As climbdowns go, it is one of the biggest in the history of esports and also one of the quickest. After years of growing a fanbase, the LEC caused consternation amongst many members of that community with yesterday’s announcement that controversial Saudi Arabia-based company NEOM would be a main partner for the remainder of the LEC Summer 2020 tournament.
In what proved to be a spectacularly misjudged announcement, the LEC announced that their new sponsor partner as “a new community that will be the home and workplace for more than a million citizens from around the world who want to be part of building a new model for sustainable living”.
They also added that NEOM will be “championing the development of esports across the world.”
On the face of it, it seemed like a somewhat innocuous announcement of a new partner for the LEC, but a number of factors didn’t sit right with many members of the LEC community.
In May 2020, The Guardian newspaper revealed that despite claims that their expansive new community was being built on unpopulated land, it was actually home to 20,000 members of the Huwaitat tribe, who are being forcibly evicted from the land for the development to go ahead.
Indeed on the 13 April, one member of the tribe, Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti, was killed after he resisted official calls to move from his land. That combined with the close links to the Saudi governments somewhat Luddite views in terms of gender, race, and LGBT equality, invoked ire in many LEC fans.
After news of the deal broke, a number of LEC players, commentators, and fans took to Twitter to express their anger and disbelief at the news. “I’m still trying to find the words and the only thing I can say is that I do not support this #LEC partnership,” tweeted Shakarez, who added, “A lot of us were blindsided with the news of this yesterday.”
Daniel Drakos commented, “There have been many good days to be a member of the #LEC team, today is not one of those days.”
Foxdrop was even more forthright stating “#LEC had done such a good job of building itself as one of the most likable broadcasts in esports. All that down the drain in one announcement. This new partnership is so tone-deaf it is almost unfathomable.”
In a further tweet he added “Above all else, I feel so terrible for the LEC broadcast squad. It’s such an inclusive team. Tbh it’s more a family than a team, what a gut punch.”
This is disappointing because this is the LEC. It's my team, my product, my managers, my office.
My family. My home.
This isn't someone far away in HQ that I don't know. This is devastating because I know who made these choices and I feel silenced.
— Froskurinn (@Froskurinn) July 29, 2020
“After Further Reflection”
After this outpouring of anger from fans and leading lights in the LEC community, the organisation quickly announced on Wednesday evening that their partnership with Neom was being ended with immediate effect. The comment read:
“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. 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 re-examining our internal structures to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
The climbdown in the face of such objections from within the LEC community is a humiliating one for the LEC, who had clearly not done their research on NEOM or their links to the notoriously non-inclusive Saudi regime, whose record on human rights is amongst the worst in the world today.
Whether that transfers into LEC members losing faith in the organisation time will tell. The LEC did make a wrong step with their deal but moved quickly to put it right. The question is whether they can win back their fans hurt by the initial partnership and move forward to make sure these divisive deals do not happen again in the future.
Featured Image Credits: LoL Esports