By Iain Fenton
Roman Dvoryankin was appointed General Manager of esports organization Virtus.Pro last October 2016. Virtus.pro has teams and players in DoTA 2, CS:GO, Hearthstone, and League of Legends. EsportsINQ contributor Iain Fenton got the chance to interview him and listen in on his thoughts on Russia and its esports scene, and maybe take away some lessons we can apply here to the Philippines gaming scene.
Iain Fenton: How popular are esports with younger people in Russia?
Roman Dvoryankin: Esports have a heritage in Russia that goes back to the early 2000s where Russian teams were doing really well at the world cyber games. There were a lot of esports enthusiasts in Russia then but as those enthusiasts started getting older and getting jobs it went a little lower, but then I would say about five years ago it started to come back again. Right now I would say we are pretty much the same as any other country in the world apart from Korea where they’re crazy about Star Craft and many other games, so it’s nothing unique. Sometimes when I am walking around the street and wearing VP uniforms, there are lots of really young guys that come up to me and say ‘hey do you work for VP? and stuff like that but it’s pretty much the same when I’m traveling with the team to other countries.
IF: Do you think esports in Russia can become as popular as it is in say, South Korea?
RD: We still have football and ice-hockey which have and will always have a very strong presence. I think esports will find its significant niche in terms of entertainment but it will never overcome football or ice hockey which are the core Russian sports.
IF: Are esports regarded as real sports in Russia?
RD: Russia was one of the first countries in the world that recognized esports as a sporting discipline back in 2001, but then due to regulations, this decision by the Ministry of Sports was canceled. However, about 10 months ago, it was recognized as a sport again and what’s happening right now is there is like a National Federation of Esports that is doing a big job in terms of building their presence in the regions and working with municipal governments and local authorities. So they are doing a lot of things that you cannot see right now but will make it good in the future.
IF: Are the professional Russian gamers seen as athletes?
RD: Obviously now with esports growing so much, there is a wide discussion whether it was right to recognize esports as a sport, so the discussion is still around here. According to the Russian Esports Federation, there are three levels: firstly, you’re recognized as a sport, secondly, you have to show to the state that you are holding nationwide events and as soon as they see that they will give you the second stage Then, as soon as you get to this stage you can officially open schools, they can receive state support and all that kind of stuff. So, right now esports are already a sport but to go to the next level so that gamers can be treated as athletes, I think will take about another 12 months to comply with the next level of state regulations. They are never going to get to the third level – I think only about 10 or 11 disciplines in Russia have that third level.
IF: Compared to other nations how successful are Russia at esports, if there was an esports World Cup tomorrow how would Russia fair?
RD: When we are talking about professional clubs like VP obviously we are in the top 5 if we are talking about CSGO but we are a professional club and not only Russians are competing for the organization.
Now, if you are talking about Russian players, there was this event in China – the World Esports games. I would say because the industry is not so mature the whole concept of national teams is quite undeveloped. You have Danish teams, Brazilian, Polish but if you ask an executive at Liverpool football club ‘how do you feel if England is competitive at the World Cup’ actually, they couldn’t care because they are a professional club and it is pretty much the same here – we are a professional club and our duty is to make our fans happy all around the world rather than think about how the Russian team would fare in the World Cup.
IF: Are Russian athletes idolised by their fans like they are in South Korea?
RD: I wouldn’t say so, if we are talking about our polish squad yes, they are idolised in Poland. But in Russia, it is more complicated because we have so many iconic athletes in traditional sports – think Maria Sharapova – but when you see small countries who are not so competitive in traditional sports at an international level, yes, it can happen but because Russia’s tradition in classic sports are so big it is harder for something like that to happen.
IF: Government and business investment
RD: The press reported about 18 months ago about $100 million investment by one of the guys who is in the top 3 of the Forbes rankings in Russia, [Alisher] Usmanov. But he’s not the only one, many middle sized businesses’ and investment bankers are looking into esports and trying to set up their own teams. All I’m saying is guys are investing in amateur teams and then they’re selling the squad for good money so it’s moving ahead. So that investment kind of opened the eyes of many people. And then you see the sponsorship, so companies and internet service providers are coming in and the big sponsors are coming in as well so you will soon see the big sponsorship announcements for VP. There are Russian companies who just see the potential and the audience getting bigger and bigger.
IF: So investment is only a good thing for esports?
RD: It is, it is.
IF: How are the government getting involved with esports?
RD: Well Usmanov – he is head of the National Fencing Federation – he is supporting sports in Russia in general. Right now the ball is on the side of the industry – the state is not coming up saying ‘that is what you need’ they’re seeing how the industry works, they’re seeing the progress and then they will come and help.
IF: Do you see that happening?
RD: Politically speaking, the state is quite strong in Russia and if the industry becomes big the state will, I’m not saying interfere but they will impose some rules on a government level but I don’t see any problems with that.
IF: In Asian countries online gambling has been a problem, with an ever increasing number of esports betting sites, do you think betting will be a problem for esports in the future?
RD: All I’m thinking here is it’s a natural course of history – it’s not at all different from the traditional sports, will there be fixed matches? Obviously there will be. Will they be at the top level? Not so likely. All I can say is that even one top player now, three or four years ago when he was just a student and esports were not so professional back then, even he bet against his own team and he was banned for 6 months but now he would be banned for a lifetime. The industry is getting more mature and I’m pretty sure that there will be organisations who will be watching the games and raising alarms if they feel that there is a potential that the game is fixed but it’s a natural process.
IF: Future for VP
RD: We are undoubtedly number one in Russia right now but our aspirations are global and we are trying to strengthen our presence on the European and North American market. Right now, esports is the only industry where Russia is competitive on the world level, I mean there’s Zenit [St Petersburg] in football but they’ve never made it far in the Champions League. It’s very important for us to keep that pace between the top teams and ourselves, we cannot just take it slow and see where it goes – we have to keep working hard if we want to remain competitive further on.
RD: Strictly speaking I am bit skeptical about that – I mean there are too many reasons for that. A. Why are esports so popular? Because you are watching the things you cannot have in real life and now you are watching two nerds playing against each other and they’re playing Real Madrid v Real Madrid and why are they playing Real Madrid v Real Madrid because if they were playing Real Madrid v Liverpool, Real Madrid would win because the players are stronger. So why the hell would you watch this when you can watch real football. Another thing is the balance in the game – it is not right. If you are just together with friends, with a few beers its fine but when you have one million dollars at stake, with those small tweeks in the game, people will do anything to win and the game will allow them to do that but Counter Strike is different. Until EA changes the balance of the game to make it suitable for esports it will not go further than where they are right now.