Riot has come under fire after the League of Legends European Championship (LEC), one of the most popular esports leagues in the world, announced a sponsorship deal with the controversial Saudi megacity Neom. The developer announced today that the city would become one of the “main sponsors” for the league, joining the likes of Kit Kat and Kia.
The announcement was met with instant criticism, given the Saudi government’s long history of human rights abuse, which extends to the creation of Neom, pitched as a futuristic playground. In its announcement, Riot explained that the city “will be championing the development of esports across the world.” Fans noted their displeasure with the deal on Twitter; the timing is especially egregious, given that the LEC’s Twitter avatar currently features a pride flag, while homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, several LEC broadcasters voiced their displeasure on Twitter. “The league I cover is now promoting a country that would kill me just for existing,” said James “Stress” O’Leary. “Feels great.” Commentator Indiana “Froskurinn” Black echoed those thoughts in a statement.
“Sponsors are essential for the esport to thrive, but not at the cost of human life and freedoms.”
“This is disappointing because this is the LEC,” she said. “It’s my team, my product, my managers, my office. My family. My home. This isn’t someone far away in HQ that I don’t know. This is devastating because I know who made these choices and I feel silenced.”
Other Riot staff spoke up as well, including Mark Yetter, lead gameplay designer on League of Legends. “I can’t and do not personally support this partnership,” he said. “Sponsors are essential for the esport to thrive, but not at the cost of human life and freedoms.”
Riot has yet to comment on the controversy following the announcement. The company recently unveiled a major rebrand of League of Legends esports in an attempt to bring all of its leagues across the world — including the LEC — closer together.
Just yesterday, the Neom project also announced a sponsorship deal with Blast Premier, a popular Counter-Strike: Global Offensive competition. “This is a record deal for Blast and testament to our recent growth and standing in the industry right now,” CEO Robbie Douek said in a statement.