On July 29th Riot Games unveiled the title sponsor for their European League of Legends league, LEC, as being the controversial Saudi Arabian project NEOM. The project is the development of a futuristic “mega-city” to attract wealthy Western tourists to the region, one that is being driven personally by the Saudi Arabian monarchy.
Currently, NEOM has been called out by human rights activists due to the process of acquiring the land for the development. The native Howeitat tribe have been told that they must relinquish the land to the Saudis with no clear explanation of how they will be compensated for doing so down the line.
With the general consensus among the people being that they do not wish to leave, a tribal elder leading the resistance to the move, Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti, was killed by security forces who claimed he was armed and threatening them.
The announcement also came at the tail end of Pride Month, a celebration of LGBT culture and history promoted across countries that Riot Games has publicly championed and promoted. In May they promoted the “International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia” and the It Gets Better Project, a nonprofit organisation that looks to support LGBT youth. They also sold LGBT themed merchandise throughout June with 10% of the money raised given to the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention charity for the LGBT community.
This public stance seems to be at odds with working alongside the Saudi Arabian monarchy. Currently, Saudi Arabia continues to imprison and execute people engaged in same-sex relationships or gender reassignment. This stance also leads to blanket censorship around these topics in the country, with the government blocking websites that express support for LGBT rights and the banning of movies, television and books that contain depictions of gay and lesbian relationships.
The game’s developer had managed to circumnavigate public criticism when they announced “The Nexus” event in December of last year. It involved six contests over three days with $2 million in prizes being held in Saudi’s capital city of Riyadh as part of a concerted effort to grow the esport in that region, where Riot now have a dedicated office. While a few did point out the poor optics of them hosting an event in Saudi Arabia while also being embroiled in a lawsuit that alleged systemic sexism in their workplace, mostly there was no public outcry.
This time around however the announcement of working with NEOM was met with significant backlash from fans and Riot staffers alike. While the company was castigated on social media for the hypocrisy in having a title sponsor from Saudi Arabia, much more worrying to them was the reaction from broadcast talent who spoke up in unison against the move.
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
Indiana “Froskurinn” Black, Trevor “Quickshot” Henry, Renato “Shakerez” Perdigão, Dan “Foxdrop” Wyatt, Christy “Ender” Frierson and Eefje “Sjokz” Depoortere, were just some of the high profile names expressing their distaste. In less than 24 hours Riot Games announced that the partnership would be terminated via a public statement that read:
“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. 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.”
Timing of the announcement
As a mea culpa, the statement reads well, but internal sources at Riot have informed Dexerto that the management team that brokered the deal deliberately schemed to find the best time to announce it, hoping to avoid the backlash and enable the deal to stand.
“There is simply no way Riot Games can make a claim that they didn’t know what the impact of this sponsorship deal was going to be” one internal source told me. “They deliberately delayed the announcement because some members of management realised it would overlap with Berlin Pride Week.”
Berlin Pride Week started on the 25th July with their annual parade. Riot Games European offices are based in Berlin.
“They thought about that but didn’t think to consult with anyone outside of the management team. Everyone else who works on LEC were blindsided by this.”
Another internal source added “they absolutely were aware of the implications of working with Saudi Arabia and how it would be viewed by many of us in the company. This is why we were not told about it.”
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Those sources also confirmed that the company’s hands were tied after the entire broadcast team told them they would refuse to work on the LEC show for as long as the deal were to remain in place. There was also significant pushback from other staff members outside of the management team that handle LEC.
“It was only the management that wanted this deal” one internal source explained “but when they realised they could have the sponsor but no show to go with it they had to reverse the decision. Many of us believe they aren’t happy about it and that has created tension between us and them that doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.”
What has changed?
After a day of the community celebrating the reversal of the sponsorship deal, another apology was issued via the LEC Twitter account. This time it specifically came from Alberto Guerrero, Director of Esports for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. It read:
“We know that recently our actions hurt and alienated our community, particularly women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and our players in the Middle East, and for that we are deeply sorry. At the LEC, we believe in being inclusive and creating a more diverse landscape for everybody. We understand that some of you lost faith in us but we are committed to taking steps to earn back your trust. Until then, thank you for sticking with us.”
Key to earning back that trust was the promise the LEC management made in their earlier statement that they were “committed to reexamining our internal structures to ensure this doesn’t happen again.” This statement clearly suggests that those management members behind the deal and the way it was withheld from being communicated internally will come under some scrutiny. However, the sources we spoke with confirmed that there was no action being taken following the deal falling through.
“The management who made that decision are completely safe in their jobs. In fact when the strike was being discussed the North American headquarters got involved on their side. They may have reversed the deal but the people who negotiated it in the first place have been reassured they did nothing wrong except maybe the communication process.”
We asked other sources familiar with the situation who confirmed this version of events and they confirmed there had been no disciplinary action for anyone and no jobs were under threat. This included both the management who signed the sponsorship deal and the on-air talent that threatened strike action over it.
“So far nothing has changed” they summarized.
The LEC broadcast went ahead as planned on the weekend following the announcement. So far it isn’t clear whether this will hamper further partnerships in the region on a permanent basis, whether NEOM will be revisited as a potential deal or whether there may be further internal issues between staff and management. One of the members of the production team at Riot publicly stated that “probably no more than eight people” were responsible for the deal and said that it was “pretty indicative of how disconnected they are from Riot” as a whole.
probably no more than 8 ppl at riot who have actual real power over the deal.
pretty indicative of how disconnected they are from riot
— Hideo Hikida (@hhikida) July 29, 2020
We have reached out to Riot Games for comment and clarity on what actions and revisions they propose to take regarding this issue. A comment was not possible by time of publication. We will update accordingly.