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Riot signs controversial sponsorship deal with Saudi Arabia city project

UPDATE: LEC ends partnership following backlash.

UPDATE 30/07/20: In response to significant criticism from the League of Legends fan base and casters, the LEC has ended its controversial sponsorship deal with Saudi Arabia city project Neom.

The news was announced via a statement from Alberto Guerrero, Riot's director of esports for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

"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 wrote. "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."

A similar partnership between Neom and CS:GO tournament organiser BLAST, which CEO Robbie Douek described as a "record deal" for the company, still stands at time of writing.

ORIGINAL STORY 29/07/20: The League of Legends European Championship, the professional esports league run by Riot Games, has announced a sponsorship deal with Saudi Arabian city-building project Neom - a move that has already attracted significant criticism from fans.

The deal will see Neom become the main partner for the LEC's summer season and sponsor a new "Oracle Lens" segment of the live broadcast, which along with a similar partnership with CS:GO tournament BLAST, should bring the project a fair amount of exposure. Neom is a cross-border city project planned for construction in the Tabuk province of Saudi Arabia. Backed by both the Saudi Arabian state and international investors, the megacity is supposed to represent the future of humanity, with plans made by Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammed bin Salman including flying cars, robot dinosaurs and a giant artificial moon (via Wall Street Journal [paywall]). Costing £400bn to complete, the city-state will cover an area the size of Belgium.

There appears to be a far darker side to this high-tech city, however, as reports allege Saudi authorities are removing and even killing Huwaiti tribe members to make way for the project (via The Guardian). Following the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an act the CIA attributed to Salman, the crown prince allegedly told colleagues that "no one will invest [in the project] for years" due to the international outcry that followed (via The Financial Times [paywall]).

Riot's decision to make a deal with a Saudi state-backed project is troubling more generally, as the country has a notoriously poor human rights record, and homosexuality is still criminalised with punishments ranging from floggings to the death penalty. Something which, as fans have pointed out, clashes with the LEC's current pride logo.

Since the partnership was announced, dozens of fans have expressed outrage in replies to the LEC's tweet, with many broadcast team members openly criticising the decision. Eurogamer has contacted Riot Games for comment.

It seems likely Neom wanted this sponsorship deal as a way to gain legitimacy in the west, particularly given current international perceptions of Saudi Arabia are rather negative. Given the sponsorship deal has already received a fair amount of backlash, it looks like this plan may not be as smooth-sailing as first thought.