Opinion: Riot Put Profit Over People In Continuing The VALORANT Champions Tour
As Europe and the world prepares for what is increasingly looking like a long, deadly, and attritional war in Ukraine; western companies, organisations, and institutions have been near-unanimous in condemning Russia's invasion and cutting ties. Whether that be ongoing business interests or planned events, until - at the very least - Putin's armies turn back, the country is persona non grata.
That bellicose reaction has extended to gaming, with EA halting sales of popular franchises such as FIFA 22 and NBA 22, alongside removing Russian club and national teams worldwide. Polish gaming giant, CD Projekt RED, responsible for The Witcher series and Cyberpunk 2077, has also halted sales to Russia and Belarus, regions that amounted to almost 10% of their sales last year. Microsoft and Sony have suspended all operations in Russia.
Esports has taken varying stances, BLAST banned Russian-based organisations, namely Virtus.pro and Gambit, while ESL did likewise but offered those teams and their Russian-based players the opportunity to play but with nothing to identify their contracted teams, country, or other identifiers.
Virtus.pro's roster has taken their place at the ESL Pro League Season 15, playing under the banner of 'Outsiders'.
Such decisions are not easy, nor do they provide perfect solutions, but at the very least they reflect the gravity of the situation. Something that Riot Games has failed to do in the days and weeks following the invasion.
The Outbreak Of War
News of Russia's invasion broke the peace on February 24, one day before VALORANT EMEA Week 3 was to commence. Later that night, Riot announced that the tournament would be postponed for a week.
Riot's other major esport, League of Legends, and specifically the League of Legends European Championship and the League of Legends Continental League were also affected, with the former postponed a week, while the latter has not played games since February 20.
But it was VALORANT that was going to provide the biggest challenges to Riot, with its 13 Russians, one Belarusian, and two Ukrainians, one of whom, Kirill "ANGE1" Karasiow of FunPlus Phoenix, lives in Kyiv and would soon be unable to leave the country with the Ukrainian government banning men age 18 to 60 from leaving the country. The fact that five of the thirteen Russians make up Gambit, one of the game's best teams, further complicates matters in a way it perhaps shouldn't.
What followed was what can only be described as a "wait and see" approach to the unfolding events that put the tournament first, sporting integrity second, and ANGE1 - the victim in this - a distant afterthought.
Because, let's be clear - to continue VCT EMEA, in its current guise, which sources close to the discussion claim Riot want to do and with as little adjustment as possible - is a scandal and one which they will live to regret.
No one wants to see players penalised for their government's actions, which they very likely don't support, and almost certainly have no control over, but leadership is needed in times of crisis and difficult decisions have to be made.
Because banning Russian and Belarusian players from competing, while those countries are in the process of invading an independent sovereign nation, is not purely a question of politics, but also of upholding sporting integrity.
It is currently impossible for ANGE1 to compete, and that is a situation that is unlikely to change in the near future. A player who, for what it's worth, led his team to a perfect start in their 2022 VCT campaign. And while ANGE1 cannot compete, Russians and Belarusians should not either, no matter how many - or how good - they are.
It was a point put forcibly by the International Olympics Committee (IOC) when they implored all sporting bodies to ban Russian/Belarusian athletes for the foreseeable future.
"While athletes from Russia and Belarus would be able to continue to participate in sports events, many athletes from Ukraine are prevented from doing so because of the attack on their country," said the IOC on February 28.
"In order to protect the integrity of global sports competitions," the IOC recommends "that International Sports Federations and sports event organisers not invite or allow the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials in international competitions."
If such action can't be taken for "organisational or legal" reasons, the IOC recommends that "Russian or Belarusian nationals, be it as individuals or teams, should be accepted only as neutral athletes or neutral teams."
Currently, Riot Games has announced neither action, though they have given themselves yet another week, with the first round of games played after the postponement featuring only teams without Russian, Belarusian, or Ukrainian-based players competing.
For what it's worth, ESL banning Virtus.pro but allowing them to play as a neutral team too fails to take into consideration the gravity of the situation.
Riot Games Has Failed VALORANT And The Competition
Riot Games has a duty of care to the competition and its competitors. Sources privy to conversations between teams and organisers described Riot Games as being both "helpful" and "great". But, after speaking to many involved it has become clear that the overarching objective, for almost everyone, is getting the show back on the road as soon as possible.
You would expect nothing less from players, they are competitors after all, and this is a view shared by the vast majority of VALORANT esports fans.
But let's be frank, is the show worth the cost? The mental gymnastics involved to block ANGE1 out of mind? To accept that one of our players can't play because he risks being drafted into a war characterised by increasing brutality and indiscriminate bombing, and continue on like nothing has happened?
When games did return last weekend, the broadcast opened with a short statement from Daniel Ringland, Head of VALORANT Esports EMEA, that reiterated Riot's continued support for the International Medical Corps and that teams and staff had been reached out to in recent weeks... and that was it.
Business as usual, just as it is for Riot Games in Russia, where, unlike other publishers like EA, CD Projekt RED, and Ubisoft, among many other businesses and organisations, have stopped their operations in the country, not only in solidarity with Ukrainians but to inflict as much economic damage as possible on Putin's regime, in the process hindering its ability to continue on with this war.
For a company so adored for its creativity, Riot Games has gone with the path of least resistance. Couldn't that creativity be used to find another solution? Perhaps a more difficult one, but in the process accept that this is a momentous crisis that isn't going to go away? Because us losing the opportunity to see Gambit's talented VALORANT players doing their thing on the biggest stages is a small price to pay for doing right in the most dire of circumstances.
The ramifications for doing nothing now are huge, sanctions and travel bans threaten to derail the competition no matter how Riot Games choose to proceed in the immediate future. The competition will have asterisks either way, but one way pretends a brutal war - that threatens to envelop the very people who are competing - is not happening, and the other accepts it and does everything possible to make right a wrong. Riot Games need to be the adults in the room here, and right now they're letting VALORANT and the global community down.
Riot Games could not be reached for comment.