By focusing on the thriving eSports market, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has recently added a new layer to its soft power strategy trying to polish its public image. Notably, Saudi’s strategic investment in entertainment and sports events dates back to November 2016.
The country now has grand plans to become a powerhouse in the gaming and eSports worlds. Its sovereign wealth fund, a $500 billion entity chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, introduced a new gaming firm in January 2022 intending to stake its claim in the booming industry.
Notably, the Savvy Gaming Group went on to purchase ESL Gaming. ESL gaming is one of the biggest independent eSport entities globally. The company was acquired from Sweden-based Modern Times Group in an all-cash transaction valued at around $1.05bn.
The Savvy Gaming Group also acquired FACEIT, which is one of the largest tournament organizers in eSports, for $500 million and later merged the two entities to form the ESL FACEIT Group. The newly-formed ESL FACEIT Group said in an official press release:
“ESL and FACEIT have both been fundamental to the incredible growth of eSports and competitive gaming globally, with over 30 years combined in the industry. Together, they will form a new driving force in the fast-growing but fragmented eSports landscape at a critical time in the evolution of the industry.”
Several weeks later, Saudi Arabia launched a new billion-dollar initiative to change the kingdom into a leading digital entertainment hub. This initiative, appropriately named Ignite, is expected to fund the development of new games, and infrastructure for gaming arenas and studios.
The kingdom also confirmed its plans to establish a huge budget games studio in Neom. This futuristic $500 billion mega-city will be located in the Saudi Desert. The studio is expected to produce and distribute games by one major publisher and it would become the first of its kind in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia’s latest investments in gaming come in the wake of the kingdom’s purchase of Japanese game company SNK in 2021, followed by its $3bn investment in shares of game firms like Take-Two Interactive Software, Activision Blizzard, and Electronic Arts.
The gaming sector has exploded massively and gained popularity across the Middle East and North African region (MENA). Gaming consumption in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is, therefore, expected to reach $6.8 billion by 2030, based on analysis by the Boston Consulting Group, an entity that has been working closely with the Saudi crown prince to boost and strengthen his image.
By now focusing on the thriving eSports sector, Saudi Arabia has added a new layer to its soft power strategy trying to polish its public image as it appears on the international stage.
That process is known as sports washing, which is a term that is popularized by Amnesty International. The term is used to describe the use of various sports by the oppressive governments to legitimize and sometimes ‘sanitize’ their regimes and distract attention from their human rights abuses.
The strategic investment made in sports and entertainment events by Saudi Arabia started 6 years ago when Mohammed bin Salman ordered the kingdom’s General Sports Authority to create a fund to enhance sports activity in the country. The objectives of this fund were to diversify the kingdom’s investments as part of Vision 2030, a proposal that was intended to mitigate the Kingdom’s dependence on oil.
Since that time, Saudi Arabia has changed into a global hub for various sports events, after signing a 10-year, $650m deal for a Formula One motor racing event. The country also invested millions in a Saudi International golf event, hosted some of the largest boxing showdowns in recent memory, and created a long-term partnership with WWE.
Saudi Arabia has also hired the Boston Consulting Group to assist in lobbying its interest in hosting a World Cup event in the future. In 2021, a group that was led by Saudi’s sovereign wealth fund acquired Newcastle United.
That move is believed to be one of the Kingdom’s massive investments since it offered the country an influential position in English football. It also provided Saudi Arabia with an international platform to upgrade its public image and distract attention from its recent abuses, like the infamous devastating war in Yemen that resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe, the infamous assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and its widespread crackdown on reformers, intellectuals, and women’s rights activists.
While the kingdom has so far managed to make some significant strides in its eSports ambitions and investments, it has encountered opposition from critics who are uncomfortable with its entry into the sector.
In July 2021, Riot Games’ League of Legends European Championship abandoned its partnership with Neom barely a day after first announcing the deal. That decision was taken after many fans threatened to boycott the league due to Saudis’ anti-LGBTQ+ laws.
Several other Gulf States also faced severe backlash as they tried to shift their attention to eSports. In February 2022, Ubisoft moved its Rainbow Six Siege eSports tournament from the United Arab Emirates after around 13,000 fans signed a petition calling the decision “insulting to our identity.”
There is also a possibility that Saudi Arabia might face renewed scrutiny for its sportswashing tactics in the wake of the invasion in Ukraine being executed by Russia. In the past few weeks, different international sports organizations and governing bodies have already imposed sanctions on Russia and its athletes due to the ongoing war.
In turn, that has resulted in the revival of the discussion about the way other authoritarian regimes have managed to weaponize sports for political gain. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia will likely continue forging ahead with its ambitious sportswashing method. Analysts believe that it will expand its scope of influence to include traditional sports and entertainment as well as the digital space and its limitless potential.