Former Counter-Strike pro and current Executive Vice President of Immortals Tomi “lurppis” Kovanen today published an excerpt from a Washington Post article highlighting disturbing reports related to the past behavior of ESL’s new ownership group. The story relates to the period prior to the group’s takeover of ESL, when they attempted to attract esports to the Middle East with the NEOM project, which involved the construction of an entire city based on technology.
In the passage, Nadhmi al-Nasr, CEO of the NEOM project and heavily involved in the technology arm of the Public Investment Fund (PIF), discusses the cancellation of the agreements with BLAST and Riot. You can see the full clip above, but some of the highlights include threatening to literally shoot a messenger and comparing his working methods to slavery.
As the article points out, al-Nasr boss Prince Mohamed bin Salman has also been accused of using violence as a tool, with the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi widely attributed to family operatives. Saudi royal. This incident played a large part in the public outcry that led to the cancellation of the NEOM agreements, as well as concerns over the land on which the new city was built.
Initially seen as positive by an esports scene that still needs investment, NEOM is a new city being built in Saudi Arabia designed to be both “smart” in its use of technology and a tourist destination. By 2020, the owners had entered into agreements with BLAST Group, owners of the tournament series and formerly Astralis, and League of Legends publishers Riot Games to work as partners and promote the new development.
Almost immediately after this announcement, fans and journalists began to question the morality of the deals, especially because NEOM is being built on the historic lands of the Howeitat tribe. Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti, a member of the tribe who posted revelations online about what he claimed were government attempts to evict his people, was eventually killed by Saudi security forces.
The combination of Khashoggi’s murder and controversy around the country led NEOM to call off both deals, but the Saudi PIF decided to invest elsewhere, with a deal struck last year that saw ESL and FaceIt sell out. With esports still a newer industry, even big names in the space are vulnerable to such approaches, with the $1.5 billion prize money a drop in the ocean from which the budget originated. $500 billion NEOM.