WePlay Esports, a tournament organizer and production company, was one of countless businesses impacted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Since the escalation of the Russia-Ukraine war, WePlay has gone through large-scale transformations to continue operations.
WePlay’s chief visionary officer and general producer Maksym Bilonogov spoke with Upcomer in an exclusive interview about keeping their work uninterrupted during a time of turbulence and hardship for the company and its employees.
Can you briefly describe WePlay’s operations in, and relationship to, Kyiv and Ukraine prior to the Russian invasion?
WePlay Holding is an esports media group of Ukrainian origin, founded by Ukrainians Oleg Krot and Yura Lazebnikov. One of our two headquarters is located in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, and the second one in Los Angeles, USA.
In 2021, the WePlay team held WePlay AniMajor, the first anime-themed DPC (Dota Pro Circuit) Major, shortlisted for the Sports Emmy Awards. The same year, together with leading esports organizations, we launched the WePlay Academy League, a series of CS:GO (Counter-Strike: Global Offensive) tournaments for beginner esports players. I can go on listing our projects for a long time: WePlay! Bukovel Minor 2020, WeSave! Charity Play, WePlay Ultimate Fighting League Season 1, etc.
Are the WePlay facilities in Kyiv intact/undamaged to your knowledge?
Yes, currently both the WePlay Holding office in Kyiv and the WePlay Esports Arena Kyiv are intact. Even though the left bank of the capital, where our main office in Ukraine is located, regularly comes under fire, the premises and equipment were not damaged. Now, we maintain round-the-clock security at each location to keep things in order.
How have WePlay operations changed with the ongoing conflict? What was the transition like?
To be honest, we were not ready for the start of a full-scale war. The war in the east of Ukraine has been going on for several years already — our team could not even imagine that it would spread so quickly and suddenly to the entire country. Basically, it means that the transition to a new work format was dramatic and completely unplanned.
Since February 24, the entire WePlay team in Ukraine has switched to a remote work format. Here, we should thank the COVID-19 pandemic for teaching us how to interact with each other online. We also opened a temporary office in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in the west of Ukraine, for those who have had to evacuate there. In the early days, not all employees were able to come online. Those who had such an opportunity would help their colleagues, thanks to which the work of the company did not stop for a day.
The Los Angeles office has never stopped working; it operates as usual.
One of the first steps we took was to terminate all partnerships and agreements with companies from the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus. We want to avoid having anything in common with the aggressor country.
Shortly after, WePlay Esports launched its first broadcasts of esports events in Ukrainian — the first such project was the BLAST Premier 2022 Spring Showdown, and soon after that, the BLAST Premier 2022 Spring Final. The team was able to hold the WePlay Academy League Season 4 online. There are also plans for new projects.
There is also a downside. Like many, we’ve suffered losses and had to freeze several projects because of the war. I can’t say exactly how many there were, but the numbers are huge.
Did WePlay ever consider putting operations on pause? What led to the company’s decision to continue with the status quo?
We have never thought about suspending the work of the company, even for a while. From February 24 until today, our government keeps asking businesses of all sizes to continue their activities as long as martial law allows. This is necessary to maintain the country’s economy — it’s one more front, the economic one. I even know numerous stories about Ukrainian brands continuing to work under occupation, under daily shelling, producing and selling products for the benefit of Ukraine.
At the outbreak of the war, we had a number of projects and partnerships that we couldn’t stop, not so much because of legal obligations, but simply because we didn’t want to let our associates down. I am convinced that our partners would understand if we suspended work until the situation in Ukraine stabilized. But our team decided to go on.
Have WePlay employees been specifically impacted by the ongoing war?
The war has left its imprint on every Ukrainian. We need to understand and accept that before continuing the conversation. This imprint is unique for everyone: Someone has not been able to sleep normally since February, someone is afraid of loud noises, and some hear sirens and explosions that are not there. I can go on listing the consequences of ‘Russian peace’ for a very long time.
Unfortunately, I have to admit that this is not the end. We do not know what will happen next and how much this war will still affect us.
