Since reporter Jacob Wolf broke the news that League of Legends was going to be present at the Saudi Esports World Cup, the dialogue around the topic began. Thankfully, it is still ongoing and, hopefully, it won't be shoved under the rug anytime soon.
Saudi Arabia is at the center of esports discourse at this initial stage of 2024, but it can't be forgotten that there's already been an authoritarian regime in the industry for quite a few years now.
China is the example that Saudi Arabia is following, and the proof that these regimes will not adapt to western values, as some foolishly hope. Riot Games, the company which spearheaded China's rise in the industry, is now the one who holds the key to the esports kingdom for Saudi Arabia.
Reactions to the Saudi's rise in esports
The positions taken around the topic differ wildly on an individual basis, but there seem to be a few main ways people look at it:
Image via Savvy Games Group
There are obviously more nuanced positions, but these four examples are able to capture a lot of the public sentiment around the Saudi Esports World Cup.
- I don’t care who is hosting a tournament, I just want to watch League of Legends (a very common stance, the Qatar World Cup was a thing, after all).
- The US are also bad (this is either a very misinformed POV or someone who is deliberately misleading). The government of the USA do not host esports tournaments, the government of Saudi Arabia does.
- It is bad that a totalitarian regime who seems to have no care for humanitarian rights is getting so much power in the gaming space.
- It is actually good that Saudi Arabia is coming into the gaming space, because they’ll adopt our western values. Do you see how far they’ve come in recent years? (this video by Sideshow is a must-watch for anyone who thinks Saudi Arabia is becoming a more progressive country. Richard Lewis' work has also covered this extensively. You can find it on his Substack and Youtube channel).
GEN's League of Legends team debacle
With a timing that seems like divine intervention, a situation happened between RIOT China and GEN's League of Legends team as a perfect reminder that we have a direct example of what happens when a totalitarian regime joins the gaming space.
To get you up to speed, here is the chronology of the situation:
- GEN was meant to visit Taiwan at the end of 2023. In a public announcement, they referred to Taiwan as a country.
- Apparently, this drew the ire of Chinese LoL fans who started complaining about it because, to China, Taiwan is essentially a rebel region.
- GEN capitulated, deleted the post, claimed that it had a mistake in the text and canceled their trip to Taiwan.
- This prompted another wave of backlash, this time from South Korean fans, who claimed GEN was spouting Chinese propaganda.
Image via Sidiz
Despite how ridiculous this all sounds, it would’ve ended there if the “totalitarian regimes adapt western values” theory was true. After all, these were just random Chinese fans making a ruckus, right?
According to Lolcontextchan, 957 (a Chinese LPL caster and ex-pro) said on his stream that there will be no official LCK streams this year in China, specifically because of the “GEN incident”. The LPL is owned directly by Tencent, a tech-company which is under the influence of the Chinese Government.
According to a Chinese/English translator on X, only costreams are allowed, but nothing can be shown other than the games themselves. No interviews, pre-game content, nothing. No one is allowed to costream GEN games either.
China has not changed
This means that, in 2024, nine years after Tencent fully acquired Riot Games, this company that operates under a totalitarian regime has obviously not adopted Western values. One of the most famous teams in League of Legends has been blacklisted for God knows how long because they made a now deleted social media post where they called Taiwan a country.
China is the living example in esports of what happens when totalitarian regimes get in. Western values are not adopted, they are slowly, but surely, sucked away. The people with true principles are driven out, and the ones whose only principle is the one of eternal virtue signaling, change the signals to the tune of what the regime allows them to say then.
What makes you think Saudi Arabia will be any different?
Saudi Arabia's shadow grows
If the Saudi Esports World Cup is a success, it will expand. If it expands and both teams and Leagues keep hemorrhaging money (see what's been happening in LCS), they'll start spreading their tendrils through the LoL ecosystem.
Expecting the teams or organizations to take a stand is likely futile. Almost all of them are losing money. Coincidentally, what was the big highlight of the tournaments happening at Gamers8 (the previous version of the Esports World Cup)? Massive prize pools. And, as they've shown time and time again with Pride Month and constant hypocrisy, no value outweighs the dollar for these companies.
Image via Esports World Cup
The fans will also watch the Esports World Cup, even if they’re against Saudi Arabia’s anti-humanitarian practices. International tournaments are like unicorns in LoL’s esports space, so having a third, truly international competition on the calendar for the first time in nearly 10 years will translate into massive viewership.
The culprit here is Riot Games. They’re the ones who hold all the cards. They’re the ones who turned the LoL ecosystem into what we have now, and they’re one of the main reasons why these teams and organizations are so desperate for lifelines that they’ll grab whatever rope is thrown their way, even if it is drenched in blood.
As Montecristo has time and time again pointed out on multiple podcasts: Riot Games makes money off esports. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t keep investing money into it as tournament organizers after all these years.
Riot Games are opening the door
Riot Games are the ones opening the final door to Saudi Arabia in esports. Back in August of 2022, this publication
went over the Gamers8 tournament and explained how Riot was already technically present, albeit with nothing but some minor tournaments, like the MENA regional league finals.
In that article, we asked the question "Is Riot the last piece of the Saudi puzzle?". We're likely going to see it answered as this year progresses, and it increasingly seems like Riot Games will be voluntarily completing the puzzle.
Richard Lewis' most recent piece
uncovered the drastic change in discourse surrounding Saudi Arabia and the LGBTQIA+ community, with Slack messages attempting to convince developers that hosting a tournament in a country whose government criminalizes most LGBT interactions
will indirectly "promote [Riot's] values".
Image via Riot Games
Riot China has shown us that, even after a decade of being in esports, Tencent has not adopted any western values. Their political views and beliefs supersede any international counter-points, no matter how factual these are (Taiwan is, in fact, a country)
Furthermore, despite claims from companies like Riot that esports and gaming would have a positive impact on these matters, issues around LBGT
people are getting worse, not better.
These decisions happen even though Tencent isn't "officially" owned by the Chinese government. How will similar things unfold with Saudi Arabia, a country whose government is openly involved and owns most of the companies which operate in esports and gaming?
Esports is about to be a shared monopoly between two totalitarian regimes, and Riot Games, a company which has "Diversity and Inclusion" and "Social Impact" departments, is holding the door while bowing in courtesy.
Featured image via Riot Games and Esports World Cup.
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