Yesterday two major European esports brands—the Counter-Strike Global Offensive tournament organizer BLAST Premier and Riot’s League of Legends European Championship division—announced a sponsorship deal with NEOM, a 500 billion dollar techno-city funded by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The announcement is drawing waves of criticism from esports personalities and fans.
Update: 7/29/2020, 9:50 p.m. ET
Riot has terminated their partnership with NEOM. In a statement released late Wednesday night, the League of Legends developer wrote:
“As a company and as a league, we know that it’s important to recognize when we make mistakes and quickly work to correct them. After further reflection, while we remain steadfastly committed to all of our players and fans worldwide including those living in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, the LEC has ended its partnership with NEOM, effective immediately. In an effort to expand our esports ecosystem, we moved too quickly to cement this partnership and caused rifts in the very community we seek to grow. While we missed our own expectations in this instance, we’re committed to reexamining our internal structures to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
No word yet if Counter-Strike tournament organizer BLAST Premier will also walk back their partnership deal.
Original story continues below.
The choice to partner with bin Salman and NEOM is contentious. Bin Salman is suspected of ordering the assassination of Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudi government imprisons and tortures LGBTQ people, while the war in Yemen forces millions of people to starve. Oh, and bin Salman likes to put on fancy wrestling matches while excluding female wrestlers.
NEOM is a proposed futuristic city founded by bin Salman, which may include “flying taxis,” “robot maids,” and a “giant artificial moon.” Part of NEOM’s vision for the future includes esports. The League of Legends post announcing the partnership calls NEOM “a new community that will be the home and workplace for more than a million citizens from around the world who want to be part of building a new model for sustainable living, working, and prospering in Saudi Arabia.” Prospering in Saudi Arabia unless you happen to be a member of the Huwaitat tribe living on the land the government wants for its project. A May 2020 article in The Guardian states, “At least 20,000 members of the tribe now face eviction due to the project, with no information about where they will live in the future.” The article also alleges that a Huwaitat activist was killed in a shoot-out with the government after he spoke out against the forced evictions.
It seems NEOM will have at least some presence in LEC broadcasts. “NEOM has their sights set on the future,” the League of Legends post reads. “And to help future-proof the LEC stage, they’ll be sponsoring the Oracle Lens during live broadcasts which helps players predict the next moves a team will make.”
The BLAST Premier announcement includes the addition of a NEOM-themed map to Counter-Strike and collaboration on building an “esports academy” within the city.
“Esports is at the centre of NEOM’s exciting plans for Sport,” wrote BLAST CEO Robbie Douek. “We’re delighted to be able to assist them in shaping this long-term goal.”
The announcement sparked anger from both Counter-Strike and LoL communities. On-air personalities for LoL expressed dismay at the deal.
Other esports community members pointed out the hypocrisy of Riot’s Pride friendly message while working with a government notorious for its LGBTQ human rights abuses.
Kotaku has reached out to BLAST and Riot for comment.