However, the partnerships quickly faced criticism from the esports community and fans who threatened with boycotts over Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations. This ultimately led both Riot Games and Blast Premier to end their respective partnerships with NEOM. Nevertheless, this experience has not influenced Saudi Arabia in its ambitions to become a global power in esport and gaming. Instead of backing down they have intensified their investments in the sector.

In November 2020, the Mohammed bin Salman Charitable Foundation (MiSK) bought one-third of Japanese gaming company SNK Corporation. In 2022 it was reported that MiSK expanded its involvement and that it now owns over 96% of SNK Corporation. In 2021, the PIF acquired over $3 billion worth of stock in the leading US video game publishers Activision, Electronic Arts and Take-Two. PIF also has stakes in gaming company Capcom, famous for video games such as Street Fighter and Resident Evil, and in Nexom who is behind one of the largest free-to-play online PC games, Dungeon & Fighter.

In September 2022, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled a ‘National Gaming and Esports Strategy’ that aims to make Saudi Arabia the global hub for the gaming and esports sector by 2030. The new strategy is part of the overall strategic roadmap, the ‘Vision 2030’, and aims to produce more than 30 competitive games, and to attract tourists and players from all over the world, as well as to create 39,000 new direct and indirect job opportunities by 2030.

The newly established Savvy Gaming Group, which is owned by PIF, is a central part of this strategy. In 2022, they went on to purchase ESL Gaming and FACEIT – two of the largest esports brands –  for a reported value of staggering 1.5 billion US dollars. Savvy Gaming Group later merged the two entities to form the ESL FACEIT Group. Savvy Gaming Group has also purchased 1-billion-dollar stakes in Embracer Group, a Swedish video game and media holding company that owns and operates several companies in the gaming and video industry. In the summer of 2022, Saudi Arabia also hosted the world’s biggest esports and gaming event, the so-called Gamers8 with competitions across six different titles with a $15 million prize pool.

While it is not new for the esport and gaming scene to engage with authoritarian regimes, it will be interesting to see how they will react to the Saudi involvement. A preview of what to expect might have come at the end of 2022, when the organisation Team Liquid released a statement about their participation in tournaments in Saudi Arabia and the BLAST Premier World Finals in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates which has also been criticised for long by Human Rights Watch for not upholding basic human rights.

Team Liquid stated that in some cases they “must compete in these events to stay in certain esports. An outright boycott might not only end careers, it could end our involvement in some esports entirely.”  

As a response to the criticism and their participation in events in Saudi Arabia the team donated 22,500 US dollars as well as a 50 per cent share their own cut of the prizes they won in events in Saudi Arabia to Rainbow Railroad, which helps LGBTQI+ people escape state-sponsored violence.


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