LEC Backs Out of Neom Partnership Following Backlash

The LEC cut short its Neom sponsorship deal after several hours of sustained public outcry.
The LEC cut short its Neom sponsorship deal after several hours of sustained public outcry. | Photo by Michal Konkol/Riot Games

The League of Legends European Championship cut short Wednesday the partnership with Neom it had announced earlier that day after an outpouring of criticism around the deal.

Riot Games' director of esports for Europe, the Middle East and Africa Alberto Guerrero provided an explanation of the decision to back out in a statement.

"As a company and as a league, we know that it’s important to recognize when we make mistakes and quickly work to correct them," Guerrero said. "After further reflection, while we remain steadfastly committed to all of our players and fans worldwide including those living in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, the LEC has ended its partnership with NEOM, effective immediately.

"In an effort to expand our esports ecosystem, we moved too quickly to cement this partnership and caused rifts in the very community we seek to grow. While we missed our own expectations in this instance, we’re committed to reexamining our internal structures to ensure this doesn't happen again.”

Guerrero did not explain how the deal reached the stage of agreement without these issues arising in previous discussions.

Neom is an ambitious, futuristic planned city set for construction in Saudi Arabia and bankrolled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

League employees and community members objected to the deal for several reasons.

Caster and MAD Lions community manager James "Stress" O'Leary, who is gay, tweeted his discomfort at "promoting a country that would kill me just for existing." While Saudi Arabia has no codified set of laws, its interpretation of Sharia law criminalizes homosexuality, and classifies some homosexual acts as punishable by death.

Caster Trevor "Quickshot" Henry tweeted a link to a story in The Guardian about reported abuses taking place to build Neom, including the displacement of thousands of Huwaitat tribe members and the alleged murder of an anti-Neom advocate.

Bin Salman is also widely suspected of ordering the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Bin Salman has denied involvement, but has also taken responsibility for the murder.

Alexander Quach, who leads Riot Games' LGBTQIA+ Employee Resource Group, described the process of reversing the deal as arduous in a series of tweets.

"Today, to be transparent, was hours of meetings," he wrote. "The burden of explaining why this partnership was problematic and how it was unacceptable fell into the hands of marginalized folks. This should be a case study on why a company needs diverse leaders and needs to listen/be inclusive of diverse communities.

"This could've easily been avoided."

BLAST Premier, a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament organizing company, announced a similar deal with Neom the day before the LEC. The deal went largely unremarked upon until the LEC's announcement, when it began to receive flak for the same reasons. BLAST has yet to address criticism of the deal.