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Riyadh: Wearing wireless headphones and sweat-proof finger sleeves, players from eight countries control a gun-wielding avatar in virtual combat, overseen by a rapt audience watching the action on a big screen in Riyadh.
This competitive tour is part of Gamers8, a summer festival that highlights Saudi Arabia’s rise as a major player in the field of electronic games at the global level, and officials hope to compete with giants in this sector such as China and South Korea .
As is the case with Formula One and professional golf tournaments, Saudi Arabia, which is the world’s largest exporter of crude oil, has taken advantage of its vast wealth in recent years to cement its position in the electronic sports sector.
The moves drew criticism that Saudi officials had expected, with some esports leaders taking issue with Riyadh’s human rights record.
But the lack of long-term funding for esports makes the sector particularly keen to engage with Saudis, which explains why the response has been relatively muted so far, analysts said.
Saudi players are now enjoying the new status of their country and the big prizes they can get.
“In the past there was no support,” said Faisal Al-Ghafiri, 22, who participated in a “Battle Royale” tournament that included prize money of $3 million.
“Thank God, now is the best time for me to practice electronic 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 Electronic Sports Federation was established in 2017, and since then the number of eSports teams in the Kingdom has increased from two teams to more than 100 teams.
A survey showed that 21 million people, almost two-thirds of the total population, consider themselves gamers.
And last January, the Public Investment Fund, led by the Crown Prince and the de facto ruler of the Kingdom, launched the Savi Electronic Games Group, acquiring the companies “ESL” and “FACE IT” in two transactions for about $1.5 billion obtained. .
Last week, the crown prince launched the national strategy for electronic sports, which aims to create more than 39,000 direct and indirect jobs by 2030, with the production of more than 30 games in local studios.
Next year, Riyadh will host the World Esports Games, described as the “pinnacle” event in the competitive eSports sector in the world.
“I think the great thing is that the (Saudi) government has put eSports at the forefront, while a lot of countries are still trying to position it,” British Sports chief executive Chester King said.
“I can say that (Saudi) investment is probably the highest in the world,” he added.
The games are also expected to be an important component of the massive development projects Saudi Arabia is undertaking, such as the future city of Neom on the Red Sea coast, with the construction of two parallel mirror-covered skyscrapers spanning 170 km stretch. , known as “The Line”.
However, NEOM is also where Saudi Arabia experienced its biggest setback in the field of eSports.
Two years ago, the American company, “Riot Games”, announced a partnership that would make NEOM a sponsor of the European Championship for the “League of Legends” game.
The announcement sparked an immediate and massive outcry, led by LGBTQ players who condemned Saudi Arabia’s ban on homosexuality, an act that could constitute a capital offense in the conservative kingdom.
The League of Legends is so LGBTQ-friendly that last week it named openly gay hip-hop star Lil Nas X as its “president,” an honorary title.
Within 24 hours of NEOM’s announcement, Riot Games backed out, and Danish tournament organizer BLAST ended its own deal with the megacity after nearly two weeks.
“Saudi Arabia’s reputation will always be a hindrance to the esports community, despite efforts to improve it,” said Jason Delestre of the University of Lille in France, who studies the geopolitical dimensions of esports.
However, these concerns have not dampened the determination of Saudi officials, who continue their strong support for the world of electronic sports.
“Gaming has always been more ethically flexible because it is mostly project-based and lacks a sustainable business model,” said Tobias Scholz, an e-sports expert at the University of Siegen in Germany. “Esports need money compared to golf or anything else,” he added.
For his part, the President of the International Federation of Electronic Sports, Vlad Marinescu, rejected any suggestion that the Kingdom is using electronic sports to try to whitewash its reputation.
“Bleaching is a word that should be preceded by something dirty. The culture of Saudi Arabia is beautiful and rich,” Marinescu told AFP.
The head of the Saudi Federation for Electronic Sports, Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan, told AFP his vision is for the Kingdom to become a natural choice for fans of electronic sports.
He added, “One of the things that surprised me the most during our recent event +Gamers8+ was the number of young Saudi gamers who came up to me and said, ‘We always loved watching this stuff , but we never thought we’d find them here’.”