Riot Games has secured a partnership with the Saudi Arabian city project Neom, which will make it a main sponsor of the League of Legends European Championship for the remainder of the 2020 Summer Split. Neom will sponsor the “Oracle Lens” broadcast segment beginning with Week 7 of league play.
The announcement was immediately met with an overwhelmingly negative social media response, with fans highlighting human rights critics of the Saudi Arabian government, particularly treatment of LGBTQ people. It is worth noting that the LEC had updated its branding in celebration of Pride, and so the announcement was accompanied by an LEC logo re-colored to look like the gay and transgender pride flags.
In addition to general fan outrage, the LEC commentary team also expressed frustrations with the announcement, with longtime LEC host Effje “Sjokz” Depoortere stating that the broadcast team felt “blindsided” by the announcement.
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
Trevor “Quickshot” Henry, onair talent manager and LEC commentator since 2013 (back when it was called the EU LCS), simply linked without comment on Twitter to an article from The Guardian, which details the impact of the construction of Neom on the Huwaitat tribe, a representative of which is quoted saying “…Neom is being built on our blood, on our bones.”
The LEC is not the first entertainment entity to accept a lucrative deal with Saudi Arabia and receive backlash for it. In 2018, World Wrestling Entertainment began advertising the Greatest Royal Rumble, which would take place at King Abdullah International Stadium as part of a 10-year strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority. The partnership and event itself received significant criticism, but the WWE has continued its relationship with Saudi Arabia, hosting a second event in 2019 called Crown Jewel. Overall, Forbes noted that the deal could be worth anywhere from $425M to $500M USD.
While no financial details have been revealed regarding Riot Games’ partnership, it is likely to be a high-value deal for the publisher. Earlier this week, tournament organizer BLAST announced its own Neom deal, with CEO Robbie Douek referring to the partnership as a “record deal.”
The Esports Observer has reached out to Riot Games for comment. At the time of writing, the company has not issued any statement regarding the criticism or the response from its broadcast team.