Riot’s reported Saudi League tournament is set to overshadow Pride Month
Saudi Arabia will reportedly host a League of Legends tournament in 2024, and Riot Games is set to overshadow its own Pride events by partnering with a historically anti-LGBTQ+ state in the week after Pride Month.
The country, which has committed numerous human rights abuses and maintains a plethora of anti-LGBTQ+ laws, could be teaming up with Riot Games for the Esports World Cup in the first week of July according to an internal email sent to Riot employees.
Riot's potential Saudi partnership has huge ramifications
The email suggests the tournament will take place in the first week of July, immediately after Pride Month ends. This email was obtained by esports journalist Jacob Wolf, who then covered it on The Jacob Wolf Report.
While nothing has been officially confirmed to the public yet, Riot gave us the same statement, saying “We’ve been in conversations with various tournament organisers - including the Esports World Cup”, showing their openness to partnering with the Saudi-backed Savvy Gaming Group, the company behind the tournament. Riot also claims that “third-party tournaments could provide teams and pro players additional, optional competitive opportunities as well as new revenue streams”.
If this tournament comes to fruition as the internal email suggests, this means Saudi Arabia has successfully won over Riot after a previous failed sponsorship. Riot backed out of an LEC sponsorship by Saudi Arabian business project NEOM in 2020 after broadcast staff at Riot and popular LoL players expressed their concerns about the sponsorship on social media. NEOM would have been the LEC's main partner for the 2020 Summer Season.
This hasn’t prevented Riot Games from giving Saudi Arabia another chance. And for a company that has consistently celebrated Pride through events in LoL, and introduced LGBTQ+ representation in-game and in the hit Netflix show Arcane, Riot must surely be aware of the implications this partnership would present.
Same-sex marriage or sexual activity is illegal within Saudi Arabia, and the law allows for capital punishment for those caught engaging in such acts. The Saudi Tourism Authority claims LGBT people are welcome within the country, but despite the law not always being enforced, the Saudi Arabian government has proven itself to be opposed to LGBTQ+ people.
Furthermore, the country assassinated Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Saudi Arabia denied it was responsible for his death, but Saudi Arabia’s attorney general later admitted the murder was premeditated, and the UN stated the Saudi government was responsible. This is just another entry in a long list of human rights abuses committed by the Saudi Arabian government.
Two drastically different approaches to the LGBTQ+ community
The Saudi-backed Esports World Cup will reportedly take place in July 2024. As far as we know, Riot Games will still be celebrating Pride Month in June within League of Legends itself, meaning the tournament takes place directly afterwards. This will undoubtedly call Riot Games’ honesty into question, particularly among the LGBTQ+ player base.
While the country has made some efforts to improve its image, perhaps to make itself more appealing to potential business partners, it’s still essentially illegal to be gay or transgender in Saudi Arabia. According to Saudi law, you cannot legally change gender or freely express your gender, there are no anti-discrimination laws and no recognition of same-sex couples.
As recently as 2019, Saudi authorities have arrested people for being gay - a gay social media personality called Suhail al-Jameel was imprisoned for three years for posting a picture of himself in shorts online.
And in 2023, a Saudi Arabian trans woman named Eden Knight committed suicide after being lured back to the country by her family and forced to detransition. The country does not allow people to change gender, and she ended her life after her family confiscated her passport, money and hormones, trapping her in the country with no way to continue her transition.
This tragedy is a direct result of the Saudi Arabian government’s anti-LGBTQ+ laws. Meanwhile, Riot Games has made efforts to improve LGBTQ+ representation across its games and other media, which is totally at odds with its potential new partner.
Whether it’s confirming same-sex relationships between characters such as Vi and Caitlyn or Graves and Twisted Fate, introducing trans representation through its card game Legends of Runeterra or adding Pride avatars or effects to its games, Riot has consistently supported its LGBTQ+ community.
It’s important to note that Riot Games is owned by Tencent, a Chinese company partially owned by the government and that anti-LGBT laws still persist in China, as well as human rights abuses.
Same-sex activity is legal in China, but marriage isn’t. Hate crime laws also fail to cover gender identity or sexuality, and you can only change legal gender after having sex reassignment surgery. This does not change the potential partnership with Saudi Arabia a further sign of Riot’s fluctuating attitude towards LGBTQ+ players and viewers.
We don’t know how many staff members or LoL players will speak out against this if it goes through. There are many LGBTQ+ staff members at Riot, as well as professional players. LEC casters previously stated they wouldn’t support the NEOM sponsorship by refusing to cast unless it was cancelled.
But this tournament comes at a turbulent time for League of Legends esports and esports in general. Some within the company may feel this is a necessary step to guarantee the scene’s survival.
An industry desperate for support
The esports industry is experiencing drastic changes due to overspending and the unprofitability of many of its teams, among other financial issues, seemingly making the Esports World Cup a more tempting prospect for Riot than NEOM was. It’s also the latest step in Saudi Arabia’s major investment in esports, following various significant acquisitions and tournaments.
This kind of partnership has been proven to work in other sports. The 2022 FIFA World Cup was heavily criticised for taking place in Qatar, with concerns over the country’s human rights record and the rights of LGBT fans. Despite claiming pride flags would be allowed at the World Cup, Qatar later banned all displays of LGBT materials. This didn’t stop the World Cup from reaching 1.5 billion people during the final match. We’ve yet to see how viewership will be affected for League of Legends though.
If the email sent to Riot staff is accurate, it suggests the money being offered by Saudi Arabia is enough to convince the higher-ups at Riot of its viability this time around. And while nothing has been officially confirmed yet, Riot may be waiting to see how people react to this tournament before announcing its possible involvement in the Esports World Cup.
This is a much bigger commitment than the LEC’s NEOM sponsorship, but it’s unlikely to convince players who remain disgusted by Saudi Arabia’s extensive record of abuse.
Furthermore, this partnership seems set to destroy most of the goodwill the company has earned from its player base in exchange for a financial life jacket. Casters or players may refuse to participate in the tournament, but money talks and this tournament is a real possibility if the internal email is to be believed.
Not to mention The Savvy Gaming Group, a Saudi Arabian state-backed company, is the group behind the creation of the Esports World Cup. Savvy Gaming Group also invested heavily in Embracer Group, the company responsible for many of the layoffs and studio closures in the gaming industry in 2023, including Volition, Gearbox, New World Interactive, Free Radical Design, Crystal Dynamics, BeamDog and more.
The damage done by Embracer is still difficult to truly understand, and it will likely resonate through the industry for years as skilled workers move to new careers elsewhere. Embracer was relying on Saudi Arabian funds to keep itself going, but Axios reported Savvy backed out of a $2 billion deal with the company in May 2023.
Should this tournament go ahead, it should concern anyone invested in League of Legends esports to know that a lifeline offered by Savvy could be pulled at a moment’s notice.
It may result in distrust among LGBTQ+ staff members at the company too - people who work hard to raise awareness and deliver positive representation could see their work overshadowed by a tournament they had no part in.
Considering everything we know about the punishments suffered by LGBTQ+ people for simply existing in Saudi Arabia, this tournament would highlight the hypocrisy of Riot Games in the wake of its Pride celebrations, and reveal a staggering lack of integrity.
Disclaimer GGRecon attended Next World Forum in Riyadh in 2023 and expenses for the trip were covered by Saudi Esports Federation.