Mar 24, 2022 - Technology

Interview: New Saudi gaming company is well-funded and controversial

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photo courtesy Savvy Gaming Group

The head of a new multibillion-dollar gaming conglomerate backed by the Saudi government’s sovereign wealth fund says it’s a real business — and not a reputation booster for the controversial kingdom.

Driving the news: The Savvy Gaming Group burst into public view in January with an announcement from the country’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) that the new entity had purchased esports organizations ESL and Faceit for $1.5 billion.

  • Few other details were shared at the time about Savvy’s structure or agenda.
  • Savvy arrives not just amid scrutiny of the country, but continued pushback over various organizations seeking to partner with Saudi Arabia.

“I'm not over there on an image makeover project,” Savvy’s CEO Brian Ward, a former top executive at EA and Activision, told Axios in an in-person interview on Wednesday, waving off the idea that the project was the gaming equivalent of so-called “sportswashing.”

  • “We’re there to build a real commercial entity that's a powerhouse, hopefully, in gaming and aimed at developing and growing the game sector.”
  • Saudi Arabia’s domestic gaming market is growing fast and reached $1 billion in 2021, according to researchers at Niko Partners.

The Savvy project was developed over the last two years and incorporated this past November, Ward says, with “keen interest from the Crown Prince” Mohammed Bin Salman, who chairs the company’s board.

  • Savvy is fully funded by the Saudi PIF, with the largest amount of capital in its 50-year history, Ward says.
  • He won’t say exactly how much money they have, but described it as “many, many, many, many billions of dollars.”

The group’s sprawling ambitions, as described by Ward, span a range of gaming sectors, including building gaming venues, a studio to make games, an incubator for developing gaming in Saudi Arabia, an esports company and an investment fund.

  • “A significant part of our mandate,” Ward says, is to develop gaming in Saudi Arabia, the Middle East and Africa, but the “scope of it more generally is global.”

The enterprise is inherently controversial, given its ties to Saudi Arabia and its close affiliation with the Crown Prince.

  • Asked about the kingdom’s record on human rights, its crackdown on women activists and homosexuality as well as its ongoing war in Yemen, Ward cautioned not to rely on older impressions of Saudi Arabia. He argues that visiting the country would open people’s eyes to progress.
  • With talking points printed in front of him, he shared a statistical comparison about the increase of women in the Saudi workforce and compared it favorably to the time it took America to reach a similar mark throughout the 20th century.
  • When asked by Axios if he agreed with the U.S. intelligence assessment that the crown prince approved the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, he said, “I can't talk about that. I don't have any knowledge of it. We're not part … I'm not part of the government. I'm not associated with the government.”

Savvy got a grilling from employees of the esports companies they recently acquired, Ward says.

  • During town halls with workers, he noted, “We got all kinds of tough questions like this about LGBTQ rights and the safety of women in the kingdom.”
  • His answer to all of this is that Savvy will operate “with the values and culture of what we know our audience wants and our audience respects–and [what] those of us who have been in the business 25 years like about our industry, being forward-looking and liberal in many respects.”

Many American companies that had shunned the kingdom after Khashoggi’s killing have warmed to it again, perhaps emboldened by the U.S. government’s refusal to sanction the Saudis. The PIF invests in numerous U.S. firms.

The bottom line: Savvy has the money to make big moves, allowing Ward to describe ambitions that include building 300 gaming venues in Saudi Arabia in five years.

  • The investments will continue. Savvy has already been looking at developers, publishers and tech companies for acquisitions and Ward describes more big deals as “likely.”
  • Savvy has expected criticism and is getting it. “I have to answer and answer through our actions,” Ward says, “Not just, you know, talking points.”

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