Riot scraps controversial LEC partnership with Saudi Arabia following fan backlash

(Image credit: Riot Games)

Update: Following widespread upset over the sponsorship deal, the LEC has announced that it has ended its partnership with Neom.

"As a company and as a league, we know that it’s important to recognize 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," Alberto Guerrero, Riot's EMEA director of esports, said in a statement.

"In an effort to expand our esports ecosystem, we moved too quickly to cement this partnership and caused rifts in the very community we seek to grow. While we missed our own expectations in this instance, we’re committed to reexamining our internal structures to ensure this doesn't happen again."

Original story:

Neom, if you haven't run across the name yet, is a planned community and so-called "accelerator of human progress" being developed by Saudi Arabia. It will "be the home and workplace for more than a million citizens from around the world," its website says.

Yesterday, Riot Games announced that the League of Legends European Championship league, better known as the LEC, had signed a deal making Neom a "main partner" for the 2020 Summer Season. The same day, CS:GO pro league Blast Premier revealed a Neom partnership of its own "that will propel the growth of esports in Saudi Arabia, signifying Neom's commitment to building a dynamic and innovative esports community and ambition to become the esports regional hub."

As reported by Kotaku, the reaction to both deals from the League of Legends and Counter-Strike communities has been largely negative. 

Despite all the lip service Neom's marketing pays to diversity, Saudi Arabia is run by a notoriously oppressive regime. Forbes recently placed it near the top of its list of the most dangerous places for LGBTQ travelers, noting that homosexuality is punishable by flogging or even death in some cases, and even just expressing support for gay rights is criminalized. Earlier this week, Reuters reported that a blogger was sentenced to nearly a year in prison and a fine for saying simply that "everyone has rights and should be able to practice them freely, including gay people."

Saudi Arabia's laws are also deeply sexist. A 2019 report by The Independent says that reforms that ostensibly granted women the right to, for instance, drive a car or travel without the permission of a male companion, were not as extensive as they were presented, and women's rights activists have continued to face government crackdowns.

Saudi Arabia's ruling family has demonstrated a willingness to crush dissent, even beyond Saudi Arabia's borders. In 2018, journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered while in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, by agents of the Saudi government—an assassination the CIA said was ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 

It's a pretty bleak situation behind the facade, in other words, and LEC casters and fans were quick to call Riot out over the hypocrisy of publicly embracing the LGBTQ community while at the same time supporting a government that violently opposes its very existence.

Some Riot employees also expressed dismay over the move.

Blast Premier isn't quite as high-profile a league as LEC, but the reaction has been largely similar.

Neither Riot nor Blast Premier have commented publicly on the backlash at this point. I've reached out to both for more information, and to ask if it's possible the deals will be reconsidered in light of the reaction to them, and will update if I receive a reply.

Andy Chalk

Andy has been gaming on PCs from the very beginning, starting as a youngster with text adventures and primitive action games on a cassette-based TRS80. From there he graduated to the glory days of Sierra Online adventures and Microprose sims, ran a local BBS, learned how to build PCs, and developed a longstanding love of RPGs, immersive sims, and shooters. He began writing videogame news in 2007 for The Escapist and somehow managed to avoid getting fired until 2014, when he joined the storied ranks of PC Gamer. He covers all aspects of the industry, from new game announcements and patch notes to legal disputes, Twitch beefs, esports, and Henry Cavill. Lots of Henry Cavill.