LEC Reverses Course on Saudi Arabia Funded NEOM Sponsorship Deal

by in League of Legends | Jul, 30th 2020

Chalk this one up as a win, esports fans. The League of Legends European Championship (LEC) has announced that they are reversing course on their controversial partnership deal with NEOM, a Saudi-funded “city of the future” citing feedback from the community as the main reason.

The LEC’s NEOM Deal Could Have Ruined the Brand

“Feedback” is perhaps a light way of saying what actually happened. Not only was this move widely lambasted by fans and journalists, but just about every talent involved with League of Legends publicly derided the move, saying that they were disappointed, disgusted, and did not agree with the sponsorship even remotely.

This is because NEOM is funded by the Saudi Arabian government, who has a long history of human rights abuse issues – including the persecution of LGBTQ citizens. This part in particular raised ire among fans, especially as the LEC is currently celebrating pride month with a rainbow colored logo. The LEC was seen as downright hypocritical to announce the partnership deal with NEOM during this period, even that it was done at all.

While on paper, partnering with a city that aims to be the center of esports growth for a region seems like a good idea, it’s important to remember where that money’s coming from, and whether the sponsorship would be worth Riot tarnishing the image of the LEC – which they’ve spent considerable amounts of time and effort building since rebranding from the EU LCS a few years ago. 

That’s something that Riot was quick to point out in their backing off of the sponsorship:

“As a company and as a league, we know that it’s important to recognize when we make mistakes and quickly work to correct them,” Alberto Guerrero, Director of Esports, EMEA said. “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. While we missed our own expectations in this instance, we’re committed to reexamining our internal structures to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

Why Did This Happen in the First Place?

Of course, all of this raises the question of how this sponsorship was even approved in the first place. Was it a cost/benefit analysis that Riot simply underestimated how people would feel about partnering with a city that gets most of its funding from a government that severely mistreats its people? If that’s the case, they need to do better research. The WWE also recently partnered with the Saudi government to massive fan blowback, even though they ended up going through with their event, and fans continued to watch their events.

 Perhaps that was a poor case study for Riot, who thought that while there might be some blowback, people would eventually just forget about it. Unfortunately for them, esports fans tend to be of at least some moral fiber, and weren’t just going to go quietly. Many experts and PR professionals sounded off on the issue, saying that for a statement on a massive deal like that to go through, it would have had to be vetted by several employees and executives before it was approved and ready to go on the site. It’s possible that they seeked feedback from those within the LEC and that feedback was ignored, before proceeding to the site. 

Either way, with the public blowback from both casters, rioters in the NA office, and other people who weren’t aware of the deal, it’s no surprise that Riot had to pull back on their ambitions in this case. Whether or not the LEC finds a new deal or partners with NEOM in some other capacity later remains to be seen. According to Riot, several of their key processes are being changed so this does not happen again, and so the PR department isn’t blindsided by another partnership that could be labeled problematic. 

Money, Money, Money

Here’s the thing – leagues need sponsorships in order to be profitable. As the LEC is a franchised league, they have a responsibility to their teams, players, and fans to aim to be profitable. It’s at least somewhat understandable why this deal might have been initially approved – there hasn’t been a report on how big the LEC deal with NEOM would have been for Riot, but what we do know is that the market for sponsorships has surely been affected by the Coronavirus pandemic.

This has led several companies having to freeze a lot of their marketing budgets while they attempt to evaluate both what the new normal is, as well as just how much of a hit they might be taking during the pandemic. This was specifically pointed out in a graph from analyst Manny Anekal on Twitter.

So, with brand spending down, even with esports investment from a lot of these brands, there hasn’t been a ton of new opportunity for sponsorships. It’s not an enviable position to be in for any partnerships team, and perhaps even one that caused some desperation from them. The important thing is that fans keep that team accountable, which clearly happened here.


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