EA, CD Projekt Red and ESL: Ukraine invasion prompts outcry, action from games industry

The timing has been professionally unlucky, to say the least. Recently, “Puzzles for Clef,” the 2D puzzle adventure game Molodkin and his partner, Tay Kuznetsova, are working on, released a demo as part of a festival on the game distribution platform Steam. This led to an influx of attention and engagement in the team’s Discord server, which Molodkin and his partner moderate. He doesn’t proactively mention the invasion, but when people ask, he’s frank about it.

“It’s pretty much impossible to work at all,” said Molodkin, who spends most of his waking hours monitoring news about the war via Telegram, a popular social platform. “The moment you try concentrating on something not related to war, your mind just keeps trailing off and your thoughts get back to it. More than half an hour or work is just impossible.”

Molodkin keeps his family — his mother, grandmother and partner, Kuznetsova — in the hallway; everyone stays away from rooms with windows. They didn’t leave the country because the difficulties around finding accommodation for a family of four were too daunting. They’re not in a shelter because his grandmother has difficulty with mobility. He and his partner take shifts sleeping, so that someone’s awake in case of an air raid siren.

In the days since Russia’s invasion began, there’s been an outpouring of support for Ukrainian citizens from across the video game industry. Some studios, like Kyiv-based STALKER series developer GSC Game World, have been directly impacted. After initially calling for fans and game developers to provide Ukrainian armed forces with financial support, GSC has suspended development entirely to focus on keeping employees safe.

“We are striving to help our employees and their families to survive,” reads text in a video GSC posted to its YouTube channel this week. “The game development shifted to the sidelines. But we will definitely continue. After the victory.”

Metro series creator 4A Games, which also has a studio located in Kyiv, has made similar calls for support while its parent company, Embracer Group, has donated $1 million to humanitarian aid to support Ukrainians impacted by the invasion. Numerous other Ukrainian developers, including Frogwares and Vostok Games, have issued statements in support of Ukraine’s independence.

The video game publisher Ubisoft, which owns a host of studios around the world, began to advance salaries to its employees in Ukraine in February in anticipation of economic disruption. It also implemented other precautionary measures, such as making housing options available for its Ukrainian employees in neighboring countries, the company wrote in a statement on its site. On March 1, the company donated approximately $221,000 to the Ukrainian Red Cross and Save the Children.

Studios outside Ukraine have also pitched in; CD Projekt Red, the Polish powerhouse behind “The Witcher” and “Cyberpunk 2077,” has pledged 1 million Polish zlotych (roughly $230,000) to humanitarian aid. People Can Fly and 11 Bit Studios — two other Polish companies, the latter of which’s best-known game, “This War of Mine,” is about the civilian experience of war — have similarly promised large donations to humanitarian aid groups and the Ukrainian Red Cross.

Numerous other companies and industry figures have spoken out in support of Ukraine, including indie publisher Raw Fury and Bungie CEO Pete Parsons. In addition, Necrosoft Games director Brandon Sheffield has spent the week assembling an indie game bundle whose proceeds will be split 50-50 between two Ukrainian aid-related charities. The bundle doesn’t launch until Friday, but Sheffield says it already contains more than 700 games.

The Ukrainian government has urged video game companies to cut off the Russian market. On Thursday, CD Projekt Red announced they would do just that, pausing sales of their games in Russia and Belarus.

On Wednesday, EA Sports, which publishes video games in the NHL and FIFA franchises, announced that it would remove club and national teams associated with Russia from its games, following the lead set by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and FIFA governing bodies. The IIHF also suspended Belarusian teams from play; those teams would be removed from “NHL 22” as well.

The esports world, for its part, moved in lockstep with its counterparts in traditional sports. Since the invasion began, two tournament organizers announced they would bar Russian teams from participating in their events, and canceled or paused events in the CIS region, which includes Russia and Ukraine.

The teams most impacted by these decisions are Gambit Esports and Virtus.pro. Gambit is owned by the telecommunications company Mobile TeleSystems, whose largest shareholder is a company headed by the Russian billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov. On Feb. 24, Yevtushenkov was present at a Kremlin meeting between Putin and representatives of Russian big business. Virtus.pro shares a connection with the Russian insurance firm SOGAZ, which fell under European Union sanctions following the invasion.

“We recognize that players are not complicit with this situation, and we do not think it is in the spirit of esports to impose sanctions on individual players,” reads the statement from ESL Gaming, which imposed a ban on teams with “apparent ties” to the Russian government. “The Virtus.pro and Gambit players are therefore welcome to compete under a neutral name, without representing their country, organization or their teams’ sponsors on their clothing or otherwise.”

For now, Molodkin and his partner, the Ukrainian game developers working on “Puzzles for Clef,” intend to stay in Kyiv. Still, he admitted he had entertained the possibility of moving to Poland or Portugal if the invasion ended with Ukraine’s integration into Russia.

“We hope that the war ends soon, and that we will win so we won’t have to leave,” he said. “We were never some kind of super patriots for our country, but we still love it. We never intended to leave this place. All our families, relatives and friends are here, and we just don’t want to leave.”

It hasn’t escaped Molodkin that “Puzzles for Clef,” the game he started to help players navigate one crisis — the covid-19 pandemic — is now newly relevant in a totally different crisis.

“When we started this project, the pandemic was very active and people were just isolated a lot. So we wanted to create some really cozy experience,” Molodkin said. “Even though it’s not the pandemic that’s the hot topic at the moment, [our game] will still help people with coping after the wartime[.] We really hope that having this peaceful game will help people with soothing their thoughts and wounds.”

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