The Baltic region is the home to many esports teams and tournaments. Let's make a brief overview of the countries in question, their rules, laws and challenges these nations face on their quest for recognition as an important part of the global esports industry.
When it comes to Baltic esports there are two main players - Lithuania and Estonia. Their efforts can be felt across the region, their tournaments and teams are a shining example for many smaller nations in the area.
The Baltic region is not to be confused with the Baltics - Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The Baltics is purely an economic term used by Central and Eastern European countries to describe themselves. There is no official definition or usage of this term.
The Baltic states are different but all of them have common goals when it comes to their esports endeavors - they want to become important members of the global esports community and for that they need a lot of things, one of the most important is recognition by the world.
What are the Baltics?
The Baltics is a general term referring to the countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Other inhabited places are:
- The Russian exclave in northwestern Kaliningrad Oblast, which geographically is separated by Lithuanian territory. It's sometimes called a Baltic State too, but those people look at you funny when you try to name them.
- The Curonian Spit, a thin, relatively narrow strip of land that separates the lagoon from the Baltic Sea. It is recognized as part of Lithuania and is sometimes included in Lithuania's definition of "the Baltics".
- A patch of water in between Estonia and Latvia (and Finland) and sometimes called Gulf of Riga or Bay of Riga. Some people who are too lazy to draw all four countries on a map might just call this the Baltics too, but these people usually live in Russia.
- The small piece of land that is above Lithuania and below Poland and Belarus. It's mostly known as the location of Vilnius.
- The biggest island of the Finnish Lakeland is sometimes known as "Baltic Island" although it does not belong to the Baltic States, strictly speaking. But if you're too lazy to name four countries and a Russian exclave, you might accidentally call Saaremaa a "Baltic State" too.
One can debate if this area is called the 'Baltics' or not, but generally it's not a recommended practice, as most people in the Baltics do feel strongly about their national identities.
The Baltics in Esports
The countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have a history of producing strong esports teams - all three hosted Intel Extreme Masters events. All three nations are actively involved in one gaming or another. The amount of money spent on developing esports infrastructure by each nation differs greatly. Where Estonia has chosen to invest massive amounts into building infrastructure for home-grown talent, both Latvia and Lithuania fund national organizations that take care of international ventures such as recruiting players for international rosters or create new ones from scratch.
Estonia has built itself as the home of esports in the Baltics. Their way might not be the easiest or quickest, but they have proven that it can work.
The esports scene in Estonia is organized by Esports Eesti, a foundation created in 2008 to support esports development and advance gaming within Estonia. The organization's mission statement: "Esports Eesti exists to promote, develop and position e-sports and electronic games as competitive entertainment to a global audience." They are supported by their government who sees potential in developing young talent through professional gaming.
In 2013, a new law was passed called "Internet Sports Games". This piece of legislation allowed cross-platform betting on sports events online, effectively legalizing gambling in general. By recognizing esports as a sport, the law opened up a massive opportunity for Estonian gaming entrepreneurs to build a local gambling scene around their own tournaments. A couple of years later, ESports Eesti and TaKeTV created Esports Championship Series, the first major Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) league in Eastern Europe. The partnership was lucrative - big brands like ASUS ROG or XMG sponsored the league and by 2016 it had become one of the largest CS:GO leagues outside of North America.
The general trend here is that Estonia has mostly focused on developing its own talent, only sending them abroad when they feel ready to compete at an international level. As of today, this philosophy continues to work well for them; Estonia has been amongst the best performing teams in Overwatch, Counterstrike and Hearthstone.
The Lithuanian esports scene is stronger than its economy. Thanks to a recent push from its government, more money goes into gaming than any other sector of its economy. There are several organizations that support players and help expand the industry, most notably Esports Lab and VFD Productions (Gaming & Entertainment), with the latter being an official partner of Blizzard Lithuania. Despite this support, not much has come out of Lithuania in terms of competitive achievements at international events. Aside from a very strong DotA 2 team, no national esports organization has an outstanding record across esports titles or regions. The biggest bottleneck seems to be scouting. Bigger organizations have had to resort to hiring coaches or managers from outside the country.
One of the most recent examples of this would be Vyktoras 'addsta' Stepanovas, a former Counter-Strike: Global Offensive player for Uprise Champions Cup. A Lithuanian team, they relied heavily on Addsta's experience and knowledge with the game. They're not alone in their search - SK Gaming has been relying on Jonas 'LeDuck' Lehmann as their manager for a while now; he was recruited from NiP (also Swedish). The point is that even though Lithuania has amazing infrastructure and support, it still struggles to bring its very best players into competitive tournaments abroad.
The Estonian CS:GO scene is not as developed, but it has produced a few players of note.
Of the three Baltic states, Latvia has by far the smallest gaming population and it shows. It's unclear if there are any esports organizations in Latvia that could be considered successful or internationally relevant; most of their endeavors seem to stay within national borders. They're having trouble developing a thriving industry competitively and financially - all of this despite large amounts of money pouring into gaming every year through government support.
The largest event hosted in Latvia was TEO CT, an international Counter-Strike 1.6 tournament with €5,000 on the line for its champion. The winners were none other than Natus Vincere (Na'Vi), the Ukrainian powerhouse that is one of the most renowned esports organizations in gaming culture. Fun fact: Na'Vi was also playing with a Lithuanian player - Migxa, who stood in for Danylo 'Zeus' Teslenko on their journey to 1st place.
The future of Baltic esports
As politics have oscillated between collaboration and conflict over the last few years, it's understandable why people would be concerned about Baltic esports right now. What will happen if Lithuania and Latvia decide to break away from Estonia? Will they set up their own international teams? Can they compete internationally without Estonian players representing them? As long as there is no clear political situation to deal with, everything should be fine for Baltic esports. There is no reason to expect any problems with it, and there is no indication that the countries' collaboration will go anywhere anytime soon.
There are a lot of factors that could help Baltic esports in the future, if they're handled correctly. The biggest one would be investor money - for example, recent investments from Dafabet into Hearthstone or PowerPlay Media into Overwatch will have more positive effects on player mobility than almost anything else out there... but you need a strong esport organization to take advantage of that kind of situation. A company like VFD Productions or The Esports League might grab this opportunity; maybe even some of the organizations mentioned above could make moves to solidify their presence as national brands. Estonia has done an amazing job at promoting and nurturing its grassroots esports scene for the last decade; if they can do that while mollifying investor demands, they could see quite a bit of success. In my opinion, their current model is the best way to go about successful esports ventures in the Baltic region.
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