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League of Legends’ Saudi Arabian partnership criticized by Riot community

Neom is a proposed $500B mega-city helmed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Berlin, Germany - July 17 --- during the 2019 League of Legends European Championship Series Week 5 at the LEC Studio on July 17, 2020 in Berlin Germany Photo: Michal Konkol/Riot Games
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

On Tuesday, Riot Games announced that its League of Legends European Championship (LEC) tournament is bringing on a new partner: the Saudi Arabian city Neom. The city will sign on as the “main partner” for the LEC’s Summer Season, which is currently ongoing. But some members of the esports community, including Riot Games staffers and casters, are angry and disappointed the company would make a deal like this.

Riot Games and Neom positioned this announcement as a benefit for the league: “to help future-proof the LEC stage.” On Tuesday, the city also announced a partnership with esports tournament organizers Blast Premier. Riot Games’ LEC news release accompanied the announcement, stating: “[Neom] will be championing the development of esports across the world.”

Neom is a $500 billion futuristic mega-city that is being built from the ground up and is expected to be “33 times the size of New York City.” The project is funded by Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman — the man said to have ordered the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudi Arabian government is also notorious for its poor human rights record, particularly with regard to women and the LGBTQ community. Riot Games previously held a $2 million League of Legends event in Saudi Arabia in 2019.

Response to the Riot Games announcement has been largely negative, with fans, casters, and Riot Games staff speaking out against it. In particular, critics have pointed out the hypocrisy of the deal, which was announced as the league is celebrating Christopher Street Day, a European LGBTQ pride celebration held in various cities. (At the time of this writing, as well as when the Neom announcement was made on Twitter, the LEC was using an LGBTQ pride-themed Twitter image.)

Multiple Riot Games employees, both associated with the LEC and outside of it, have made it clear on social media that they don’t support the partnership, including League of Legends lead gameplay designer Mark Yetter. “I can’t and do not personally support this partnership,” Yetter tweeted on Wednesday. “Sponsors are essential for the esport to thrive, but not at the cost of human life and freedoms.”

Sources told Polygon that members of the Riot Games staff were surprised to learn about the partnership on Wednesday morning.

League of Legends commentator Indiana Black, better known to fans as “Froskurinn,” tweeted on Wednesday that she feels “silenced” by the announcement. “This is disappointing because this is the LEC,” said Black, a gay woman, on Twitter. “It’s my team, my product, my managers, my office.”

She continued: “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.”

Casters Daniel Drakos and Trevor “Quickshot” Henry, host Eefje “sjokz” Depoortere, and many more members of the on-camera talent team for the LEC have spoken against the partnership. No LEC teams have spoken publicly on official Twitter channels about the partnership by publishing time. The league has yet to respond to Polygon’s request for comment.

Beyond the Saudi Arabian government’s human rights violations, the city of Neom itself — with its artificial moon and flying taxis — has been criticized globally, as its creation has resulted in the “forced eviction” of the Huwaitat tribe, who live on the land, according to a May report from The Guardian. “At least 20,000 members of the tribe now face eviction due to the project, with no information about where they will live in the future,” journalist Ruth Michaelson wrote in The Guardian.