After Ukraine was invaded by the Russian Army earlier this year, everything changed for the people there, including for companies like WePlay who work in gaming and esports. Here is how the people at WePlay dealt with war at home during 2022.
On February 24, the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. This marked a huge escalation in the Russo-Ukranian war, which started in 2014. The invasion cost many lives, it affected even more, and it continues to still. Every sector of Ukrainian life has been upended and massively hampered, and of course gaming and esport are not excluded from that, as we have reported on before.
In late September, we talked to the people of WePlay Esports, an Esports organization from Kyiv, Ukraine. We spoke with General Producer and Chief Visionary Officer Maksym Bilonogov, as well as other members of staff, about how the war at home affected their lives, their business, and how they learned to adapt and develop in these turbulent times.
“The first days were really crazy”
When the invasion started, the WePlay staff was trapped in a sort of limbo. Bilogonov himself, and a few other members of staff, happened to be out of the country on the day of the invasion. They were working on a project in Dubai, leaving just hours before the attacks began. But some of the crew didn’t leave the country, due to the escalating situation and, in some cases for personal reasons. The people at home were under attack, unsure how to deal with the situation.
Members of the WePlay staff talked to us about their experiences with the invasion. Anastasiia Kartashova, Content Manager at WePlay Holding, said: “I can describe [this time] using only one word — pain.” Many of the staff members we talked with echoed this, or similar sentiments. Translator Yaroslava Yakovenko tried to describe the insecurity and the stress of the situation: “My first emotion was disbelief. It couldn’t be happening […] Today, being Ukrainian hurts. It hurts no matter where you are.”
How did the organisation deal with the confusion and the crisis? The first priority was to make sure that everyone was safe. That wasn’t always easy, as Bilogonov explains:
“In the first days it was like ‘who is alive?’, to double check. We lost one of our employees for a couple of days and we tried to find him in FB – calling all of our friends, using Instagram, trying to find him. […] Some people tried to act like nothing was going on, tried to keep doing the job, then we understood; we should think about how we save the people“
Bilogonov emphasizes, that “the first days were really crazy, everyone trying to understand what to do.” Some members of the team went to the territorial defence, while others wrestled with the question of whether to stay or to leave. Thankfully though, everyone from the team is alive and well, as Bilogonov confirmed in our interview.
While everyone was occupied with “other, higher-priority tasks” at first, as social media lead Alexander Park put it, the future of the company quickly became a matter of concern as well. How could WePlay adapt and manage to grow, despite the immense difficulties and without putting their staff at risk? They have found multiple ways to make it work.
Listen to the podcast version of this article for the full interview with Maksym:
“We decided to rush to the US market”
WePlay hosts the Ukrainian broadcasts for tournaments like the BLAST Premier and The International Regional Qualifiers, while also hosting their own tournaments for various games. Continuing to broadcast live and to produce content while being attacked is an unimaginable undertaking. The ensuing process was appropriately absurd, as Bilogonov explained to us:
“[In Ukraine], lots of employees went to their shelter, did work, went home, uploaded videos, uploaded edits, and then went back to the shelter. The PR staff worked from shelters without internet, wrote articles, left the shelter to upload and then returned – all this to deliver content.”
With this method, WePlay has managed to keep their broadcasts in Ukraine running and the staff in the homeland employed.
Early on during this period of aggression, the staff was split in two, with 19 people stuck in Dubai, unsure on what to do next. Eventually, the decision was made to broaden their scope and move to the US. There, Bilogonov and his team would try to establish WePlay on the market and try to help his colleagues and the humanitarian effort back in the homeland.
“We decided to try and help our country and our company and rush the US market. We [brought] all people [and equipment] from Dubai to LA. We started thinking about how we can generate revenue here, in the US market, and how we can help the country from outside as much as we can.”
And that plan worked out. WePlay has managed to successfully launch multiple new projects in 2022. This includes the production partnership with Enthusiast Gaming for the NFL Tuesday Night Gaming, a series of livestream shows launched by NFL and Enthusiast Gaming featuring current and former NFL players playing games with content creators like Ninja.
While this strategy was successful for WePlay, the dark cloud of what’s happening in Ukraine is still hanging over everyone. The future is uncertain, and Ukrainians everywhere are fighting for freedom every day, as Bilogonov reminded us of at the end of our interview:
“We’re all waiting for the war to finish, it’s the most important thing that everyone wishes. We’re trying to work as hard as we can to save the company and the country at the same time - maybe that’s big words, but that’s how it is. Just remember this, and keep supporting us as hard as you can – we will definitely win.”
Special thanks go out to everyone at WePlay who talked to us. I also want to thank Evan Williams and Helen Stanes for playing key roles in realizing this project. If you want to support the Ukrainian humanitarian effort, here are some links where you can donate to: