Gamers from eight countries, wearing headphones and anti-sweat finger sleeves, guided gun-toting avatars through a battle royal in the Saudi capital as enthusiastic audiences watched the action on the big screen.
The PUBG Mobile tournament was part of Gamers8, a summer festival that highlights Saudi Arabia’s emergence as a global eSports dynamo – one that officials hope can compete with powerhouses like China and South Korea.
Like Formula One and professional golf, the world’s largest oil exporter has leveraged its immense wealth in recent years to position itself on the eSports platform, hosting spectacular conferences and grooming established tournament organizers.
The moves have attracted the kind of criticism Saudi officials have been hoping for, with some esports leaders objecting to Riyadh’s human rights record.
Yet the lack of long-term financing for eSports makes the industry particularly eager to do business with the Saudis, which helps explain why the response has been relatively muted so far, analysts say.
Meanwhile, Saudi gamers are reveling in their country’s new status and eye-watering prize pool.
“In the past, there was no support,” said 22-year-old Faisal Ghafiri, who participated in the PUBG tournament, which included $3 million in prize money.
“Thank God, now is the best time for me to play eSports and participate in tournaments,” he said, noting that what was once a hobby had turned into a lucrative “job.”
– Call of Duty –
Saudi Arabia’s interest in gaming and eSports comes from the very top, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman calling a “Call of Duty” player.
The national eSports federation was created in 2017, and the number of eSports teams in the state has grown from two to over 100.
Survey findings indicate 21 million people – about two-thirds of the national population – consider themselves gamers.
In January, the Kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund launched Savvy Gaming Group, which reportedly acquired top esports firms ESL Gaming and FACEIT in deals totaling $1.5 billion.
Last week, Prince Mohammed released a National eSports Strategy that calls on the kingdom to create 39,000 eSports-related jobs by 2030 while producing more than 30 games in domestic studios.
Next year Riyadh will host the Global Esports Games, billed as the world’s “flagship” competitive esports event.
British Esports CEO Chester King said, “I think what is incredible is that the government has put esports front and center, while a lot of countries are still trying to build a position.”
“Investment, I would say, is probably tops in the world.”
Gaming is also expected to be a major component of headline-grabbing development projects such as Red Sea megacity NEOM, with its planned 170-kilometre-long (105 mi) twin skyscrapers known as The Line.
Yet NEOM is where Saudi Arabia has suffered its biggest eSports setback.
Two years ago, Riot Games announced a partnership that made NEOM the sponsor of the European Championship for the game League of Legends.
The outcry was immediate and intense, led by LGBTQ gamers who condemned Saudi Arabia’s prohibition of same-sex sexual acts, which could be a major crime.
League of Legends, known to be LGBTQ-friendly, last week named gay hip-hop star Lil Nas X as its “president” as an honorary title.
Within 24 hours of NEOM’s announcement, Riot Games withdrew, and Danish tournament organizer BLAST terminated its deal with Megacity after nearly two weeks.
– eSportsWashing? ,
“Saudi Arabia’s reputation will always be an obstacle to the Western eSports community, despite efforts to improve it,” said Jason Delestre of the University of Lille, who studies the geopolitics of eSports.
Saudi officials, however, are adamant, and have deep support in the world of eSports.
“Gaming was always a little more flexible ethically, as they are mostly project-based and lack a sustainable business model,” said Tobias Scholz, an eSports specialist at the University of Siegen in Germany.
“Esports needs money more than golf or others.”
International Esports Federation president Vlad Marinescu dismissed any suggestion that the state was using esports to engage in reputation-laundering.
“Laundering is a word that has the condition to begin with something dirty. The culture of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is beautiful and rich,” Marinescu told AFP.
Saudi Esports Federation president Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan told AFP his vision is for the kingdom to become a natural choice for all esports programming.
“One of the most amazing things for me is at our recent event at Gamers8, young Saudi players came up to me and said, ‘We’ve always loved seeing these things, but we never thought we’d have this. ,’” he recalled.
“And that’s the feeling, and that’s the image I want to keep.”