Saudi Arabia, the new eldorado of e-sport

Headphones on their ears and anti-perspiration sleeves at their fingertips, young video game fans from Riyadh are indulging in a game. They’re playing a popular shooter game that fans of « battle royale » have loved for more than a decade, a type of game in which the last survivor wins the game, called PUBG. But instead of confronting each other through interposed screens, isolated in their room or at the back of a cybercafé, they find themselves this time in the middle of a huge room equipped with bleachers and from which emanates an atmosphere almost comparable to that of a football match. The dozens of spectators present in this vast enclosure located in the Saudi capital are not just there to admire a simple game between teenagers on a giant screen, they are following the evolution of a real competition, belonging to a discipline considered as « the sport of tomorrow »: e-sport.

The tournament is part of Gamers8, one of the international events that highlights the oil-rich Gulf monarchy’s ambitions in e-sports, a field in which it hopes to compete with the world’s biggest powers like the China and South Korea. « Before, there was no support, » recalls Fayçal Ghafiri, a 22-year-old Saudi player who participated in this competition on PUBG, whose overall prize pool exceeded three million dollars.

“Thank God, now is the best time for me to play (competition) and participate in tournaments,” he rejoices, delighted that what was once a hobby has become a lucrative business for him. As on other sports grounds, the world’s largest exporter of crude oil has in recent years leveraged its immense wealth to assert itself in the esports scene by hosting major conferences and buying up competition organizing companies. important.

A new theater of global sport (washing)

Beyond the need to diversify its economy, which is still highly dependent on oil revenues, the Saudi kingdom wishes to assert itself as one of the main promoters of sporting events on the planet. In addition to the famous « Dakar » rally race and boxing matches, the regime has gradually taken over land on which it had fallen far behind its neighbors in the Gulf. Alongside obtaining its Formula 1 Grand Prix in 2020, Riyadh also distinguished itself by acquiring the English club Newcastle United, playing in the Premier League (bought for the sum of 333 million euros via its fund sovereign PCP Capital Partners), or by the recent development of a golf circuit: the LCI Golf Tour, whose competition is boring the traditional American circuit of the PGA Tour to the highest degree.

All these investments, among which e-sport has an increasingly important place, are part of the famous « Vision 2030 » project, of which Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) hopes for mountains and wonders to restore the image of his country, still tarnished by the multiple human rights violations of which the Riyadh regime has been guilty in recent years. In addition to the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which had shocked world public opinion, the mass executions (such as that of 81 people sentenced to death on March 12) and the few rights granted to women are still hampering the massive influx of investors and the development of the tourist sector hoped for by the higher echelons of the kingdom.

But despite all these criticisms of the ultra-conservative kingdom, the e-sports sector, in need of long-term funding, has not been deprived of doing business with the Saudis, always quick to conquer new flowerbeds.

The National Esports Federation was created in 2017, when MBS became the true master of Riyadh, himself reputed to be a great fan of the famous first-person shooter (« FPS » in English). ) Call of Duty. Since then, the number of esports teams has grown from two to over a hundred across the country. Many international studies by experts show the growing importance of the Saudi e-sports market, in a country that remains relatively young and where half of the population is under 35 years old.

In January, the kingdom’s wealthy sovereign wealth fund launched Savvy Gaming Group, an organization to develop the video game sector which bought two major players in the sector for $1.5 billion: ESL, a German e-Sports league , and FACEIT, a specialist UK platform. In the process, MBS launched a national strategy in mid-September which provides for the creation of some 39,000 esports-related jobs by 2030 and the production of more than 30 games in studios across the country.

As a logical continuation of this « e-strategy », next year Ryad will host the Global Esports Games, presented as the « flagship » event of global video game competitions. « What’s incredible is that the government has put esports front and center, while many countries are still trying to find a positioning, » said Chester King, CEO of British E-Sports, the British discipline federation. According to him, Saudi investments in this area have become « the highest in the world ».

A conquest without resistance?

Under pressure from LGBTQ gamers protesting against the criminalization of homosexuality in Saudi Arabia, planned partnerships between players in the sector (Riot Games) and the future Saudi city NEOM, under construction on the shores of the Red Sea, have been canceled.

« Saudi Arabia’s image will always be an obstacle for the esports community in the West, despite attempts to improve it, » said Jason Delestre, researcher on the geopolitics of esports at the University of Lille.

But according to Tobias Scholz, an expert at the University of Siegen in Germany on this new fashionable sector, the world of video games has « always been a little more morally flexible », being devoid of a « sustainable economic model ».

“(Different) e-sports need money compared to golf and other (sports),” he points out. In this context, the International Federation of e-sports is particularly benevolent towards Riyadh, refusing to see in the interest of the kingdom an attempt to « whitewash » its image.

“Laundering has the precondition of starting from something dirty. The culture of Saudi Arabia is beautiful and rich”, defends its president Vlad Marinescu. For his part, Prince Faisal ben Sultan, president of the Saudi Federation of e-sport, prefers to highlight the young Saudi players who told him that they had never imagined seeing such events being organized in their country. « That’s the feeling and the image that I want to keep, » he said.

If the recent integration of Saudi Arabia on the map of e-sport still arouses some resistance, these do not seem able to curb the ardor of MBS and his lieutenants. Under pressure, Riot Games, the organizer of the European esports league, announced in July 2020 its withdrawal from the partnership concluded with NEOM, the futuristic Saudi city. A backpedal forced by the opposition of several members of the European championship who threatened to boycott the event following the anti-LGBTQ laws promulgated by the Saudi authorities. But these episodic outcry against this use of e-sport by the kingdom, whose actions are often contrary to the values ​​that the actors of the discipline wish to convey, remain insufficient to stop a well-oiled and skilfully programmed machine by Riyadh. .

The Saudi capital does not intend to stop in such a good way. With the attentive ear of Gianni Infantino, MBS has already informed the omnipotent president of FIFA that his kingdom is a candidate to host the 2030 Football World Cup. An edition which could again take place in winter , with Greece and Egypt, and which the Crown Prince’s Vision 2030 would undoubtedly see very favorably.

Headphones on their ears and anti-perspiration sleeves at their fingertips, young video game fans from Riyadh are indulging in a game. They’re playing a popular shooter game that fans of « battle royale » have loved for more than a decade, a type of game in which the last survivor wins the game, called PUBG. But instead of competing on screens…

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