Russian Dota 2 player Ivan “Pure” Moskalenko and the rest of the Virtus.pro roster have been disqualified from a qualifying tournament for the upcoming ESL One Stockholm Major after Moskalenko appeared to express support for Russia's invasion of Ukraine by drawing a large letter Z on the in-game map.
A Yahoo report says the incident took place during a pause in a semi-final match between Virtus.pro, which played as “Outsiders” in order to evade an ESL ban on Russian-based esports teams, and Mind Games. The Z was clearly visible on the map but only for a couple of seconds—Moskalenko's teammates, perhaps anticipating trouble, quickly scribbled over it.
Когда пытаешься весь интернет наебать что вышло случайно. Жаль ты тварь намеренно все дорисовывал. pic.twitter.com/JPpfqiS1GDApril 29, 2022
The letter is significant because of its use by Russian forces invading Ukraine. Z doesn't exist in the Russian alphabet so what it actually means in that context isn't clear: Some have theorized that it stands for “zapad,” an Anglicized version of “запад”—meaning “west”—or it could be just makeshift insignia aimed at helping poorly-trained soldiers differentiate between Russian and Ukrainian units.
Whatever its initial purpose, Z has since been adopted by civilians in Russia and other countries as a symbol expressing support for the invasion of Ukraine. Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak, for instance, recently taped a Z to his uniform during a medal ceremony at a World Cup event in March; he faces the possible loss of his bronze medal and a one-year suspension from competition for his actions.
Kuliak stood by his World Cup actions, telling RT (via The Guardian) that he was expressing his position. Moskalenko, however, denied any political intention behind the Dota 2 scribble.
“There was a long pause in the game. The guys and I were talking and drawing on the minimap,” he said on Twitter. “When we realized what exactly my drawing turned out to be, we tried to cover it up. I didn't mean to offend anyone, it all happened by accident.”
Pure on the recent incident. pic.twitter.com/nv6OU168YhApril 29, 2022
Tournament organizer Beyond the Summit was not convinced, however, and opted to disqualify the entire Virtus.pro team from the event.
Outsiders is disqualified from the DPC EEU Tour 2 Regional Playoffs. Mind Games will receive a retroactive forfeit win for their match earlier today.All future matches Outsiders would have played are forfeit as well. We will share an updated schedule soon.April 29, 2022
Moskalenko's problems grew worse the next day. Despite his explanation, Virtus.pro terminated Moskalenko's contract. He had only joined the team in November 2021.
“The severity of the punishment is shocking,” the team wrote. “Valve has a certain history of imposing disciplinary measures, but disqualifying the whole team from a DPC tournament based on a drawing on a minimap by [a] single player sets up a whole new precedent.
“Any actions have consequences, whether intentional or not. Virtus.pro has been consistently opposing any cases of inciting hatred in esports. The club terminates [its] contract with Ivan 'Pure' Moskalenko for his diminishing actions that led to disqualification from the tournament and caused a great deal of harm to our relationship with the worldwide esports society.”
In April, Blizzard removed the Z monogram from Zarya's Arctic and Siberian Front skins. The company didn't comment on the reasons for the removal, but the assumption is that the symbol was cut from the character—a Russian soldier, prior to joining Overwatch—in order to avoid the possibility of similar connections with the invasion of Ukraine.
I've reached out to ESL for comment and will update if I receive a reply.