- Blast deal with NEOM cancelled after weeks of backlash
- Blast staff and fans angry at partnership with Saudi government-owned entity
- Cancellation comes after Riot terminated deal with NEOM on July 30
Esports tournament organiser Blast and Saudi future city project NEOM have agreed to terminate their partnership after more than two weeks of backlash and controversy surrounding the deal.
The deal was cancelled on August 13 after days of private talks between Blast and Counter Strike: Global Offensive teams contracted to participate in its events. The teams requested that Blast end the partnership, which has been roundly criticised by esports media and several key members of the CS:GO community, some of whom work for Blast as on-air talent.
“We can confirm we have reached a mutual, professional, and respectful agreement with NEOM to terminate our contract,” a Blast spokesperson told SportBusiness. “BLAST remains focused on increasing access and involvement to esports, and we will continue to seek to expand our global footprint including in the Middle East.”
The deal would have seen Blast act as an esports consultant to NEOM, a $500bn (€422bn) Saudi government project which aims to build a tech-focused mega city in the north west of the kingdom. NEOM is wholly-owned by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign Public Investment Fund.
By agreeing to terminate the deal, Blast has become the second esports rights-holder to prematurely end a partnership with NEOM over the last two weeks.
League of Legends publisher Riot Games cancelled a sponsorship deal between its League of Legends European Championship (LEC) and NEOM within 24 hours of its announcement on July 30, after large numbers of Riot Games staff threatened to go on strike should the agreement have remained in place.
Criticism of Blast and Riot’s dealings with NEOM centred upon Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, the country’s treatment of the LGBTQ+ community, and evidence that the Saudi government has forcibly displaced people living on land where NEOM will be situated.
The termination of these partnerships with NEOM is a significant setback for the Saudi government both in practical and PR terms. Esports forms a key part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 project, which seeks to diversify the Saudi economy and pitch the kingdom as a forward-thinking, digital-first nation.
Saudi Arabia needs strong relationships with key players in the esports industry to make good on a promise to make NEOM the region’s esports hub. Now that Riot and Blast have publicly distanced themselves from the project, other esports tournament organisers choosing to partner with Saudi government-owned entities will face renewed scrutiny from teams, fans and media.
Wave of criticism
Blast could potentially have withstood the wave of criticism from staff, media and the wider esports community. But when partner teams privately requested the deal’s termination, Blast was left with little choice.
Anders Hørsholt, the chief executive of Danish CS:GO team Astralis, hurried Blast’s decision along with a public statement on August 10 describing the deal as “unacceptable”.
Astralis is one of the biggest CS:GO organisations in the world and formerly shared a parent company with Blast before it launched an IPO late last year. Astralis remains one of Blast’s most important partners – the Danish capital Copenhagen hosts an annual Blast event at which Astralis is the de facto home team.
“We and our team are rooted in a strong set of values, which among other things is about inclusivity and embracing diversity,” Hørsholt told Danish media outlet Politiken. “Therefore, of course, we find this kind of partnership unacceptable, which we also made clear to Blast immediately.”
He continued: “We always want to solve this kind of problem directly with our partners and give them a fair chance to solve this in the right way. At the same time, however, we have made it clear that we can in no way stand up in a context where our brand, players or partners are connected with companies of this type, and we naturally expect Blast to find a solution.”
Prior to this, the deal was consistently criticised by a number of CS:GO casters (esports commentators) and on-air interviewers that work with Blast, with many vowing not to work with Blast for as long as the deal stood.
Blast on-air interviewer Frankie Ward confirmed that she would not work with Blast until the deal was cancelled, making clear that it was due to Saudi Arabia’s treatment of the LGBTQ+ community: “The Blast x NEOM deal is an opportunity to educate ourselves so that we no longer work with people who would kill our friends,” she tweeted.
Partnerships and business links between sports and esports companies and Saudi government-backed entities aren’t anything new, and sources say this logic led to executives at Riot and Blast being taken by surprise at the widespread backlash to the NEOM agreement.
For instance, Blast signed a deal for its 2019 Pro Series Final to be hosted in Bahrain – a country with its own issues pertaining to human rights – with limited community criticism and no staff revolt as a result.
In December 2019, Riot held its Nexus tournament in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, after agreeing a deal with the government-owned Saudi General Entertainment Authority. Similarly, Riot experienced no backlash or widespread calls to cancel the event.
In addition, the Saudi Arabian Federation of Electronic and Intellectual Sports (SAFEIS) – a government-owned entity – has been at the forefront of recent investment in esports, again without much criticism.
SAFEIS’ most recent high-profile play was Gamers Without Borders, a series of charity esports tournaments held from April 24 to June 7 this year. The event, produced by tournament organiser ESL, raised a total of $10m for charities of the winners’ choosing.
The federation also title sponsored the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual, which acted as a substitute for this year’s cancelled real-life race.
However, since those events, social and cultural movements pushing for equality, diversity and human rights have risen in prominence, inspiring young people to use their voices as tools for change.
Many major sports and esports properties supported these movements and Blast and Riot were no exception. Both companies expressed their explicit support for charities, collectives and events that promoted equality and diversity.
Blast launched its ‘Blast For Good’ initiative in June which explicitly aligned the company with Black Lives Matter, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and other collectives campaigning for racial justice.
Riot Games donated $1m to The Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union – non-profits committed to racial justice – and changed its logo to Pride colours during Pride Month.
It was during that month that the LEC announced its partnership with NEOM, resulting in the deal with a Saudi government-owned entity being publicised side-by-side with its Pride logo.
The overwhelmingly angry response from Riot staff and LEC fans was quelled only by the deal’s cancellation, and Riot is now moving forward with an ethics committee in an attempt to prevent further incidents such as this.
Alberto Guerrero, director of esports EMEA at Riot Games, said: “We know that recently our actions hurt and alienated our community, particularly women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and our players in the Middle East, and for that we are deeply sorry. At the LEC, we believe in being inclusive and creating a more diverse landscape for everybody.
“We understand that some of you lost faith in us but we are committed to taking steps to earn back your trust. Until then, thank you for sticking with us.”
Blast is now under pressure from staff and fans to follow in Riot’s footsteps and double down on its commitments to support progressive social movements. However, sources close to the situation say Blast is keen to maintain strong relationships in the Middle East and is wary of alienating fans in the region, which it has earmarked as a key growth market for the company.