NEOM gets mobbed out of becoming a Middle Eastern esport hub

The NEOM Project announced two high profile esports partnerships over the past two days. Event organizer BLAST and Riot’s LEC announced their pledge towards the development of esports in Neom. Excitement however was short lived. Controversy and outcry on social media following the announcement, prompted the LEC to quickly back out of the deal.

The impact of these decisions is far-reaching. It may potentially hinder the development of esports in the region for years to come.

NEOM gets mobbed out of becoming a Middle Eastern esport hub


What is NEOM?

NEOM is a planned megacity developed as part of the Vision 2030 project. It’s a brain child of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s plan to restructure the Saudi economy and society.

It is supposed to become a special administrative unit where the laws of Saudi Arabia do not apply. The idea is to motivate businesses and entrepreneurs to join in and invest in the project. The development further aims at creating an entire special economic zone, filled with the latest innovative technologies, sustainable living practices and loads of robots.

The projected area itself, would likely become a unifying center in the region, as it tries to pull support from both Egypt, Jordan and Israel. It is envisioned as a central political and economic hub in the region. Located in the Gulf of Aqaba/Eilat the greater NEOM area would serve as prime tourist destination and primary trading hub considering its central location.

There is however, a great deal of stigma and uncertainty surrounding the project, especially considering events surrounding the planning and development of the whole project. Development is slow as investors are reluctant to pledge to the project, especially after the Saudi government was embroiled in controversy over the displacement of Huwaiti tribesmen, and the uncertainty of residents of small fishing villages like Khurayba along the coastline. Additionally, following the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, several prominent figures withdrew from the Neom advisory board.

For almost a year, news about NEOM and its development have been sparse, with only an occasional Youtube video on the official channel and rare news updates.

The last few week however, have been buzzing with activity. First, a NEOM partnership was announced with both Rudder Finn and Burson Cohn & Wolfe, two of the biggest public relations and communications firms on the planet. Soon thereafter, ACWA Power, NEOM and US based Air Products announced a $5bn joint investment in renewable energy projects. The tourism sector was next, with a partnership between Neom and the University of Prince Mugrin working towards hospitality and tourism. Finally, STC (Saudi Telecom Company) signed a project towards developing 5G infrastructure in NEOM in the following year.

NEOM Partnership with BLAST and LEC

The streak of partnerships was crowned with a dual announcement over the past two days. NEOM has set their aim on becoming the esports hub of the MENA region. Both BLAST and Riot’s LEC announced their partnership on the 28th and 29th respectively.

Both of the announcements positioned NEOM as a utopia that will “play a leading role in global development” and “building a major esports ecosystem in the heart of what will be the new future of living!

The NEOM partnerships would try to turn Saudi Arabia into the regional esports hub the region has been waiting for. Jan Paterson, NEOM’s Managing Director of Sport said:

“NEOM aims to become a global hub for sport that unites communities, enables active, balanced lifestyles and accelerates innovation. Esports is growing at a rapid pace and NEOM is perfectly positioned to become the regional esports hub. We are excited about the experience and benefits NEOM can bring to the industry. We will have an advanced technological base and venues designed specifically for esports. In addition, we aim to inspire the development of young Saudi and international talent through a fully immersive esports academy.”

The deal itself was unique for the Middle Eastern developing esports region. NEOM had previously inked an agreement with the Saudi Arabian Federation of Electronic and Intellectual Sports (SAFEIS). The deal allows and encourages them to promote esports with the goal of becoming ‘the’ place to go for esports in the region.

The CEO for BLAST, Robbie Douek, said:

“Esports is at the centre of NEOM’s exciting plans for Sport, we’re delighted to be able to assist them in shaping this long-term goal. This is a record deal for BLAST and testament to our recent growth and standing in the industry right now!”

A similar sentiment was shared by the LEC in their initial post regarding their partnership.

Both partners would certainly cement NEOM’s reputation as an esports hub in the region, however the news sat wrongly with a huge chunk of the esports community. A plethora of streamers, esports athletes and Riot employees quickly expressed their discontent with the decision.

Instant controversy

Being a state sponsored city by Saudi Arabia, NEOM can be directly linked towards some unsavory practices by the government. The country does not recognize the rights of the LGBTI community. Both male and female same-sex sexual activity is illegal by law. This is of course, in vast contrast to countries in Europe in which the LEC is based, all of whom having high acceptance of LGBTI rights, both socially and legally.

While the LEC announced their partnership with NEOM, Riot and the LEC continued to portray an image of LGBT support, with its twitter logo being the pride colours.

The League of Legends community as a whole participated in the backlash following the partnership’s announcement. A Reddit post titling “For the very first time I feel ashamed for being a fan of the LEC” garnered over 5,000 upvotes in less than a day.

Complaints came not only from fans, however. Riot/LEC Staff and players all united in a critique of the action. Quickshot, Drakos, Froskurinn, Sjokz, Ender, Laure, Foxdrop, Ovilee, MarkZ, Medic, Vedius and almost every caster and analyst quickly joined together to lambaste Riot’s move.

Even Doublelift, one of the most well-known players in League of Legends, commented from North America, tweeting “humans right violation HYPE” in reply to the LEC’s partnership tweet.

Renouncing the NEOM partnership and the hypocrisy angle

Riot caught on in just half a day later, releasing a follow up post.  Alberto Guerrero, the Director of Esports, labelled the partnership a mistake and would end it effective immediately. Geurrero further mentioned that while committed to players in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, they “moved too quickly”.

Riot’s reputation has taken a huge hit however. Many have already accused Riot/LEC of being hypocritical and insensitive and only focusing on monetary gain.

The hypocrisy angle is multi-faced however.

From one side fans and people involved are critiquing Riot and the LEC for posturing as a supporter of LGBT rights and freedoms, while simultaneously signing a partnership with a project coming from a country that makes those same rights and freedoms illegal.

On the other side of the argument, people are critiquing the selective outrage of LEC staff. They state that LEC staff is quick to judge Saudi Arabia on the status of LGBT rights, but do not judge China or Tencent the parent company of Riot Games, on the treatment of Muslims.

The outcry and arguments went so far that multiple parties are now flogging and abusing each other the Twitter comments. During this entire period however, BLAST has remained silent on their partnership. The company (BLAST) is also getting a healthy dose of outcry, but they are quietly ignoring it and moving along so far.


In the end, LEC partnering with NEOM was an ill advised move at this time.

If Riot Games and not the LEC signed the partnership the outcry would be way less visible. Even further, if Tencent as an overarching non-consumer facing company and parent company of Riot (also partial owner of Epic Games, Supercell and PUBG) made the agreement nobody would even bother speaking out.

Finally, MENA Esports will likely wait for better days to have their region fully develop. The impact of this cancelled partnership will likely dissuade further partnerships with esports companies. After all, nobody likes bad PR even at the cost of an entire esports region.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or and its owners.

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