Former Counter-Strike pro and current Immortals Executive Vice Chairman Tomi "lurppis" Kovanen today posted an excerpt from a Washington Post article highlighting disturbing reports related to the past behavior of the new ownership group of ESL. The tale relates to the period before the group took control of ESL, when they were trying to lure esports to the middle east with the NEOM project, which involved building an entire city based on tech.
In the passage, Nadhmi al-Nasr, who is CEO of the NEOM project and heavily involved with the Public Investment Fund’s (PIF) technological side, is discussing the cancellation of the deals with BLAST and Riot. You can see the full excerpt above, but some of the highlights include threatening to literally shoot a messenger and comparing his working methods to slavery.
As the article pointed out, al-Nasr’s boss Prince Mohamed bin Salman has also been accused of using violence as a tool, with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 being widely attributed to agents of the Saudi royal. This incident played a large part in the public outcry that led to the cancellation of the NEOM deals, along with concerns related to the land the new city was built on.
NEOM deals with Riot and BLAST fell through
Initially seen as a positive by an esports scene that is always in need of 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. Back in 2020, the owners had entered into agreements with the 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 that announcement, fans and journalists began to question the morality of the deals, not least as NEOM is being constructed on the historic lands of the Howeitat tribe. Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti, a member of the tribe who posted online exposing what he claimed were government attempts to evict his people, was eventually killed by Saudi security forces.
The combination of the Khashoggi killing and controversy around the land led to NEOM having both deals canceled, but the Saudi PIF decided to invest elsewhere, with a deal concluded last year that saw ESL and FaceIt sold their way. With esports still a newer industry, even big names in the space are vulnerable to such approaches, with the $1.5bn price tag a drop in the ocean from which NEOM’s $500bn budget came.