On October 23rd, ESL FACEIT Group Chairman and long-time esports industry veteran Ralf Reichert announced he was leaving his role to become CEO of the Esports World Cup Foundation.
The Esports World Cup was announced by the Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and looks to be one of the components of the country’s Vision 2030 project to diversify its economy and grow its tourism sector.
As with nearly every Saudi Arabian government-funded esports announcement, the unveiling of the new Esports World Cup — a multi-million dollar cross-game esports tournament in Riyadh — was met with a range of community criticisms.
The country’s investment in the esports scene, which has propelled into the billions of dollars, has raised concerns because of the country’s human rights records surrounding LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and its crackdown on dissent. Some notable examples of the country’s continued push into the esports scene include Savvy Games Group acquiring and merging FACEIT and ESL Gaming, unveiling a national esports strategy and $38bn investment plans, and launching a $45m esports festival.
Speaking to Esports Insider immediately after the Esports World Cup announcement, Ralf Reichert, CEO of the newly created Saudi government-founded non-profit Esports World Cup Foundation, discussed how the Foundation plans to address community concerns regarding the Saudi-based and -owned event.
“I think [the tournament] addresses it in the core of what happened in the last two, three years,” he said. “Saudi Arabia has become a destination where many players, many teams, many publishers, many tournament organisers travel and I don’t know a single person who didn’t feel welcome or safe. So you know, as the basis for it, everyone is welcome here. I can tell this firsthand. I’m here right now.
“I think number two in terms of human rights and all of that stuff you just mentioned, it’s obviously a society in change. And the Crown Prince said so in an interview recently on how they’re progressing and developing.
“With esports, we’re always at the forefront of change, we’re at the forefront of the next generation and I deeply believe that we’re working here in a society that is changing for the better. And that’s why we are doing it here. But it’s totally fine as well if the community has a critical eye on this and keeps reminding everybody what the expectation is, that is totally okay. We’re totally expecting that.”
From a competitive standpoint, the Esports World Cup, which replaces Gamers8, is arguably the country’s most ambitious project. Simply put, the aim is to make this one of the largest esports tournaments in the world, both in terms of prize pool and the titles it attracts.
Reichert stated that initially, the event’s list of titles will breach the double-figure mark. There is also potential that the event will eventually include games that come from a range of platforms, such as mobile, PC and console.
“The ambition is really to have all of the best games in the world. We’re not going to achieve them in year one, but that is clearly what we are wanting to achieve over the journey,” said Reichert.
Perhaps one of Esports World Cup’s most defining traits is that it incentivises esports organisations to field multiple rosters across a variety of disciplines to compete at the event. In a press release, it stated that the competition’s cross-game competition format plans to reward and incentivise esports organisations to compete across titles. Its predecessor, Gamers8, included a $5m bonus scheme to award cross-title performance.
Despite this, Reichert did highlight that this does not mean organisations have to compete in every title. “We want to enable clubs to play and to participate across titles, and we want them to have a goal and the ranking and the World Cup to strive for across titles. But by no means are we forcing or pushing teams to do something that they’re not convinced of or isn’t a core for their DNA.”
Reichert also confirmed that there are plans in place to run women’s tournaments at the Esports World Cup, however, nothing has yet to be made official. “We’re absolutely looking at female tournaments. That is very close to what I’ve worked on before and working on now. I can’t announce anything today but I don’t think it’s very unlikely that it’s going to happen.”
The inclusion of major Women’s tournaments at Esports World Cup would be a promising sign for the event, especially considering that none of Gamers8’s 15 elite-category esports competitions this year were women’s events. Gamers8 did nonetheless feature a range of smaller, female-focused regional and community tournaments.
The CEO of the Esports World Cup Foundation joined the non-profit foundation following a year’s tenure as the Chairman of ESL FACEIT Group. However, despite the esports conglomerate’s links to the Saudi Arabian government through Savvy Games Group, Reichart told Esports Insider that the foundation has no ties with ESL FACEIT Group.
When discussing the overall impact the Esports World Cup could have on the global esports ecosystem, he mentioned that the reason he left ESL FACEIT Group to join Esports World Foundation was to help “make the pie larger, to grow the markets.”
“As a nonprofit, we don’t need to make money, we don’t need to sell the company. Our only real Northstar is to grow the industry, which sets it up philosophically in the correct way. Because of the scale of what we’re trying to build, it hopefully grows the audience. It hopefully becomes a platform for the next superstars to be built and have esports go from, you know, 500-600m fans to 1bn, 2bn.
“We’ll hopefully make the market larger for every participant. And that includes other tournament organisers, that includes teams, that includes the games as well. And of course the players.”
Whilst only minor details surrounding the Esports World Cup have been revealed, there are clear indicators that the event has major ambitions. The event will not only be annual, but the fact that the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was part of its unveiling, in front of some of esports’ biggest stakeholders, shows the scale of the project.
Community backlash from esports fans and those associated with the industry will undoubtedly continue as Saudi Arabia, and other governments that have come under scrutiny for their human rights record, continue to invest in the industry.
The Esports World Cup, however, will continue to forge on regardless. It remains to be seen whether its status as a ’separately’ operated non-profit will help quell community concerns.