Saudi Arabia wants to become ‘a hub’ of video games | TV5MONDE

Saudi Arabia wants to become ‘a hub’ of video games | TV5MONDE
Saudi Arabia wants to become ‘a hub’ of video games | TV5MONDE

Saudi Arabia, which is increasing its investments in e-sport, sees this area as a “gateway” to develop its video game industry and aims to produce in-house blockbusters, explains the prince in charge of this strategy.

“We want to become a global hub for video games and e-sports,” recalls Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan Al-Saud, president of the International E-Sports Federation (IESF), Friday in an interview with the AFP during a visit to Tokyo.

Saudi Arabia’s investments in video games have, however, been criticized by human rights defenders, for whom this quest for soft power struggles to mask a highly criticized record in this area, between repression of dissidents and frequent executions.

The Kingdom, wishing to diversify its economy beyond fossil fuels and improve its image, announced in 2022 an investment strategy of 38 billion dollars, which notably plans to create 39,000 jobs linked to gaming or e-sport and to see these sectors represent 1% of national GDP by 2030.

And this summer it will organize an e-sports World Cup where the winners will share a staggering prize pool of more than $60 million, also hoping to attract millions of fans.

Video games and e-sport “naturally evoke” countries like Japan or South Korea, but “we want Saudi Arabia to be part of this conversation,” Faisal ben Bandar ben Sultan told AFP. Al-Saud.

The prince, however, says he sees e-sport as “a gateway” to a much greater ambition, because “what we want to build is a holistic industry” of video games.

To achieve this, the Kingdom notably acquired last year for $4.9 billion the Californian studio Scopely, specializing in mobile games, whose title “Monopoly Go”, released last year, generated 2 billion dollars in revenue in just ten months.

Investing “all the way, all the time”

And other big acquisitions will follow, warns Brian Ward, boss of Savvy Games, the group owned by the very powerful Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) and at the center of the national strategy in video games.

“We never stop. Full throttle, all the time,” insists this former Activision Blizzard executive. “It’s a good time to be in the market, looking for good studio teams. For the last year and a half, it’s been difficult to find other sources of capital.”

Mr. Ward also hopes that Savvy will ultimately be able to benefit from PIF’s massive investments in major international studios such as the American Activision Blizzard and the Japanese Nintendo or Capcom.

“We will find ways to establish more meaningful partnerships with them, beyond the simple search for financial return”, for example in e-sport or to help them increase their visibility in the Middle East.

“We want to have an impact in ten years, by building not only a global hub, but also a regional hub, which will make the whole region take off with us,” adds Prince Faisal.

Beyond mobile games, the country also hopes to produce a AAA (big budget) game for consoles by 2030, “created in Saudi Arabia by Saudis”, and develop its own licenses, he explains.

“We have a long tradition of storytelling (…) Look at Aladdin, the Arabian Nights, Simbad… All these stories have been told from east to west, but never by us,” he regrets.

“Carte blanche”

This offensive by the Kingdom in the video game sector, which constitutes one of the facets of Saudi soft power, has been criticized by human rights defenders, for whom it struggles to eclipse a highly criticized record in this area.

The assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the end of 2018 was thus attributed by American intelligence to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

And protests against this country which criminalizes homosexuality caused a partnership to fail in 2020 between the American game publisher Riot Games and the future Saudi city NEOM.

“We are a country in transition, we are opening up” little by little, comments the prince, for whom “there are many misconceptions about Saudi Arabia and who the Saudis are”.

“We have a conservative culture, by nature as well. But that doesn’t mean we avoid people or push them away,” he insists.

“It was important to me that Savvy could operate as a true video game company,” notes Brian Ward, “consistent with the values ​​and culture of our industry.”

And “this is the case, we were given carte blanche,” he adds. “We’re not doing anything different being based in Riyadh than if we were in New York, Los Angeles or Berlin.”

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