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Saudi Esports push now unstoppable after Riot Games rethink third-party tournaments

The Esports World Cup is set to host a League of Legends tournament in 2024 (per Jacob Wolf), marking a key shift by developer Riot Games. The event will be the biggest third-party League of Legends tournament since Riot put an end to ESL-run IEM events in 2017.

Are Riot Games letting their guard down and letting more third-party events flourish, or are “darker” forces at play here?

Esports World Cup League of LegendsEsports World Cup League of Legends

Images Credits: Riot Games / Esports World Cup

League of Legends joins the esports frenzy in Riyadh

The Esports World Cup is the rebranding of the existing Gamers8 tournament, an event held in Riyadh where organizations field teams across numerous popular esports titles for a slice of the $45m prize money. The 2024 iteration is set to feature League of Legends for the first time and an internal email sent by LoL Esports global head of strategy Chris Greeley told regional teams to keep the first week of July empty to facilitate the event.

Such international events have only been held by Riot themselves since axing LoL’s participation in ESL-run Intel Extreme Masters tournaments in 2017. Since then, no organisations have competed internationally on a large stage outside of Riot’s purview, potentially limiting revenue opportunities while there has also often been frustration with the formatting and scheduling of Riot’s own events. Opening up to third parties can lead to a better quality of tournament and involve greater revenue opportunities for organisations currently desparate for cash.

The move to give the Esports World Cup in particular the green light marks a turning point for the esports industry on the whole, one that has seen its key players bought by the the Saudi state through its Public Investment Fund subsidiary Savvy Games Group.

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Credit: Saudi Esports Federation

After testing the waters through an LEC sponsorship in 2020 via NEOM, Riot initially backtracked on Saudi state involvement in its game after the sponsorship announcement received fierce blowback. LEC talent also openly criticized the deal and some were thought to have threatened a walkout before Riot ultimately reneged on the collaboration.

More than three years on and the esports landscape has changed dramatically. The ongoing esports winter has led to stakeholders becoming desparate for revenue and the Saudi’s willingness to spend has been a lifesaver for many. That willingness to not only spend, but seemingly overspend, is part of what many see as a sportswashing campaign by the state and the Savvy Games Group.

Their aim is to purchase and control as much of the industry as possible, eventually moving much of it to the country and making Saudi Arabia the hub of esports. Spectators who watch, attend, and importantly enjoy these events can develop a favorable view of the country, thus helping to improve their public image.

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Team Spirit won $5 million at Gamers8 (Image Credit: Gamers8)

Business as usual in a whole new market

It only takes a quick glance at the case of the now-Saudi-owned football club Newcastle to see that this sportswashing works. Only days after the club’s takeover was completed, fans were seen dressing up in traditional thawb headdresses in celebration at the team’s newfound wealth and sporting prospects.

Within esports itself the campaign is also effective. Recent influencer advertising campaigns saw legendary Call of Duty player Scump publicly endorse the Esports World Cup, including a clip on the OpTic Podcast which saw OpTic Gaming CEO owner H3CZ describe Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as someone with a “kind face who looks like he’s always willing to help”.

Now the Saudi esports takeover’s biggest hurdle has been passed. The most lucrative esports event of the year will feature esports’ biggest title and it’s only a matter of time before down-and-out organizations look to cash in and become the latest piece of the Savvy group’s ever-growing empire.

It will be interesting to see which, if any, of the talent that spoke out in 2020 will now go on to take payment by working the new event. Those involved in the industry find it increasingly harder to avoid dodging their morals — at least the ones they’ve advertised on social media.

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