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.
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.
Saudi gamers, meanwhile, are enjoying their country’s newfound status and the eye-watering prize pools it brings.
“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.
Survey results show that 21 million people — nearly two-thirds of the national population — consider themselves gamers.
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.
“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.
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.
Two years ago, Riot Games announced a partnership that would see NEOM sponsor the European Championship for the game League of Legends.
League of Legends is considered LGBTQ-friendly and last week named gay hip-hop star Lil Nas X as “president,” an honorary title.
– eSports washing? –
However, Saudi officials are undeterred and have deep support in the eSports world.
“Esports need the money compared to golf or others.”
“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.
“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.