Major esports host ESL Gaming is now owned by Saudi Arabia

(Image credit: ESL)

Pending regulatory approval, a holding company owned by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund has purchased esports event organizer ESL Gaming and tournament platform FACEIT. According to Sports Business Journal, the price for both companies was $1.5 billion. As part of the acquisition, the two companies will merge into the ESL FACEIT Group, and plan to combine their technology and expertise to "create the ultimate platform for competitive gaming."

ESL is headquartered in Cologne, Germany, and hosts major CS:GO, Dota 2, and other esports tournaments, as well as the Dreamhack LAN events following a 2020 merger. FACEIT is a competitive gaming platform that provides anti-cheat, matchmaking, and tournament organizing for players and game publishers. Following the merger, ESL CEO Craig Levine and FACEIT CEO Niccolo Maisto will co-lead the new organization.

The goal of the ESL FACEIT Group is to take games and players "from casual competitions to arena events on one platform"—essentially, to be the recreational, minor, and major leagues for every esport. Alongside that general statement of intent, the company dug into its plans for a game it's heavily involved in: Counter-Strike. ESL FACEIT Group says it plans to "promote more stability" for the North American CS:GO esports scene by increasing the number of competitions, creating more incentives for pro teams, and improving the available infrastructure. Ultimately, it aspires to be "a truly global ecosystem" for CS:GO esports with "accessible, well-connected competitive circuits" for everyone.

The holding company behind the merger is called Savvy Gaming Group. It was created in 2021 to "drive long-term growth and development of the games and esports industry worldwide," according to press materials, and is fully owned by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, which controls at least $500 billion of the country's wealth and is overseen by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Savvy Gaming Group itself is led by CEO Brian Ward, a former Activision executive who helped lead the integration of Blizzard during the 2008 merger that created Activision Blizzard. Prior to that, Ward was a studio business director at Microsoft and EA.

Last year, the Saudi Public Investment Fund controversially led a group takeover of the Premier League's Newcastle United Football Club. One of the deal's largest critics, Amnesty International, called it "sportswashing," defined as the use of high-profile sports teams or events to distract from human rights abuses, in this case referring particularly to Saudi Arabia's jailing of activists and dissenters. When the deal went through, The Premier League said that it "received legally binding assurances" that the Saudi Arabian government won't control Newcastle United.

"Despite assurances about a supposed separation from the Saudi state, ownership of St James' Park is now very much about image management for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his government," Amnesty International said in an October 2021 response to the league's statement. "As the season progresses we hope fans, players and Newcastle United backroom staff will look seriously at the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and be prepared to speak out about the jailing of people like Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, whose 20-year sentence for tweeting was upheld just hours before the Newcastle deal went through." (Context.)

The next big ESL event is the $1M CS:GO championship at IEM Katowice 2022, which is set to take place on February 25.

Tyler Wilde
Executive Editor

Tyler grew up in Silicon Valley during the '80s and '90s, playing games like Zork and Arkanoid on early PCs. He was later captivated by Myst, SimCity, Civilization, Command & Conquer, all the shooters they call "boomer shooters" now, and PS1 classic Bushido Blade (that's right: he had Bleem!). Tyler joined PC Gamer in 2011, and today he's focused on the site's news coverage. His hobbies include amateur boxing and adding to his 1,200-plus hours in Rocket League.