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Riot Games ends Saudi Arabia’s Neom partnership following controversy

The League of Legends developer has backed out of the partnership

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.

League of Legends developer Riot Games has ended its partnership with proposed $500 billion Saudi Arabian city Neom just a day after its announcement. On Tuesday evening, Riot announced a partnership between the futuristic city and the League of Legends European Championship (LEC). The city was expected to be the “main partner” on the LEC’s Summer Season, which is currently ongoing.

Following criticism of the partnership online — from community members, casters, and Riot Games employees citing Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations — Riot announced the partnership’s end. Alberto Guerrero, director of esports in the European, Middle East, and African regions, issued a statement on the Riot website.

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.

Throughout the day on Tuesday, Riot Games employees, League of Legends casters, and esports’ fans spoke out against the partnership on social media, citing Saudi Arabia’s poor history of human rights violations, as well as the city’s “forced eviction” of the Huwaitat tribe on the land where Neom is being built. Neom is helmed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the leader said to have ordered the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Multiple sources told Polygon that internal staff were surprised and furious at the announcement. Many spoke publicly on social media against 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.”

Many pointed out the irony of Riot Games posting the announcement while displaying a LGBTQ pride-themed Twitter avatar, noting the treatment of LGBTQ people in Saudi Arabia.

Blast Premier, an esports tournament organizer, also announced its partnership with Neom on Tuesday night. In a news release, the company said Neom was committed to “building a dynamic and innovative esports community” with the intention of becoming “the esports regional hub.” Blast Premier has also been criticized for partnering with the Saudi Arabian city. Polygon has reached out to the company for more information.

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