Saudi Arabia is spending billions to become a global gaming hub. Some fans don’t want to play
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi Arabia, the new home of some of soccer’s biggest stars and a co-owner of professional golf, is proving to be no less ambitious when it comes to another global pastime – the $180 billion-a-year video game industry.
Last September, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund earmarked nearly $40 billion for a new conglomerate aimed at transforming the kingdom into the “ultimate global hub” for games and esports by 2030. In February, the Saudi fund became the biggest outside investor in Nintendo, and just this month the kingdom hosted a major gaming tournament with a record $45 million prize pool.
That’s made Saudi Arabia an increasingly important player in the industry and contributed to its breakneck transformation from an insular kingdom best known for oil and ultraconservative Islam into an emerging sports and entertainment powerhouse.
The move into gaming has sparked the same kind of backlash seen in soccer and golf, where critics accuse the Saudis of “sportswashing” human rights abuses, including the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident.
With gaming, a kingdom that sentences people to decades in prison over a few tweets is joining a worldwide community dominated by the young and very online.
“It’s the Romans and the Colosseum all over again, and you have countries at the top layer using sports as a theater to display their wealth and their power,” said Joost van Dreunen, a professor at New York University who has written a book about the business of video games.
“You have to ask the question: Who is the architect behind this, and what are the intentions of these architects?” he said.
Saudi Arabia’s 37-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, reportedly an avid gamer himself, sees the foray into gaming as part of Vision 2030, his ambitious plan to overhaul the kingdom’s economy, reduce its reliance on oil and provide jobs and entertainment for its youthful population.
“We are harnessing the untapped potential across the esports and games sector to diversify our economy,” he said last September, when he announced the establishment of the Savvy Games Group.
Owned by Saudi Arabia’s $700 billion Public Investment Fund and led by CEO Brian Ward, an industry veteran, Savvy aims to invest $39 billion in the gaming industry. It hopes to establish 250 local companies and create 39,000 jobs in the next seven years.
Earlier this month, it completed the $4.9 billion purchase of Scopely, the creator of “Monopoly Go,” “Star Trek Fleet Command” and “Marvel Strike Force.”
Gaming is a massive and fast-growing industry. Market research firm Newzoo says an estimated 3.2 billion people play games on PCs, consoles, mobile devices or cloud gaming services, with the industry generating $184.4 billion in revenues in 2022. Gaming brings in more money than the combined earnings of the global box office, music streaming and album sales, and the top five wealthiest sports leagues, according to a 2021 report by the Boston Consulting Group.