League Of Legends Saudi Arabia Sponsorship Deal Met With Heavy Criticism [Update]

Riot Games announced a partnership deal with a Saudi mega-city, leading to sharp criticism from both outside and within the company.

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[Update: Following heavy criticism, Riot Games has backed out of the partnership deal with Neom. In a statement to The Verge, Riot Games' director of esports for the EMEA region Alberto Guerrero said the company rushed the partnership and caused "rifts" in its community.]

Riot Games has received sharp criticism over a recent announcement that it would be partnering with Saudi Arabian city Neom for its League of Legends European Championship (LEC) Summer Season. Critics of the move, including some from within the LoL community, have raised concerns regarding Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses, ties to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the city's implications for an indigenous tribe.

The announcement named Neom as its partner city and said it will be "a new model for sustainable living, working, and prospering" in Saudi Arabia. It also said that Neom will "help future-proof the LEC stage" by sponsoring the Oracle Lens feature, which predicts team movements and strategies.

Neom is a $500 billion mega-city currently being built in Saudi Arabia, financed by Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. That connection itself has led to much of the criticism, as American intelligence agencies have concluded that bin Salman ordered the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. In broader terms, Saudi Arabia has a poor human rights record, especially in regards to women and LGBTQ individuals.

The move drew sharp criticism from across the spectrum, and many employees within Riot Games or associated casters and other on-camera talent were quick to distance themselves from the move. Those included a statement from lead gameplay designer Mark Yetter.

"I can't and do not personally support this partnership," Yetter wrote on Twitter. "Sponsors are essential for the esport to thrive, but not at the cost of human life and freedoms."

Others expressed disappointment, said they feel silenced, and offered ways to show solidarity with the LGBTQ community. Several casters and hosts have spoken out as well. One caster particular, Trevor "Quickshot" Henry, linked to a report from The Guardian that said the Neom city project is leading to the forced eviction of at least 20,000 members of the Huwaitat tribe.

Riot Games previously hosted a 2019 tournament in Saudi Arabia, which marked the first League event in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

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