Players from eight nations donning headphones and anti-sweat finger sleeves lead gun-toting avatars in a battle royale game in the Saudi capital as excited spectators watch the action on the big screen.
The PUBG mobile tournament was part of Gamers8, a summer festival that showcased Saudi Arabia’s status as a global eSports dynamo — one that officials hope can compete with powerhouses like China and South Korea.
Just like Formula One and professional golf, the world’s biggest oil exporter has been putting its huge fortunes on the eSports scene in recent years, hosting glitzy conferences and bringing together established tournament organizers.
These moves have drawn the kind of criticism Saudi officials expect, with some esports leaders protesting Riyadh’s human rights record.
But a lack of long-term financing for eSports has made the industry especially eager to do business with the Saudis, which helps explain why the boom has been relatively muted so far, analysts say.
Saudi players, meanwhile, are enjoying their country’s newfound status and the eye-popping prize pools it brings.
“There was no support before,” said 22-year-old Faisal Ghafiri, who competed in the PUBG tournament, which has $3 million in prize money.
“Thank God, now is the right time for me to play eSports and participate in tournaments,” he said, adding that what used to be a hobby has turned into a lucrative “career.”
– call of duty –
Saudi Arabia’s interest in gaming and eSports comes from the mainstream, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said to be a “call to action” gamer.
National eSports Federation Created in 2017, the number of eSports teams in the state has grown from two to over 100.
Survey findings show that 21 million people — nearly two-thirds of the national population — consider themselves gamers.
In January, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund launched Savvy Gaming Group, which acquired top esports companies ESL Gaming and FACEIT in a deal worth a total of $1.5 billion.
Last week, Prince Mohammed released a national eSports strategy that calls for the creation of 39,000 eSports-related jobs by 2030 by developing more than 30 games in local studios.
Next year, Riyadh will host the Global eSports Games, known as the world’s “flagship” tournament.
British eSports chief executive Chester King said: “I think the interesting thing is that the government has put eSports front and centre, but a lot of countries are still trying to work out the positioning.
“The investment, I would say, is probably the highest in the world.”
Gem is expected to be a key part of headline-grabbing development projects such as the Red Sea megacity NEOM, a planned 170-kilometer (105-mile) stretch of twin skyscrapers known as The Line.
However, NEOM Saudi Arabia has experienced the biggest eSports competition.
Two years ago, Riot Games announced a partnership to sponsor the NeoM European Championship for League of Legends.
The outcry was immediate and powerful, led by LGBTQ players over Saudi Arabia’s ban on same-sex sexual activity, which can be a serious crime.
The League of Legends last week named gay hip-hop star Lil Nas X as its “president,” an honorary title considered LGBTQ-friendly.
Within 24 hours of NEOM’s announcement, Riot Games backed out, and Danish tournament organizer BLAST terminated its deal with the megacity after nearly two weeks.
– eSports washing? –
“Saudi Arabia’s reputation will always be an obstacle for the Western esports community,” says Jason Delestre of Lille University, who studies the geopolitics of esports.
But the Saudi authorities are undeterred and have deep support in the world of eSports.
Tobias Scholz, an eSports expert at the University of Saigon in Germany, said: “Games have always been ethically volatile because they are mostly project-based and lack a sustainable business model.”
“ESports need the money compared to golf or others.”
The president of the International Sports Federation, Vlad Mariniscu, rejected any suggestion that the government was using eSports to destroy its reputation.
“Seduction is a conditional word to start with something dirty. The culture of Saudi Arabia is beautiful and rich,” Marineescu told AFP.
Saudi Esports Federation Chairman Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan told Agence France-Presse that the kingdom is a natural choice for all eSports programs.
“One of the things that surprised me the most was when people came up to me at our recent event at Gamer 8 and said, ‘We’ve always loved seeing these things, but we never thought we’d see them here.’ He recalled.
“And that’s the feeling, and that’s the image that I want to keep.”