The company behind the competitive online video game “League of Legends” faces criticism after revealing plans of a tournament sponsorship with Neom, a planned $500 billion Saudi Arabian megacity spearheaded by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Riot Games revealed news of the partnership on Wednesday, announcing that it coincided with the ongoing 2020 League of Legends European Championship (LEC), which began in January and is scheduled to run until September.
In its statement, Riot called Neom “a new community that will be the home and workplace for more than a million citizens from around the world who want to be part of building a new model for sustainable living, working, and prospering in Saudi Arabia.”
The company said the city would join the likes of Kit Kat, Kia Motors Corporation and Alienware as sponsors for LEC, which represents Europe’s highest level of competition for professional League of Legends players.
Conversely, the Neom project has been described by Foreign Policy magazine as bin Salman’s vision of a “high-tech dream city to be populated by global vacationers.” An estimated 20,000 members of the Huwaitat tribe have been displaced from their homeland in northwestern Saudi Arabia’s Tabuk province to make way for the city’s construction, and in April, an activist named Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti was killed by Saudi security forces, allegedly for protesting the displacement.
Citing these controversies, members of the “League of Legends” community were quick to criticize the partnership. Many also noted bin Salman’s alleged involvement in the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the crown prince has denied.
Those speaking out included “League of Legends” commentators James “Stress” O’Leary, who is gay and said that the game was associating itself with a country that criminalizes homosexuality ― an ironic twist considering that on the same day as the Neom sponsorship announcement, the official Twitter account for LEC featured a stylized LGBTQ+ flag.
Riot Games has yet to offer an official response to the outcry, but “League of Legends” lead gameplay designer Mark Yetter was one of the voices within the company to express his disappointment on Twitter, writing: “Sponsors are essential for the esport to thrive, but not at the cost of human life and freedoms.”