The League of Legends European Championship announced late Wednesday that it is ending its partnership with NEOM, a Saudi Arabian state-sponsored city development, several hours after the partnership was announced.
Commentators and staff members of teams in the LEC expressed anger on social media throughout the day Wednesday following the partnership announcement.
The announcement drew ire as Saudi Arabia follows Muslim Sharia Law, where it is illegal to be gay or transgender and there is no recognition of same-sex marriages. These acts have been punished by fines, public whipping, castrations and various forms of imprisonment, according to a report from the BBC. For the past few weeks, the LEC have touted Pride flag-themed graphics on their broadcast.
"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," Alberto Guerrero, director of esports EMEA at Riot Games said in a statement. "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."
Several members of that broadcast spoke out Wednesday, stating they were informed last-minute of the partnership decision. Those speaking out included commentator and analyst Indiana "Froskurinn" Black, who is gay.
"This is disappointing because this is the LEC," Froskurinn wrote on Twitter. "It's my team, my product, my managers, my office. My family. My home. This isn't something far away in HQ that I don't know. This is devastating because I know who made these choices and I feel silenced."
Other members of the broadcast and various teams spoke out, including longtime cast members Trevor "Quickshot" Henry and Eefje "Sjokz" Depoortere, caster Daniel Drakos, interviewer Laure Valée, producer Renato "Shakarez" Perdigão and former broadcaster and now MAD Lions community manager James "Stress" O'Leary, who is also gay.
The league I cover is now promoting a country that would kill me just for existing. Feels great.— James 'Stress' O'Leary (@StressCasts) July 29, 2020
North American player Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng, who plays for Team SoloMid in the League Championship Series, also spoke up.
human rights violation HYPE https://t.co/cpb5FNRHXh— Yiliang Peng (@TSMDoublelift) July 29, 2020
NEOM also announced Tuesday a more involved partnership with BLAST, the Danish Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2 tournament organization company. In that announcement, BLAST said it will help develop NEOM into an esports hub in the Middle East.
"Esports is at the centre of NEOM's exciting plans for Sport, we're delighted to be able to assist them in shaping this long-term goal," BLAST CEO Robbie Douek said in a press release. "This is a record deal for BLAST and testament to our recent growth and standing in the industry right now."
Riot was one of several American-based companies that drew criticism in 2018 and 2019 for hosting events in Saudi Arabia following the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, according to a December report from Fox Business. In November 2018, the CIA concluded that the murder of Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi Arabian government, was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally, the Washington Post confirmed.
In December, Riot hosted The Nexus, a first-of-its-kind League of Legends event for the Middle East in the capital city Riyadh of Saudi Arabia, sporting a $2 million prize pool. Other companies that have hosted events there include the WWE, whose Greatest Royal Rumble event in April 2018 barred female wrestlers from competing. Women's rights have been a major topic of discussion in Saudi Arabia, where it was illegal for a woman to drive an automobile until June 2018, according to the New York Times.