Riot Games, the company behind League of Legends and Valorant, announced a new business partner today. To answer the one question that’s surely on your mind right now, YES: this new partner does have a long track record of severe human rights violations.
Riot is now doing business with Saudi Arabia. The latest sponsor for Riot’s League of Legends European Championship is Neom, a prefab dream city being built in Saudi Arabia that sounds a bit like Walt Disney’s original plans for EPCOT, only with more human rights offenses. If you’re into Riot’s games, or enjoy watching their esports, this deal should give you pause. Here’s why.
If you’ve forgotten, or somehow never knew, Saudi Arabia is a human rights disaster. Homosexuality is still a crime, one that’s sometimes punished by death. Less than two years ago Saudi agents assassinated an exiled Saudi journalist who wrote for the Washington Post, among other outlets, because he was critical of the government. Reforms have improved the lives of Saudi women over the last few years, but there’s still work to be done on that front.
Neom itself is directly connected to Saudi Arabia’s crimes against its people. The absurd $500 billion “megacity”—which will supposedly have flying cars, glow-in-the-dark beaches, and its own moon—is being built on land that has been occupied by the Huwaitat tribe for centuries. Saudi Arabia is evicting tens of thousands of Huwaitat from tribal lands to build their cartoon sci-fi city, and their forces have killed a Huwaitat activist speaking out against the land grab.
This isn’t Riot’s first Saudi entanglement. They held a huge League event there in 2019, after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Riot also isn’t the only Western company to do business with Saudi Arabia, despite its transgressions. That doesn’t absolve them from this amoral and unethical deal, though. That just means Riot is on the same level as some of the most odious companies in the world. Yeah, Riot’s as bad as Vince McMahon’s WWE, which takes some doing.
Riot is no stranger to scandal, of course. Its toxic workplace culture was exposed in 2018, and gender discrimination and sexual harassment allegations lead to a general walkout at the studio in 2019. Riot has deep, foundational problems unrelated to their willingness to get in bed with a brutal totalitarian regime. Riot is also owned by the Chinese giant Tencent, who has been criticized by human rights activists for assisting China with its surveillance program.
As serious as harassment and discrimination are, partnering up with Saudi Arabia implicates Riot in a different type of misconduct. By accepting Saudi money and promoting its ridiculous Neom project Riot Games is directly connecting itself to the crimes of the Saudi government. Riot is supporting and profiting from the forced removal of the Huwaitat, and whatever sort of violent tactics are used to accomplish it. Riot is supporting and profiting from Saudi’s continued human rights violations, including the execution of LGBT persons. Riot is supporting and profiting from a government whose actions have drawn condemnation from the global community. Why, then, should anybody still support Riot?
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.