League of Legends European Championship officials notified, but did not need to receive approval from, representatives of their member teams prior to completing a partnership with NEOM, a Saudi Arabian state-sponsored city development, league sources told ESPN following outcry against and the cancellation of the partnership on Wednesday.
In a regularly-scheduled meeting a couple of weeks ago, staff from League of Legends developer Riot Games' European esports division met with business development and sales representatives from each of the respective teams. During that meeting the partnership with NEOM -- which was near completion and being prepared to announce -- was mentioned briefly during a slideshow presentation that included other business and sponsorship-related material pertinent to the league, sources said. This meeting was not an owners' meeting, which Riot normally holds prior to the League European Championship final in the host city before the coronavirus pandemic.
Teams are not given power to vote for or against league-wide sponsorships, according to sources familiar with the league's Team Participation Agreements. That power remains with Riot directly and such a right is not common for teams in other franchised leagues such as the Overwatch League and the Call of Duty League. Each team signed a Team Participation Agreement with the league in November 2018, when they were selected to participate in the League European Championship amid an applicant pool of existing esports organizations, business moguls and others.
Unlike many other sponsorships in the LEC, NEOM drew particular attention because of its ties to the Saudi Arabian government and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The partnership was cancelled late Wednesday after massive social media outcry.
"As a company and as a league, we know that it's important to recognize when we make mistakes and quickly work to correct them," Riot European, Middle East and African director of esports Alberto Guerrero said in a statement. "After further reflection, while we remain steadfastly committed to all of our players and fans worldwide including those living in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, the LEC has ended its partnership with NEOM, effective immediately.
"In an effort to expand our esports ecosystem, we moved too quickly to cement this partnership and caused rifts in the very community we seek to grow. While we missed our own expectations in this instance, we're committed to reexamining our internal structures to ensure this doesn't happen again."
Saudi Arabia's government follows Sharia Law, a form of Islam that states that being gay or transgender is illegal and does not recognize same-sex marriages. Punishments for these acts in Saudi Arabia have included public whipping, castration and various forms of imprisonment, according to a report by The Guardian. Several people working for the LEC or its teams are parts of the LGBTQ+ community, with commentator and analyst Indiana "Froskurinn" Black and MAD Lions community manager James "Stress" O'Leary speaking out Wednesday.
The partnership also drew fire from G2 Esports owner Carlos "ocelote" Rodríguez Santiago for the land in the Middle East that NEOM will be built on. Part of that land is home to the Huwaitat tribe, a group of indegenous people who are native to Jordan, Palestine and Saudi Arabia. In an interview with The Guardian, London-based tribe member Alia Hayel Aboutiyah al-Huwaiti said that NEOM is "being built on our blood."
Following the announcement speculation arose that owners of LEC teams have veto power for league-wide sponsorship deals. Sources told ESPN this is not the case, with sponsorships often being discussed with teams when they are or are close to being completed by league officials. Other sponsors of the LEC include Kia Motors, Alienware, Kit Kat and others.