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Update 7/29 9:45 PM ET: In a new statement, Riot Games announced it is junking its partnership with NEOM.
“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.”
The announcement, which praised Saudi Arabia’s NEOM project as a groundbreaking addition to its sponsorship lineup, rapidly faced criticism online, including messages of disappointment from prominent players, esports casters, and Riot Games devs alike.
NEOM itself is the source of the controversy. The city is a creation of the Saudi Arabian government, conceived under a regime with a history of human rights abuses that include persecution of LGBT persons and other transgressions against human rights.
According to The Guardian, a portion of the actual construction of the $500 billion futuristic city that boasts “better humans, better society” in its marketing is also taking place on land belonging to the Huwaitat tribe and forcibly displacing those currently living in that area.
Those involved with Riot, from esports players and casters to the developers behind the games featured in the league, are speaking out against the partnership en masse online.
RE the NEOM partnership in particular: there are no "perfect business partners" -- any individual, business, or government entity carries baggage, but the weight of that baggage matters. This is unacceptable.— blaustoise (@blaustoise) July 29, 2020
Incredibly disappointed in Riot today and am baffled at how we could support this, does not reflect the company that I started at six years ago and goes against so much of the progress that we’ve been trying to make in the last few years. https://t.co/R9N7d09NnS— alex shahmiri (@RiotAstryx) July 29, 2020
To pour salt on the wound, the sponsorship follows promises of inclusion from Riot Games made in recent years following earlier allegations of a toxic and sexist company culture throughout Riot as a whole. That includes a recent op-ed from Riot Games CEO Nicolo Laurent (via GamesIndustry.biz) published the day before yesterday titled “Lessons learned guiding Riot Games through a cultural crisis”, further casting doubt on leadership’s ability to back up its words with action.