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Players from eight countries wear wireless headphones and anti-sweat finger sleeves as they control gun-toting avatars in a virtual battle, in front of an excited audience watching the action on a big screen in Riyadh.

This competitive round is part of Gamers8, a summer festival that highlights the “emergence of Saudi Arabia” as a major player in the global electronic gaming field, and officials hope it will compete with giants such as China and South Korea.

As with Formula One and professional golf tournaments, Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of crude oil, has taken advantage of its vast wealth in recent years to cement its position in the e-sports sector.

These moves drew criticism that Saudi officials had expected, with some esports leaders objecting to Riyadh’s human rights record.

But the lack of long-term funding for esports makes the sector particularly keen to go with the Saudis, which explains why the response has been relatively muted so far, analysts said.

Saudi players are enjoying the new prestige of their country and the big prizes they can get.

“In the past there was no support,” said Faisal Al-Ghafiri, 22, who competed in a “Battle Royale” tournament that included $3 million in prizes.

“Thank God, now is the best time for me to practice e-sports and participate in tournaments,” he added, noting that what was once a hobby has turned into a lucrative “job”.

Support of the leadership

Saudi Arabia’s interest in the gaming and electronic sports sector comes from the top of the power ladder, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is known to be a passionate player in the “Call of Duty” game.

The Saudi Esports Federation was established in 2017, and the number of eSports teams in the Kingdom has increased from two to more than 100 teams.

A poll showed that 21 million people, almost two-thirds of the total population, consider themselves gamers.

And last January, the Public Investment Fund, under the leadership of the Crown Prince and the de facto ruler of the Kingdom, launched the Sy group for electronic games, which acquired the two companies “ESL” and “FACIIT” in two transactions, about 1.5 billion dollars.

Last week, the Crown Prince launched the National Esports Strategy, which aims to create more than 39,000 direct and indirect jobs by 2030, with more than 30 games produced in local studios.

Next year, Riyadh will host the global eSports Games, described as the “pinnacle” event in the world’s competitive eSports sector.

“I think what’s amazing is that the government (Saudi Arabia) has put eSports at the forefront when many countries are still trying to find it,” said Chester King, chief executive of British Esports.

“I can say that (Saudi) investment is probably the highest in the world,” he added.

Incriminating allegations

The games are also expected to be a major component of Saudi Arabia’s massive development projects, such as the futuristic city of NEOM on the Red Sea coast, with the construction of two parallel mirrored skyscrapers spanning 170 kilometers known as “The Line”.

However, NEOM is also where Saudi Arabia has had the biggest setback in eSports.

Two years ago, the American company “Riot Games” announced a partnership that would make NEOM a sponsor of the European Championship for the game “League of Legends”.

The announcement at the time sparked an immediate and massive protest, led by LGBTQ players who condemned Saudi Arabia’s ban on homosexuality, an act that could constitute a capital offense in the conservative kingdom.

League of Legends is gay and transgender-friendly, and last week named gay hip-hop star Lil Nas X as its “chairman” as an honorary title.

Within 24 hours of NEOM’s announcement, Riot Games backed down, and Danish tournament organizer BLAST ended its own deal with the megacity nearly two weeks later.

“Saudi Arabia’s reputation will always remain an obstacle for the esports community, despite efforts to improve it,” said Jason Delister of the University of Lille in France, who studies the geopolitical dimensions of esports.

money talks

However, these concerns have not discouraged Saudi officials, who continue to support the e-sports world.

“Games have always been more morally flexible because they are often project-based and lack a sustainable business model,” said Tobias Schulz, an e-sports expert at Siegen University in Germany. “Esports needs money compared to golf or anything else,” he added.

For his part, the president of the International Esports Federation Vlad Marinescu rejected any suggestion that the kingdom is using esports to try to whitewash its reputation.

“Bleach is a word that should be preceded by something dirty,” Marinescu told AFP, noting that “the culture of Saudi Arabia is beautiful and rich.”

The head of the Saudi Federation of Electronic Sports, Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan, told AFP his vision is for the kingdom to become a natural choice for fans of e-sports.

He added, “One of the things that surprised me the most during our last ‘Gamers 8’ event was the number of young Saudi gamers who came up to me and said ‘We’ve always loved going to these things, but we never thought we would “find them here.”

“These are the feelings and this is the image I want to keep,” he added.

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