Riot Games backs out of sponsorship with Saudi city of Neom after fan backlash

(Photo by Timo Verdeil/ESPAT Media/Getty Images)

Video game developer Riot Games has ended its sponsorship contract with Saudi Arabian city development project NEOM just one day after its announcement following a backlash against the deal from fans.

The company had signed up as a main sponsor of the summer season of one of Riot’s flagship events, The League of Legends European Champions (LEC).

Criticism of the deal came quickly with fans suggesting Saudi Arabia’s LGBTQ+ laws didn’t correspond with the league’s support for pride, which included the last LEC broadcast being pride-themed and the altering of its logo to include pride colours.

Riot Games’ Alberto Guerrero, director of esports, EMEA, said: “As a company and as a league, we know that it’s important to recognize when we make mistakes and quickly work to correct them. 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 does retain a sponsorship presence within esports, holding a contract with Blast, the organisers of the Counter Strike: Global Offense tournament.

Saudi Arabia has been in the news in the sports industry of late, with the country appealing a World Trade Organization ruling that it has failed to protect intellectual property rights in regard to the activities of pirate service beoutQ.

BeoutQ has reproduced Qatari pay-television operator beIN Media Group’s beIN Sports premium channels in its entirety on the beoutQ platform.

There has also been the ongoing question of the proposed £300m (€330m/$371.2m) takeover of English Premier League side Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which is currently awaiting Premier League approval.

Currently the game’s portfolio of sponsors is headlined by payments specialist Mastercard and includes the likes of smartphone brand Oppo and insurance company StateFarm.

During the summer season, Riot introduced arena banner advertising in the LEC as part of it sponsorship offering for the first time.