Riot cancels LoL esports deal with Saudi Arabian city project following backlash

"As a company and as a league, we know that it’s important to recognise when we make mistakes and quickly work to correct them"

a LoL champion

League of Legends publisher Riot has canned its partnership with Saudia Arabian city project Neom following criticism from employees, esports casters, and fans. The deal would have seen the Saudi city project come on board as a partner for League of Legends’ European Championship tournament’s summer season. However, in a statement, Riot’s director of esports EMEA Alberto Guerrero explains that it was important the developer moved quickly once they realised “mistakes” were made.

“As a company and as a league, we know that it’s important to recognise when we make mistakes and quickly work to correct them,” Guerrero says. “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.”

Neom will be a cross-border city in the Tabuk Province of northwestern Saudi Arabia. As The Wall Street Journal reports, it’s received $500 billion in financial backing from Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and is set to feature flying cars, robot dinosaurs, and a giant artificial moon.

One Riot employee took to Twitter to share an article from The Guardian that reports at least 20,000 members of a local tribe are being evicted to make space for the futuristic city.

Others have pointed to Saudi Arabia’s human rights record in regards to freedom of speech, women’s rights, the LGBTQ+ community, and more. “I can’t and do not personally support this partnership,” League of Legends lead gameplay designer Mark Yetter tweeted on Wednesday. “Sponsors are essential for the esport to thrive, but not at the cost of human life and freedoms.”

More broadly, others have expressed disappointment at not being consulted at the deal, with one employee saying they felt “silenced”.

Since Riot has cancelled the deal, however, the response online has become somewhat more positive, with employees praising the decision but questioning why it happened in the first place.

Elsewhere, as reported by The Loadout, tournament organisers Blast also has a deal with Neom but finds itself in a more tricky position. Reason being, its deal “extends beyond just a simple sponsorship” and involves showing the Saudi city project how to become an esports hub in the its region.