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League of Legends ends partnership with Saudi megacity after backlash

Esports league ends partnership with Neom, just 14 hours after announcing it
The League of Legends European Championship reversed its decision to partner with Saudi's Neom project after backlash online (Twitter)

A major esports league has ended its partnership with Saudi Arabia's planned megacity Neom just 14 hours after announcing it, in response to backlash from gamers on social media. 

The League of Legends European Championship (LEC) announced on Wednesday that it was partnering with the multi-billion dollar Saudi project. 

“It’s been a year of breaking new ground so far - to continue that trend, the LEC is excited to announce Neom as a main partner for summer 2020,” it said in a statement issued before the u-turn.  

The tournament, owned by US company Riot Games, said that the Saudi partnership would champion the development of esports across the world, and would “help future-proof the LEC stage”. 

Neom, which has been referred to by Riyadh as the world’s most ambitious project, is due for completion in 2025 on the Red Sea coast in northwestern Tabuk province. It is slated to be 33 times the size of New York City

The megacity is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 strategy, which seeks to modernise the Saudi economy and make it less reliant on oil. 

The project has proved controversial among tribal communities in northwestern Saudi Arabia, some of whom will be displaced to make way for the new city. Tribal activist Abdul-Rahim al-Howeiti was shot dead in April shortly after making videos protesting his eviction. 

LEC's partnership with Neom was immediately criticised by esports fans around the world. Many linked the project's founder, the crown prince, with human rights abuses, including the murder of Washington Post and Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Several fans suggested that LEC’s partnership with Saudi Arabia went against its commitment to LGBTQ rights. 

The decision to team up with Neom was criticised by several broadcasters and staff members of teams that compete within the LEC. 

After several hours of criticism, the partnership was ended. 

“As a company and as a league, we know that it’s important to recognise when we make mistakes and quickly work to correct them,” Alberto Guerrero, LEC’s Director of Esports in the EMEA region, said in a statement.

“After further reflection, while we remain steadfastly committed to all of our players and fans worldwide including those living in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, the LEC has ended its partnership with Neom, effective immediately."

“In an effort to expand our esports ecosystem, we moved too quickly to cement this partnership and caused rifts in the very community we seek to grow.”

On Tuesday, another major esports tournament, BLAST Premier, also announced a partnership deal with Neom

“Esports is at the centre of Neom’s exciting plans for sport, we’re delighted to be able to assist them in shaping this long-term goal. This is a record deal for BLAST and testament to our recent growth and standing in the industry right now,” Robbie Douek, Blast's CEO said.

Blast has also been strongly criticised by gamers for the partnership, some of whom cited the treatment of Saudi communities who live on the site of the megacity.  

Despite LEC’s u-turn, BLAST have yet to comment on the online backlash.