Esports is in a bit of a weird place right now. In the past month alone, team 100 Thieves laid off 20 percent of its workforce. The Overwatch League, which franchise owners paid 10-figure sums to join, announced it was ending after years of money-burning struggle. After years of venture capital flooding into the world of professional gaming, the faucet has dried up, and it has led to what some in the space are labeling the esports winter. But amid all the layoffs and foreclosures, one group stacked with cash is throwing their blood and jewel-encrusted hands into the ring: the Saudi Arabian government.
In late October, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and Prime Minister, announced the “Esports World Cup” for 2024, an eight-week gaming event in Riyadh. The Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia claimed that it would include the most popular games and have the “largest prize pool in esports history,” though he didn’t announce specifics for either.
The initiative, which replaces the $45 million prize pool Gamers8 event, is part of the Saudi Crown Prince’s national strategy to grow the country’s esports scene with massive purchases. They bought independent esports event company ESL for $1.05 billion in cash, esports tournament platform FACEIT for $500 million, and plan to start their own AAA games studio in mega city NEOM.
But some have claimed this massive investment is just an attempt to “esportswash” the government’s image — using the fun, colorful world of gaming to take the spotlight away from their numerous human rights violations. Homosexuality is illegal, and human rights organizations are banned. In 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based journalist and critic of the Saudi regime under Mohammed bin Salman was, killed by agents of the Saudi government.
The Saudi Arabian government has been doing something similar with men’s golf, launching their own $2 billion LIV Golf event series partnering with the PGA Tour. But five months since the announcement, a deal has yet to solidify between the pair.
Some members of the esports community have already started promoting the event. FaZe Clan, the storied yet controversial esports team that went from a $1 billion valuation in 2022 to being purchased for $17 million a year later, seems to be taking part in the event. Yousef Abdelfattah, better known as FaZe Apex and COO of the org, shared a post on X and a YouTube Short with their own FaZe embedded affiliate link to the event with no #ad.
“One of the ones I’m most excited about, it just got announced, is the Esports World Cup,” Abdelfattah said in the Short. “Anyone who plays any type of video game is welcome, even if you don’t play video games, come have some fun.”
Another endorsement came from Optic Gaming’s Seth “Scump” Abner, who is one of the most famous “Call of Duty” players to ever exist, winning multiple tournaments since his start in 2016. In late October Abner did a “sponsored segment” on his Optic Gaming podcast, calling the Saudis “fine folks.” Optic Gaming CEO Hector “HecZ” Rodriguez added that Mohammed bin Salman is the “most famous” and has a “kind face.” On Thursday, an ad for the event appeared on Abner’s stream, and in a YouTube Short from Nov. 8, he enthusiastically endorses it with an ad disclaimer and his affiliate link.
“This is a smart play by the Esports World Cup Foundation, Saudi Esports Federation, or whoever is handling this,” esports journalist James B. Fudge told Passionfruit. “Getting someone as prominent as Scump to promote your event normalizes it and makes it easier for other content creators to promote it publicly.”
When esports legends seemingly take money to promote Saudi’s new esports venture, it definitely should raise some eyebrows. But the usual esports content personalities and platforms are silent. Dexerto, a gaming news site will cover that Abner was attacked with a butcher’s knife, but not that he endorses this event. Internet personality Jake Lucky, who has 450,000 followers on X, posts multiple times a day about anything esports and streaming and hasn’t mentioned the Esports World Cup once.
“I think this silence speaks volumes,” Fudge said. “Either they are afraid that OpTic/Scump fans will eat them alive on social media, they fear hurting a relationship with Optic/H3CZ, or they want to avoid talking about Saudi Arabia.”