It was only this morning that Riot Games was copping flak from all sides for accepting a sponsorship from NEOM, a techno-city funded by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But before the deal could even get going, the Valorant and League of Legends developer has announced that the deal is dead.
In a statement posted on the official League esports page, Riot’s EMEA director of esports, Alberto Guerrero, said the deal would be ended “effective immediately” after “further reflection”:
“As a company and as a league, we know that it’s important to recognise 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.
The whole saga raises so many questions it’s hard to know where to start. Firstly, you have to wonder whether anyone within Riot raised concerns about partnering with someone believed to be responsible, directly or otherwise, for the cold-blooded murder of an independent journalist. And even if you wanted to ignore the death of Jamal Khashoggi aside, it’s hard to see how Riot’s pro-LBGT stance would even be remotely compatible with a country that outlaws same-sex relationships, has executed and crucified citizens for their sexuality, and continues to imprison citizens just for calling for equal rights. And that’s not even getting into how the construction of NEOM’s $US500 billion megacity has led to forced evictions and alleged genocide of a Huwaiti tribe.
Riot’s own contractors and high-profile icons within the League community aired their own complaints over the sponsorship. Belgian commentator Eefje “Sjokz” Depoortere, the current host of League‘s European championship, effectively called out Riot for not giving the public faces of League a heads up, while another League caster noted that Riot’s new sponsors would “kill me for existing”.
And yes, of course we are thinking of our livelihoods, wouldn't you?
That doesn't change we feel blindsided by the people close to us who now want us to push this awful sponsor on our broadcast, and want to take action.
Saying that isn't genuine is extremely hurtful.
— Eefje Depoortere (@sjokz) July 29, 2020
The league I cover is now promoting a country that would kill me just for existing. Feels great.
— James ‘Stress’ O’Leary (@StressCasts) July 29, 2020
Unsurprisingly, the criticism was swift and scathing.
This is disappointing because this is the LEC. It's my team, my product, my managers, my office.
My family. My home.
This isn't someone far away in HQ that I don't know. This is devastating because I know who made these choices and I feel silenced.
— Froskurinn (@Froskurinn) July 29, 2020
I can't and do not personally support this partnership.
Sponsors are essential for the esport to thrive, but not at the cost of human life and freedoms. https://t.co/LJUbKbCeZq
— Mark Yetter (@MarkYetter) July 29, 2020
I understand that a company is not responsible for the laws of the country it resides in, but this is literally an advertisement to go to a location where I and many other #LEC fans could be threatened by torture or even the death penalty for existing.
— Darius (@DariusExMachina) July 29, 2020
“While we missed our own expectations in this instance, we’re committed to reexamining our internal structures to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” the end of Riot’s statement reads.
While Riot’s sponsorship deal with the Saudi Arabian mega-city is dead, the deal between NEOM and Danish Counter-Strike organisers BLAST is still live. The company hasn’t published a statement or acknowledged any of the concerns yet.
“Esports is at the centre of NEOM’s exciting plans for Sport, we’re delighted to be able to assist them in shaping this long-term goal. This is a record deal for BLAST and testament to our recent growth and standing in the industry right now,” BLAST CEO Robbie Douek said of the deal.