Advertisers appear to be largely unbothered by esports industry’s growing Saudi Arabian ties


By Alexander Lee  •  June 6, 2024  •

Ivy Liu

Defying protests from some corners of the esports industry, both sponsors and rank-and-file fans remain largely unperturbed by the entry of Saudi Arabian investors into the space. In spite of potential brand safety challenges, most esports companies’ partnership businesses have been boosted, not hurt, by the infusion of Saudi cash.

It’s no secret that Saudi Arabian money has fueled esports in recent years. From ESL/FACEIT Group (EFG) to the Esports World Cup, many of the industry’s largest leagues and events belong to the Saudi Arabian government, either directly or via Savvy Games Group, the gaming arm of the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund. (Editor’s Note: ESL/FACEIT Group paid for this reporter’s travel and lodging at the EFG-owned event DreamHack Dallas on June 2.)

In the past, esports companies’ flirtations with Saudi Arabian capital have been met with protests from esports fans. In 2020, for example, Riot Games announced a partnership with the Saudi planned mega-city Neom, only to end the partnership the next day following pushback from both fans and Riot employees, who expressed discomfort with Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations.

In 2024, esports companies are pushing through the criticism. Though tweets about their Saudi partnerships are regularly bombarded by critical replies, it’s become clear that this represents a vocal minority of the competitive gaming audience. For the most part, the stakeholders whose opinions can make or break esports companies’ bottom lines — sponsors and average fans — are either unaware of or simply do not care about the Saudi connection. 

“It hasn’t been an issue at all yet,” said EFG vp of global brand partnerships Larry Settembrini. “What I’m seeing is a group that’s trying to build more opportunities for the gaming community — trying to do it on a massive scale, to really enable gamers and professional players to have an outlet. I haven’t been out there yet, but I have not heard anything but positive feedback and sentiment from anyone that’s been involved with the project.”

Over the weekend, esports fans’ ambivalence toward Saudi Arabian industry involvement was on full display at DreamHack Dallas, an EFG-owned gaming convention and qualifier for next month’s Esports World Cup. When informed that the event they were attending belonged to Saudi Arabia, many of the gamers at DreamHack shrugged and moved on with their day. Most were surprised by the statement, despite the presence on the show floor of a booth promoting the Saudi Arabian planned city Qiddiya.

In fact, many DreamHack attendees appeared to be more concerned over the morally debatable activities of other empires rather than those of Saudi Arabia. At the event’s “Counter-Strike” tournament, the in-arena crowd booed loudly when the onstage screen flashed a logo of the U.S. Air Force, one of the tournament’s longtime sponsors. 

And in spite of the potential brand safety issues that could come with advertising alongside Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, brands at DreamHack were deeply enthusiastic about being advertisers at the event.

“I think the DreamHack event is all about building community, and building unique experiences for the community, and Anthros is coming to this space to provide an experience that provides value beyond Anthros,” said Ashley Williams, director of clinical sales for the chair brand and DreamHack sponsor Anthros. “So, giving them the ability to try all of these gaming chairs, promoting inclusivity and being adaptable and supporting all walks of life.”

Esports organizations, which benefit indirectly but significantly from Saudi Arabian investment in esports through initiatives like the Esports World Cup Club Program, have also made the calculation to move ahead despite the potential for pushback from their more politically involved fans. Some, such as Team Liquid and FlyQuest, have published public statements acknowledging both the human rights issues and the tremendous financial incentives to participate in the events regardless of them.

“It is a very, very sensitive topic. In the end, we believe that our players, our staff and everyone should decide what matters to them, and so that’s why the statement was released,” said FlyQuest chief culture officer Stephanie Harvey, who said that the team consulted its advertisers before posting the tweet. “I would say in some communities it’s fine, but in other communities the reaction is a little bit stronger. We’ve got to move forward with both.”

Far from turning brands off, esports companies’ participation in the Esports World Cup and its surrounding ecosystem has actually sparked an influx of brand interest in competitive gaming. This year, DreamHack’s “Overwatch” competition brought in a new sponsor in the form of Porsche, while the event’s “Counter-Strike” tournament included Logitech as a new brand partner.

With the Esports World Cup billing itself as the Olympics or FIFA World Cup of esports, marketers are jumping at the opportunity to put their clients before the event’s audience. For better or worse, this has created new sponsorship opportunities for both the Esports World Cup and its participating teams.

“Sponsorship is derived from the amount of eyeballs that you can draw to your team and to the brands,” said Dave Martin, svp of the British Esports Federation. “Ultimately, that happens when teams are successful and can participate in large-scale events. So, the more of them there are, the more chances there are to draw sponsorship into it.”

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