Comment – Esportswashing, a necessary sacrifice for the mainstream?


On January 24, the Saudi group Savvy announced the takeover and merger of ESL and FACEIT. But what does this mean for esports?

The acquisition and merger of ESL/Dreamhack and FACEIT to form the Saudi Savvy Group surprised the esports community. Find out here why this transaction is both flattering and worrying.

Welcome to the big ones

A billion dollars for ESL and another 500 million for FACEIT are astronomical sums, but they also show the potential of esports. Having a new investor willing to pay so much money (regardless of their past) is an encouraging sign for an industry that is currently struggling with COVID.

When one is supported by the Saudi government, one obviously does not lack money. Nevertheless, the amounts paid are astonishing, even for a country that has the second largest oil reserves in the world.

But how big are these numbers? Let’s take a recent example of a “traditional” sport to compare. Premier League club Newcastle United have been taken over by a consortium led by the same Saudi public investment fund (PIF) which has now also bought ESL and FACEIT. However, they paid “only” around $300 million in December for an 80% stake. This is a fraction of esports activity.

From sportswashing to esportswashing

Clearly, a state fund like the PIF is probably not doing charity. So why buy up so much of esports? If you’ve followed a few major sporting events over the past few years, “sportswashing” should be familiar to you.

Be it sports clubs like Qatar-led Paris Saint-Germain, or entire events like the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China. Sport and related events have become instruments to refresh PR and make a good impression.

While there are always voices against sportwashing, not much happens until the majority of attendees and fans reject the event. Most of the time, nothing happens because neither side wants to give up the competition, the prize or the entertainment. We saw it during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia or this year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Today, esports faces a similar dilemma. The new owners have certainly not yet announced any significant changes, but their mere possession is enough to create discomfort. We know that his hobby is precisely exploited to produce a beautiful publicity for the government which, in fact, regularly flouts fundamental human rights. Thus, Saudi Arabia occupies the 173rd place out of 176 in the ranking of the democratic matrix of the University of Würzberg and is described as a “hard autocracy”.

So will esports now follow the same path as “traditional” sport and put business before morality?

Can and will esports combat this?

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Esportswashing did not happen without warning. The NEOM partnership with the LEC and BLAST, announced last year and ultimately canceled, were clear red flags for the future. But at the time, the great outrage of the community and fans was enough to make Riot and BLAST reconsider things.

But will it work here too The public is much calmer than at the time. Of course, this direct sale limits the possibilities for fans to intervene and express their displeasure. Nevertheless, esports is not entirely devoid of options.

Ultimately, complete power in esports, in good and bad ways, is in the hands of each title’s game developers. In theory, they could decide not to license tournaments anymore. But unless every developer and publisher decides to completely isolate the new ESL FACEIT group, it remains only a fantasy. And given the reluctance of some developers (like Valve) to take full control, this will remain a distant fantasy.

And now?

Given the growth of the sector, it is not surprising that esportswashing is actually practiced. Still, it hurts to see it when it happens. What can we do to fix it?

Unfortunately, there is not much we can do. The only way to oppose this phenomenon is to voice your concerns within the community and convey them to developers and publishers. A mere fan can’t do much against a government that has millions of dollars at its disposal. An experience that “traditional” sports fans have probably already become accustomed to over the years and that we now seem to be facing.

This may be the price to pay to be part of the esports journey in mainstream society



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