Arsenal's Oleksandr Zinchenko is investing in Ukrainian CS with the dream of reaching the top of the table
The Ukrainian footballer is at the top of his game on the pitch with club and nation. He now wants to represent his country through esports.
"We went with Passion UA because it's in our Ukrainian blood, this passion to do something," Arsenal's left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko tells HLTV about investing in a new Counter-Strike team. "The way you name the boat is how it will sail, so I'm happy with the name, but it's not the most important thing."
An announcement was published on the organization's website as a presentation letter. In it, Mr. Zinchenko speaks of some of the reasons for investing in esports and his ambitions. "Passion UA was born out of my deep-seated love for gaming and my desire to contribute to the growth of esports in my home country, Ukraine," he states. "I am committed to building a world-class esports organization that will stand tall among the giants of the industry."
In an online interview from his London home, the 26-year-old left-back speaks to HLTV not only about his goals and ambitions but also about the road ahead. "The dream and target is to play at the highest level and in the biggest competitions," he says, "but of course, we need to start from somewhere. Arty [Artemijs Rjabovs, Mr. Zinchenko's manager and the driving force behind Passion UA] came to me with the idea to make it happen and we trust our manager, Misha 'Kane'.
"He has unbelievable experience and quality and he knows what to do. We have full trust in him and we believe that this project can become something massive. As a CS fan, when I heard about this idea, I was more than happy to be involved."
The experience of Mikhaylo "Kane" Blagin will indeed be a big factor for Passion UA, a team that averages just 18 years of age and fields two players who are only 16. It makes sense, then, that the 37-year-old skipper, who led pro100 and Virtus.pro in-game in CS 1.6 and coached Natus Vincere and the Major-winning Gambit in CS:GO, has the full support of the backroom staff.
As an investor, Mr. Zinchenko also wants to be a participant as much as the circumstances will allow. "I would love to be as active as I can," he says. "Obviously, with my schedule, it's going to be a bit tough to be involved with the team every day, but if I have an opportunity to be with them, to join them at one of their bootcamps or wherever, I would be more than happy to do it. I already met the team. Not personally, because the schedule is so tough, but I would like to be as active as I can.
"Normally, in your head, when you talk about the owner, you talk about someone you can't be close to, you can't speak to, so I just told the lads that I'm open for them 24/7," he adds regarding his availability. "Maybe some of them are football fans or whatever. I'm always more than happy to help or to pay attention to them."
Mr. Zinchenko has a proven passion for the game. He started playing back in the 1.6 days and still gives CS a go when the hectic life of a footballer and the family life of a father of two young daughters allows it. He even had his own HLTV profile created when he played a charity game for Ukraine.
"I don't know in which way I can help the guys apart from investing. Definitely not any advice in the game because I'm level 8 on FACEIT at the moment," he says, laughing, in regards to how he can help his team. "So for sure, I won't give them any advice on how to play. Misha knows what to do much better than I do."
Jokes aside, Mr. Zinchenko does like to remain close to the game and has met some of Ukraine's shining stars, such as Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev, Valeriy "b1t" Vakhovskiy, and Viktor "sdy" Orudzhev. "It was an absolute pleasure for me," he says about getting to play with and against them. "If I have some spare time I love to always be involved, like in charity games or just playing for fun, or watching them and supporting all of them.
"Playing with friends is more complicated because now I have become a father for the second time," he continues. "With two kids at home, and with the training sessions, it's hard to find the time. Just don't tell my wife I'm trying to do it," he says, laughing once again, "but at least I'm in touch with the game."
While he may not be able to help his players in the game directly, the Arsenal and Ukraine left-back can draw lines from the world of football that lead to common ground with CS. "I know some pro players personally and we always have some things to talk about, we can share some experiences," Mr. Zinchenko says. "It's not just about the game, it's about how to react to certain situations.
"Listen, we're human beings and we can lose a game or whatever, so it's all about how to react. You have to be strong mentally and you need to react the right way in different situations. If I can be helpful with this somehow, I will be more than happy. But once again, with our manager Misha and his experience, he's going to be in the front line in this case."
Passion UA's goals are lofty and the road map has been drafted years down the line. Mr. Zinchenko draws from his own life to explain what his hopes are for the progression of the new team. "We all started from somewhere," he says about the team's current obscurity. "The teams at the top of the table, they all started somewhere. We're the same. The target and our dream is to be there, at the top of the table. You need to just believe in the process and believe in the people who work so hard.
"I've already seen it. Everything is possible in this life, that's for sure, I couldn't even dream when I was a kid that I would play in the Premier League. And to win it? That's something incredible. I couldn't even dream of it as a kid. In the end, it happened, thank God, and that means that everything is possible in this life. If everyone works hard and we believe in the process, and in what we're doing, then we can achieve anything.
"We became the 77th team in the world recently. That happened quite fast, which I didn't expect. We have such a young team, an experienced manager, and Arty working behind the scenes. With these people and this commitment, anything is possible."
Beyond hopes and dreams, this new venture ticks a lot of boxes for Mr. Zinchenko. "If you have many ticks, then you're doing the right things," he says. "What ticks am I talking about? I'm a big fan of CS, I like to play and watch, and I want to be involved somewhere in the conversation."
"It’s a dream to create something that's your own and that dream happened in the end. Not talking about the financial side, just the joy of it and the opportunity to represent our country. So there are a lot of ticks, which is really positive."
The work at Passion UA has now begun in earnest and the Arsenal player brought with him his dressing room leadership. "I introduced myself to the lads and I spoke with all of them at the same time," he says. "I told them, 'All of us have a dream. I don't know which dream you have, but I have a dream to be at the top of the league and I believe in all of you guys to achieve everything.
"'Trust me, if you work hard and listen to our experienced manager, we can achieve everything. He's been there many times, in these situations at the highest level, and he can share his experience with you. He can teach you a lot of things and we chose you because we believe in your potential, your talent.'"
Passion UA has yet to play under its new tag, but in their brief time as Zen the Ukrainians put up their first upsets in the IEM Sydney 2023 Europe Open Qualifier. They knocked out their countryman Ihor "w0nderful" Zhdanov's Sprout and then eliminated Movistar Riders in best-of-ones before falling to 1WIN in a BO3 at the final hurdle.
The ball is now rolling for Kyryl "marat2k" Samsoniuk, Dmytro "jambo" Semera, Vsevolod "s-chilla" Shchurov, Nikita "jackasmo" Skyba, Eduard "zeRRoFIX" Petrovskyi, and coach Kane, who are getting ready for their first bootcamp.
"I don't want to speak too much and too loud at the moment because I used to live and prove myself anywhere I could," Mr. Zinchenko concludes. "It's better to do than to talk, so let's just start."