Photos by Fayez Nureldin. Video by Rania Sanjar
Wearing headphones and anti-sweat finger sleeves, gamers from eight countries led armed avatars through a battle royale in the Saudi capital, while cheering spectators followed the action on a big screen.
The PUBG Mobile tournament was part of Gamers8, a summer festival that spotlights Saudi Arabia’s emergence as a global eSports dynamo – one that officials hope can compete with powerhouses like China and South Korea.
As with Formula 1 and professional golf, the world’s largest oil exporter has in recent years used its immense wealth to assert itself on the eSports stage, hosting glitzy conferences and conquering established tournament organizers.
These moves have received the kind of criticism that Saudi officials have come to expect, with some eSports leaders objecting to the human rights situation in Riyadh.
But the lack of long-term funding for eSports is making the industry particularly eager to do business with the Saudis, which helps explain why the backlash has been relatively muted so far, analysts say.
Saudi gamers, meanwhile, are enjoying their country’s newfound status and the eye-watering prize pools it brings.
“There was no support in the past,” said Faisal Ghafiri, 22, who took part in the PUBG tournament, which brought in $3 million in prize money.
“Thank god this is the best time for me to play eSports and take part in tournaments,” he added, noting that what was once a hobby had turned into a lucrative “job”.
Saudi Arabia’s interest in gaming and eSports comes from the top, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly an avid “Call of Duty” player.
The National eSports Federation was founded in 2017 and the number of eSports teams in the kingdom has since grown from two to more than 100.
Survey results show that 21 million people — nearly two-thirds of the national population — consider themselves gamers.
In January, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund launched the Savvy Gaming Group, which acquired top eSports companies ESL Gaming and FACEIT in deals reportedly worth $1.5 billion in total.
Last week, Prince Mohammed released a national eSports strategy calling on the kingdom to create some 39,000 eSports-related jobs by 2030 and produce more than 30 games in domestic studios.
Next year, Riyadh will host the Global Esports Games, billed as the world’s “flagship” competitive eSports event.
“I think it’s incredible that the government has put eSports first while many countries are still trying to work out a positioning,” said Chester King, CEO of British Esports.
“The investment, I’d say, is probably the best in the world.”
Gaming is also expected to be an important part of groundbreaking development projects such as the Red Sea megacity NEOM, with its planned 170-kilometre (105-mile) twin skyscraper known as The Line.
But NEOM is also where Saudi Arabia has suffered its biggest eSports setback.
Two years ago, Riot Games announced a partnership that would see NEOM sponsor the European Championship for the game League of Legends.
The outcry was immediate and intense, led by LGBTQ gamers denouncing the ban on same-sex sex acts in Saudi Arabia, which can be a capital offence.
League of Legends is considered LGBTQ-friendly and last week named gay hip-hop star Lil Nas X as “president,” an honorary title.
Within 24 hours of the NEOM announcement, Riot Games withdrew and Danish tournament organizer BLAST ended its own deal with the megacity about two weeks later.
“Saudi Arabia’s reputation will always be a hindrance to the Western eSport community, despite efforts to improve it,” said Jason Delestre of the University of Lille, who studies the geopolitics of eSports.
However, Saudi officials are undeterred and have deep support in the eSports world.
“Gaming has always been a bit morally flexible, because they tend to be project-based and don’t have a sustainable business model,” said Tobias Scholz, an eSports expert at the University of Siegen in Germany.
“Esports need the money compared to golf or others.”
Vlad Marinescu, president of the International Esports Federation, rejected any suggestion that the kingdom was using eSports to launder reputations.
“Money laundering is a word that has the precondition to start with something dirty. The culture of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is beautiful and rich,” Marinescu told AFP.
Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan, chairman of the Saudi Esports Federation, told AFP his vision is for the kingdom to become a natural choice for all esports programs.
“One of the most amazing things to me at our recent event, at Gamers8, is the number of young Saudi players who came up to me and said, ‘We’ve always enjoyed watching these things, but we never thought that we would have it here.'” he recalled.
“And that’s the emotion, and that’s the image I want to keep.”