Teams, Organizers, Influencers Largely Silent on BLAST’s Controversial NEOM Deal

Last week when Riot Games’ League of Legends European Championship announced it had entered into a partnership with NEOM, a planned cross-border city in the Tabuk Province of northwestern Saudi Arabia, a large section of the esports community and employees of Riot expressed outrage. With the groundswell of criticism surrounding Saudi Arabia’s record of human rights violations and the mistreatment of people in the LGBTQ+ community, Riot Games pulled the plug on the partnership by the end of the same day.

That same week, tournament organizer BLAST announced its partnership with NEOM, and while it faced similar criticism from the community, the organization has remained mostly silent. This morning a BLAST rep. issued a simple statement to The Esports Observer: “At this stage, we don’t have anything to add to this story.” 

BLAST’s silence is not sitting well with some of the talent that has worked on previous BLAST streams and productions.

“The whole situation is a farce,” said Duncan “Thorin” Shields, who has worked as a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive desk analyst for BLAST.”If BLAST wants to be a company who only cares about business then that’s a different scenario entirely, but they’ve been quite vocal publicly and on their broadcasts about social issues which purport to be about sexuality and racial oppression.. To then go and partner with NEOM is both bad PR, based on the context they’ve set up, and a joke in terms of moral integrity.”

Vince Hill, who has worked as a commentator for the competition organizer and producer, expressed similar frustrations.

“I had hoped it wouldn’t come to members of the broadcast talent having to speak up about this; I was hoping BLAST would put a statement out, or reverse the partnership,” Hill told the Esports Observer. “As it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, I felt I needed to speak up. I can’t speak for others, I don’t know their situation, perhaps they were waiting for some kind of statement or are too worried to speak up for fear of losing work.”

Hill also tweeted that he would not work with BLAST so long as the partnership remained active.

Not only has BLAST not commented publicly on its partnership with NEOM, it appears teams, players, and staff involved with the BLAST events are also unwilling to publicly comment on the partnership. According to a statement made by Nikolaj Nyholm, co-CEO of Astralis Group, when the 12 partnered teams were announced, he said, “Business wise, as a participating organization, we’re guaranteed an income which will enable us and other team owners to plan and budget more efficiently.”

Sources tell The Esports Observer, the deal is worth upwards of $1M USD.

“BLAST’s CEO has gone on record saying the NEOM partnership was a ‘record deal’ for the company, and unlike a mega billion dollar corporation like Riot, BLAST apparently can’t take the financial hit on this deal by walking away, as was the case with Riot,” Rod “Slasher” Breslau, an esports consultant and journalist, told The Esports Observer. “A significant portion of the pushback to the Riot deal came from employees in the company and on-air talent, with team owners being conspicuously absent or declining to talk at all about the situation, with some reports saying they had prior knowledge of the deal. That doesn’t give me a whole lot of confidence that many of those same team owners are going to protest the BLAST deal, let alone pull out of the league.”

Breslau has also noticed a difference in the way the League of Legends scene handles issues like this opposed to those in CS:GO (a point touched on in an opinion piece from Dr. Tobias M Scholz published today by The Esports Observer).

“While it’s not the main focus here, I do think there is something to be said about the League of Legends community and industry talent being more outspoken on political and cultural issues impacting esports and gaming, whereas influential community figures in CS:GO have tended to keep quiet on these issues.”

And quiet they have been.

The Esports Observer reached out to numerous teams, talent, staff members, and C-level executives today surrounding the BLAST Premier Series–there were zero comments made across the board.

“If they have no issue with the NEOM deal and think it’s in line with how they want the public to see them as a brand then why not own it and make a statement about why the deal is one they wanted to undertake?” Shields said. “It all stinks and there’s no real answers that are going to make it any better, beyond the deal being entirely canceled.”

Hill believes, just as was the case with the talent at Riot, a stand must be taken.

“Often in esports it can feel if you speak up first, you are the first to have a target on your back. I’m not interested in such thoughts, I just in good conscience cannot work for a company that is backing NEOM. I’d rather be able to look at myself in the mirror than take any paychecks linked to it.”

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