Cyberpropaganda: How Russia Exploits the Gaming Industry?

Written by Anton Khimiak, analyst HWAG/UCMC

The largest international Dota2 eSports tournament wrapped up on October 29, with Team Spirit emerging as the victors. While officially rooted in Serbia, the team is of Russian origin, marking their second win in this tournament—their previous triumph dating back to 2021. Interestingly, the results of the current competition were covered not only by e-sports media but also by odious characters of Russian agitprop. For example, Volodymyr Saldo, a collaborator and “governor” of the temporarily occupied districts of the Kherson region, highlighted this victory.

“Your teamwork, professionalism, and will for victory outpaced all competitors, confirming that the Russian e-sports school’s position is one of the best in the world” – Volodymyr Saldo.

Russian Federation’s attempts to use the game industry as a propaganda tool for the continuation of humanitarian expansion have been going on for many years. HWAG has previously delved into the rationale behind the aggression and imperialism depicted by the Russians in the Atomic Heart game, citing the use of Soviet and other propaganda imagery as a means of justification (watch the video here).

This time, we will take a closer look at the eSports arena through the prism of Russia’s attempts to influence the industry despite sanctions restrictions.

Video games as a tool of propaganda

E-sports have gained enormous popularity worldwide. The digital entertainment industry audience is growing every year, especially with the rise in popularity in Asia and Latin America. For example, the video game market in the world in 2022 was 217 billion dollars.

The total number of gamers in Ukraine, according to the estimates of the operations director of the Ukrainian eSports Association, in 2020 was more than 5 million – that is, a tenth of the country’s population. At the same time, in 2016, the Belarusian company Wargaming (developer of World of Tanks) stated that it evaluated the Ukrainian game market to have 14 million people. The Russian video game market varied from 30 to 74 million users.

Naturally, the ideologues of the Putin regime paid attention to the potential of eSports as a platform for spreading propaganda. The global reach of eSports and the massive base of players allow the Russian Federation to extend its narratives to a broad audience by sponsoring teams, organizing tournaments, and promoting Russian players.

To a large extent, Moscow’s use of eSports to enhance prestige is similar to classical sports. Significantly, the Russian Federation politicians perceive Russian clubs’ victories as media events worthy of maximum coverage.

Minecraft, World of Tanks, and Roblox are just a few examples of games that have become platforms for Russian agitprop. In Minecraft, Russian players recreated battles where the Russian Federation seized Ukrainian territory and regularly glorified the Russian army through patriotic Russian symbols. The Russian version of World of Tanks commemorated the defeat of Nazi Germany by recreating the Soviet tank parade in Moscow in 1945 in the best traditions of Russian “pobedobesiye” (a general description of the propaganda activities devoted to the appropriating victory in the Second World War).

The New York Times published a long-read article about this situation. Joseph Brown, an associate professor at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, was very aptly quoted: “It’s another piece of this whole puzzle of constant propaganda, all the time. In every single medium they can get to you with, they will.”

Video games have a unique ability to influence public opinion. Thanks to its interactive nature, developers can create alternate realities that allow them to manipulate facts however they want.

In one way or another, the Kremlin wants to take an example from China, which is implementing a policy on developing computer games and e-sports at the state level. For illustration, at a meeting of the supervisory board of the “autonomous non-commercial organization” “Russia – the country of opportunities” (established by the president of the Russian Federation himself), Vladimir Putin said: “Video games should be at the intersection of art and education.”

“The game should help a person develop, help him find himself. It should help educate a person within the framework of universal human values and the framework of patriotism, in the good sense of the word,” Vladimir Putin said.

It is easy to guess that somewhere between these “universal values” and “proper patriotism,” the imperialist-militant rhetoric of the Russian regime will be able to sneak in. However, even if Moscow does not interfere in the computer industry’s activities, the Russian Federation’s gaming community will indirectly continue to spread certain propaganda narratives.

At the same time, the Kremlin is interested in expanding its influence in the cyber sphere within the country and spreading propaganda to foreign audiences. It is worth noting that this is a hazardous tool because, with its help, messages released from “above” reach population groups that are usually not consumers of conventional propaganda sources.

Putin promised developers to raise the issue of releasing Russian video games to the BRICS markets. – Russia Today

Sports from the entertainment industry

It is essential to understand that eSports has several vital characteristics distinguishing it from classic sports. One of the most important is that each video game has its own specific owner in the form of a development company with the exclusive right to influence the tournaments derived from the games. The second significant difference is the need for more generally accepted regulation and official recognition in all countries.

As a result, according to the famous e-sports commentator Vitalii “V1lat” Volochai: “In many countries of the world, e-sports is recognized as an official sport, there are federations, official competitions… The problem is that e-sports is a field of entertainment. It is called a sport because of the closest proximity to the competitive element.” Therefore, the lack of regulation and dependence on companies for which video games are a business greatly complicates the ways of countering Russian propaganda in eSports.

Many Russian clubs are closely associated with businesses willing to sponsor them due to their large audience reach. For example, the champions of the largest Dota2 tournament, with which we started this material, Team Spirit, are sponsored by Red Bull and the Singaporean chair manufacturer SecretLab.

Alisher Usmanov (Putin’s oligarch) invested 100 million dollars in Virtus Pro.

The Virtus.Pro team, which until recently was owned by VK (former, has among its partners not only the Russian Yandex.eda (Russian analog of UberEats) but also the Italian sportswear manufacturer Kappa. This organization was one of the few well-known Russian groups whose media presence was significantly limited after the full-scale invasion. However, most restrictions have been lifted after the recent “sale” to Armenian owners.

The language of the game

An important attribute of the 1990s – the “zero” years in Ukraine- was Internet cafes that allowed people to play games without their own PCs. At the same time, many small and not so tournaments appeared in such competitive games as the shooter Counter-Strike and MOBA-game DotA/Dota2. According to Volochai, the specifics of how multiplayer games worked at that time played a crucial role:

“Historically, a large part of the Ukrainian Internet traffic was connected to the global network through large data servers in Moscow. As a result, Western publishers combined us with Russia into one technical region. It was unprofitable for game developers to enter the Ukrainian market and do Ukrainian localization because Ukrainians bought their product anyway.”

In large tournaments, communication between team members plays a critical role. Therefore, teams from the post-Soviet space often have to play while communicating in Russian – for many players, this is a matter of convenience and habit.

The e-sports community, which developed more actively in Ukraine than in the Russian Federation, remained in the cultural space of Moscow, which determined its further development. The connection of the Ukrainian and Russian Internet networks, the combination of the publishers of most of the post-Soviet countries into one region, and the larger market of computer games in Russia greatly influenced the fact that the community of players remained Russian-speaking and very closely connected.

Friendship and war

One of the main narratives exploited by Russia in eSports was and remained the concept of “blurring borders.” It is based on the Chthonic myth of “fraternal nations” and the media examples of successful teams, where teams of Russian and Ukrainian players play side by side and win, confirm it well. Ultimately, this thesis applies to other post-Soviet countries that also fall into this trap.

The Team Spirit team, consisting of Russian and Ukrainian e-sportsmen, won the main Dota2 tournament for the second time – The International.

At the same time, players from the Russian Federation played and continue to play in one of the most famous Ukrainian clubs, NaVi (Natus Vincere), which was a multiple champion in various disciplines even after a full-scale invasion. A notable story in this situation was the exclusion of the captain of one of the teams. Russian player Kyril “BoombI4” Mykhaylov was kicked due to the “reputational risks” associated with his wife, who posed against the background of Russian military equipment.

Less successful, but also founded in Ukraine, the HellRaisers team, which for a long time consisted of people from the Russian Federation (as of now, the organization has ceased operations), also stood out. All this very actively plays into the hands of Russian narratives about “fraternal nations” and attempts to divide Ukrainian society into “adequate” and Nazis.

The reaction of the game industry

The gaming industry has faced criticism from Ukrainian society for its slow response to extremist content (those that call for violence against specific groups of people) and propaganda on its platforms. While some companies, such as Microsoft and Riot Games, have taken steps to address the problem by suspending sales in Russia or restricting eSports activities in the country, many others have hesitated to take action.

Some companies not only restricted access to their products on the territory of the Russian Federation but extended this ban to neighboring countries. For example, Sony closed access to its PlayStation store in Kazakhstan because citizens of the aggressor country could open accounts in local banks and thus bypass the sanction.

The situation with the company Valve, which owns the games Counter-Strike and Dota2, became the most telling. The only eSports organisation against which measures were taken is Virtus Pro. However, minor manipulations with the right of ownership still allowed the Russians to resume performances under their flag. This is a vivid example of how business interests dominate the ethical component.

In addition, the Russian Federation stopped holding tournaments because they were deprived of licenses for the commercial use of the software product. However, the Russians have found a way to avoid lawsuits and sanctions against e-athletes participating in the competition. The state directly supports some of these tournaments.

The Russians can’t get the rights to hold tournaments with СS2 and Dota 2 and invented a scheme to legitimize the theft.

For example, the president of the Russian Federation described the tournament with the pompous name “Future Games” as follows: “There is no doubt that the upcoming tournament will receive a response from millions of people.” Also, the competition organizers announced that they hope this year’s Dota2 champions, Team Spirit, will participate in the events.

As for Ukraine’s reaction, it remains sluggish. There is a Federation of eSports games in Ukraine, but since eSports in our country currently have an unregulated legislative status, its status needs to be sufficiently influential.

Nevertheless, the Ukrainian Federation keeps a ban list of professional players affected by unfair play or cooperation with Russian clubs. Listing reduces the desire of national clubs to work with such e-athletes. However, this is often far from a decisive factor. For example, the NaVi club accepted the player Igor “w0nderful” Zhdanov, who is on this list.

Moreover, in October 2021, the Federation congratulated the same Team Spirit with victory at The International (their composition has not changed since then), and the club was based in the Russian Federation. Therefore, the state needs to start regulating this area and try to contact development companies to limit Russians’ access to this propaganda tool.

Are you winning, son?

Despite all the differences from classical sports, e-sports remains a potent tool for spreading Russian influence on the international player community.

The departure from the Russian environment in domestic e-sports began after 2014 and intensified after February 24, 2022, but is still not enough to call the Ukrainian e-community resistant to Russian influences. This applies even more to the international community of players and fans.

Ukraine needs to create a state policy on this issue because it is not only a large media market but also, as some Ukrainian clubs like to say, “reputational losses” for the state. Before the Great War, Kyiv was a popular place for holding world championships, but Ukrainian companies could not independently restore their status.

The Ministry of Youth and Sports of Ukraine should be interested in such activities because this is a layer of investments that can be attractive and indirectly affect interest in “classic” sports.