the community is once again up in arms over an issue related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This time, it is player stickers and the letter "Z" — used as a pro-Russia symbol in the context of the war — that has caused a uproar, with some potentially serious but seemingly premature allegations being thrown around.
Twitter is currently aflame with people accusing Russian players of using the letter "Z" in their stickers for the PGL Antwerp Major, including new Cloud9 signings Dmitriy "sh1ro" Sokolov and Timofey "interz" Yakushin. "Avoid swastikas today maybe," asks one. "If you want to keep esports 'politics-free', how about avoiding a HUGE symbol of 'Russian liberation (but in fact of killings and terror)' that their propaganda has been forcing everywhere", suggests another.
It seems as though the players have been unfairly maligned once you dig just a little deeper. First up, the original creator of the stickers, known on Twitter as iPavel, has explained there was no malice behind the designs and that they “were made long before the things that are happening at the moment”. This would be logical, as Majors are planned months or years in advance, and the dialogue around the letter Z is relatively new.
Is Valve's guidance to blame?
As French agent Jérôme Coupez pointed out in the tweet below, the "Z" in the stickers is also the same "Z" that Valve put in their guidance for players when stickers were being created. With this in mind — and the fact the two players accused have also recently signed for NA org Cloud9 — it's way more likely this was a case of poor planning and foresight by Valve than young men sneakily trying to support an invasion.
For those who don’t know, the letter "Z" has become a symbol of support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with Russian soldiers daubing it on the side of their tanks and helmets, and athletes flashing it in support of their government. These acts have led to bans in both sport and esports, with a recent Dota 2 tournament seeing Virtus.pro player Ivan "Pure" Moskalenko and his squad disqualified after the player drew a Z on the minimap during a break.
The kerfuffle around the stickers also shows the ongoing challenges esports bodies, most of which of international nature, face in trying to navigate the situation as the war continues to rage on. Russian players are under incredible scrutiny, regardless of their position on the matter, and have faced a number of sanctions, including being barred from competing.
Eventually, the solution to this issue will likely be a cooling of tempers and lowering of pitchforks as people realize it is an awkward and unfortunate coincidence, and not a malicious act, but the conversation has highlighted how tricky the situation is. Due to nothing more than the place of their birth, and certainly not always due to their actions, Russian players are under increased and occasionally hysterical scrutiny which doesn't look to be ending anytime soon.