It’s being reported by multiple outlets that ESL, one of the world’s oldest and biggest esports companies, has been bought for $1 billion by Savvy Gaming, an esports investment company that is backed by the Saudi Arabian Government’s wealthy and controversial Public Investment Fund.
The deal, first reported by German site Handelsblatt (and translated by Sports Business Journal), has seen both ESL and esports platform FACEIT purchased for a total of $1.5 billion by Savvy, a group whose CEO is Brian Ward, formerly a Senior Vice President at Activision Blizzard.
That is a lot of money, and a big bet on the future of esports. But then money has never been a problem for the $400 billion Public Investment Fund, which was created by the Saudis to help transition the country’s economy, and position it for a future without oil, but which in certain markets has also been a clear attempt at “sportswashing” the regime’s more brutal excesses.
If you’re not familiar with that term—beyond its traditional roots in the awarding of major world tournaments to corrupt and/or brutal dictatorships—it’s a concept that has become a major flashpoint in football over the last few years. Governments like the Saudis (who recently purchased Newcastle United) and the UAE’s Abu Dhabi United Group (owners of Manchester City) buy beloved football clubs, and use them as public relations vehicles. It’s a practice many argue really kicked off in 2003 when Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea.
That Newcastle purchase was especially controversial, with the Saudi government’s numerous human rights abuses raised by pundits, fans, and even Amnesty International, ahead of the deal being signed off. “Ever since this deal was first talked about we said it represented a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football,” Amnesty International’s UK chief executive said in October 2021.
The Public Investment Fund also has a sizeable stake in Activision Blizzard, EA and Take-Two after investing more than $3 billion in the companies in 2020. In the same year, Riot was forced to pull out of a partnership with Saudi Arabia which would have seen a League of Legends event promote the kingdom’s incredibly dumb NEOM project, following backlash from the esports community.