Some of my colleagues were forced to leave their homes. Some were forced to go abroad, and some people moved to the western regions of Ukraine, away from the line of fire. There are several cases when the homes of our employees were destroyed or badly damaged. A couple of employees’ families remain under occupation — for many reasons, it’s impossible to take them to safety.
Some employees are now actively involved in volunteer activities, including on weekdays. We do not limit them in any way — on the contrary, we introduced additional weekend quotas for volunteering. There are a couple of folks who joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Each of them still has a work position in WePlay. We are waiting for each of them to work after our victory.
What difficulties are there trying to operate as normal with so many of the staff affected by the invasion?
Now, as a few months passed, work has become easier. We managed to adjust to the new reality as much as we could and organize the processes so that the absence of any one employee does not impact their implementation.
The first weeks were much more difficult. As I mentioned earlier, some folks were unreachable. We did not make them return to work immediately because we understood that they needed time to recover from the shock, take hold of their lives, help loved ones, evacuate, etc. Our HR department regularly conducted team surveys to see if someone requires help. If we could fulfill their request on our own, we would do it. If not, our team helped establish a connection with those who could. After a short time, the team returned to work.
The main difficulty that exists today is the mental state of our people. Now it’s a rollercoaster, with swings from unprecedented faith to complete despair. It is important to understand and accept that this happens and will continue to happen. You just have to learn to deal with it. To help employees recover from the shock, the company holds regular online meetings with psychologists and psychotherapists. There are both groups and individual calls.
How have you at WePlay found the response of other esports tournament organizers (like ESL, BLAST) and organizations (like Team Spirit) to cut or reduce ties with Russia? Have they done enough or could they be doing more?
We learned about each individual case from different sources. Many companies and organizations, not only our partners, wrote us words of support both by mail and in private messages and offered help. To this day, we remember everyone and appreciate their concern. In some cases, we learned about the cutting of ties with Russia like everyone else: from social networks and media.
I will not be the one to judge whether someone did a lot, and someone did not do enough. Any help and support to Ukraine is a great contribution to our future victory.
How have the WePlay fundraisers and support efforts for Ukraine gone so far? What’s the best way for esports fans to support Ukraine?
WePlay conducts its support through the Techiia Foundation. Only the founders of the company, Oleg Krot and Yura Lazebnikov, donated more than UAH 100 million ($3+ million) to support the Ukrainian army. Furthermore, on our broadcasts, there are bank details for making donations to the fund and information on how one can help our country.
Moreover, tournament platform WePlay Compete has launched a series of online charity tournaments in Dota 2 and League of Legends — Play for Ukraine — on its website. All prize pools earned by the players are transferred to charities working with the army. In principle, participation in such a tournament can be a great help. Tournaments are held daily, and registration on the platform is free. All you need to participate is desire.
Also, remember about the support and donations. Here are some funds you can trust: Come Back Alive, United24, fundraising account of the National Bank of Ukraine, Techiia Foundation, Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation. Don’t hesitate to contribute even small amounts — any help is appreciated.
Do you have a message to the esports world about the ongoing invasion of Ukraine?
Please do not forget about Ukraine, and do not let the world forget about the war in Ukraine. It will soon be six months since our fellow citizens are dying for the ideals of a democratic society, freedom, and independence. Read about the horrors in Mariupol, about the battles at Azovstal. Learn about Kharkiv, which is shot from heavy artillery every day, about Kherson, Vinnytsia, Kremenchuk.
The cities and towns damaged by war can be listed for a long time. Not only the military but also civilians — men, women, and children die every day. Each of us wakes up and falls asleep with the thought that tomorrow might not come for us. We did not start this war, but we are ready to end it. Together, we are stronger. Stand with Ukraine; pray for Ukraine. Slava Ukraīni!
Coby Zucker is Upcomer's resident CS:GO writer. He's also played League of Legends at the collegiate level and is a frequent visitor in TFT Challenger Elo. He's a firm believer that Toronto should be the next big esports hub city.