British Esports announced Monday a partnership with the Saudi Esports Federation, that, it claims, will “foster connections” and explore “opportunities in the Saudi Arabian esports landscape.”
The partnership was recently signed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and was hosted by UK Ambassador Neil Crompton, with Saudi Esports Federation Chairman HRH Prince Faisal Bin Bandar bin Sultan and Chester King in attendance.
Under the terms of this collaborative partnership, both organizations will work together to develop esports talent through cultural exchange programs, internships, mentorship, bootcamps, esports training programs, educational initiatives, and research projects. Both groups will also bring athletes from their respective countries to the National Esports Performance Campus in Sunderland and to the multi-day Gamers8 competitions to be held in Riyadh in 2024.
The announcement was met with an abundance of pushback on Monday, with some in the community calling it a betrayal of British Esports’ core initiatives like helping highlight and foster the talent of women and marginalized genders (Women in Esports) and gamers with disabilities in esports in the region.
A post about Pride Month from July was frequently cited in social media responses.
It’s not just a month or a marketing ploy.
It’s not a new profile picture or a fancy graphic.
Pride is every single day. Every single month.
It’s not just for June.
Pride is acceptance and equality.
Pride is a celebration and a reminder of the ongoing struggles faced…
— British Esports (@British_Esports) July 1, 2023
Further, many noted that the Saudi Esports Federation is run by HRH Prince Faisal, a member of the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia with direct ties to the government and its many controversial and often punitive policies related to the suppression of free speech, sexuality, equality for women, and its ongoing conflict with Yemen, according to reports from human rights groups such as Amnesty International (an example here and here on reports of government action against its own citizens) and Human Rights Watch.
In response to the backlash on Monday, British Esports issued the following statement Monday afternoon.
— British Esports (@British_Esports) October 10, 2023
That announcement did little to calm the fears and concerns of the community, or cool the outrage on social media.
In a lengthy phone conversation on Monday, British Esports CEO Chester King told The Esports Advocate that he and the staff at the organization were a little shocked at the reaction, given all the positive work they have done in the UK to foster and grow esports—as well as its initiatives aimed at helping to elevate women in esports.
But he also acknowledged that the initial announcement was lacking core messaging on important issues like if there would be financial ties to the Saudi Esports Federation, the goals of this deal, and generally having a seat at the table to have important conversations on fostering inclusivity in the region.
On financial ties, King tells TEA that he and his staff were a bit shocked that everyone thought British Esports was getting a financial windfall from this deal, considering that it is a not-for-profit organization.
“We’re self-funded or we have different partnerships for what we do around education and culture [in the UK]. We obviously have a qualification in the UK that we co-wrote, so for any event we attend we are paying for what we do in our country. And if we have to go on a plane like we did for KESPA’s event in Korea in May, that’s what we will do. We’ve got budgets for that, so there’s no money changing hands. There’s all these global tournaments coming up, the Commonwealth Games, the PanAm Games happening next month, etc.. As a federation, it’s our responsibility to pay for the travel, so again, there’s no subsidy from the Saudis for anything because it’s our responsibility. ”
While there hasn’t been any public reporting about players encountering problems at Gamers8 competitions in Riyadh earlier this year, the laws in Saudi Arabia concerning sexuality and gender give Western esports professionals pause. TEA asked King to address concerns about safety for those wanting to compete at an event like Gamers8 but are part of the LGBTQA+ community.
We also pointed out to King multiple times during our conversation that SEF Chairman HRH Prince Faisal has never made a definitive public statement that if you a transgender, gay, lesbian, bisexual, gender fluid, etc., you will be safe if you are competing in his country.
King acknowledged that these are important issues that need to be addressed, but also said that, in order to have conversations about inclusivity and safety for women and marginalized genders in Saudi Arabia, it is important to have a seat at the table in the first place. This partnership, he believes, allows that to happen.
“Our position on this agreement is all about getting to the table [with Saudi Arabia] and discussing issues. I think it’s going to take time, but we’re the people trying to do that [influence change], and we feel— because we are coming from such a liberal country—we should be fighting. We are trying to fighting for everyone.”
King went on to say that change tends to be incremental and takes time, but having a voice at the table allows his organization to have a positive influence on leaders in Saudi Arabia. Critics, responding to the initial announcement, might need further convincing.
On a related note, Emma “Emzii” Rose, a transgender woman and professional player who has worked closely with British Esports and represented the UK and her home country of Ireland in both domestic and international esports competitions, released a video on Tuesday expressing her opinions on this new partnership: