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Great news! Mohammed bin Salman is a ‘massive gamer.’

How the CEO of Saudi-backed Savvy Games Group pitched his new employees

Ok, bear with me. We’ve got some dates, acronyms, and proper nouns to get through.

On March 1, ESL FACEIT Group (EFG), an esports tournament organizer and gaming platform owner, announced it would be acquiring Vindex, an esports data and analytics company. Esports Engine, an event and broadcast production service under the Vindex brand, is a part of the deal. Belong, a different part of Vindex’s portfolio, was spun off into a standalone business.1

Why does this matter? EFG is owned by Savvy Games Group, a video game holding company backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and chaired by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

On March 2, Vindex held an internal town hall to explain the move to its employees. I received a recording of that presentation. Below, I’ll share what I believe to be highlights from that hour long call, which featured Mike Sepso, the CEO of Vindex, as well as Niccolo Maisto and Craig Levine, co-CEOs of EFG, and Brian Ward, CEO of Savvy Games Group.

“I recorded this meeting and want to share for the sake of transparency regarding this move, which I worry will completely monopolize the esports broadcast landscape,” said the employee who sent me a recording of the presentation.

The excerpts below focus on Ward’s portion of the presentation, which lasted about 20 minutes and outlined Savvy’s vision, ambitions, and relationship to the Saudi royal family.2 Consider this a cheat sheet on Savvy’s pitch — along with some annotations from yours truly.

Gaming and esports are national priorities for Saudi Arabia

Ward began his presentation with a description of the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) and its goals.

“No project or portfolio company of the PIF in its 50 year history has received a bigger initial capital injection than Savvy,” Ward said. “So we are the biggest thing they have ever done from the outset.”3

According to Ward, the PIF is currently the 6th largest sovereign wealth fund. It aims to overcome the largest — Norway’s — “sometime in the next 10 to 15 years,” Ward said.

Why does the PIF care so much about games and esports? Saudi Arabia’s national strategy — Vision 2030 — was put in place to diversify the Kingdom’s economy away from oil and gas (which Ward described as a good idea with regard to “the planet”).

Ward also said that Savvy’s KPIs (business term for “metrics we aim to hit”) relate to job creation in the Kingdom and contribution to its GDP.

Ward was inspired by Saudi Arabia’s transformation

A few times in his presentation, Ward referenced “social transformation” in Saudi Arabia.

“The country is also undergoing a huge social transformation,” Ward said. “I would say it’s flipped 180 degrees in five years from what I’ve heard it was like five years ago to what it is today. … It basically just completely flipped in all respects. Socially, economically on a bullet train to the future.”

I have never been to Riyadh. I don’t want to impugn Ward here. Still, just a few years ago, the United States intended to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state after the CIA determined that MBS ordered the killing of dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. (After his death, he was dismembered by his killers. His body parts were then packed into several suitcases.) Saudi intervention in Yemen — which for a time enjoyed the backing of the United States — has resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians. (“As early as March 2015, U.S. officials worried that coalition airstrikes may have violated the rules of war,” reads a Washington Post investigation into U.S. support for Saudi airstrikes.) The Kingdom is also hostile to women’s rights activists and LGBT rights, as well as, uh, dissent.

When describing Savvy’s philosophy, Ward talked about doing good for the industry, and using investment to enable other companies to succeed. (He gave the example of investing in Embracer, which enables them to pursue further M&A deals.)

I don’t doubt that a lot of Savvy’s employees believe they’re doing good for the industry (whatever that means). But in the past, Ward has gotten a bit silly dodging questions about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

“I'm not over there on an image makeover project,” Ward told Axios in 2022. “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.”

This distinction never really made sense to me. Building a legitimate enterprise with the House of Saud’s money is the image makeover project! If Savvy owns a bunch of liberal Western companies with best-in-class HR and DEI practices, that is the thing that launders the Kingdom’s reputation.

Last week, I also wrote about Saudi money in esports.4 In that newsletter, I published a quote by Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at Skema Business School. I asked him whether investments into gaming and esports should be interpreted as signs of a changing Kingdom. In his answer, he compared Saudi efforts to similar efforts underway in Qatar:

There have been some changes in Qatar, which we can probably attribute to Qatar's pursuit of sports, or its deployment of sport as a policy instrument. But clearly there are things about Qatar that we know about — for example, migrant worker rights. And there is a fundamental disconnect between what Qatar purports to be doing around changes to its labor market rights and what's actually happening on the ground in the country. And so I think we can then say, well, is a country like Saudi Arabia deliberately setting out to mislead, or alternatively, is it trying to do things that ultimately it would actually find much more difficult to achieve than imagined, which is what has happened in Qatar's case?

To me, it boils down to this: Do you believe that MBS can megacity and metaverse his way to a free society? Or do you view him as an iron fisted autocrat who thinks the future is a country that looks like 24/7 CES?5

Savvy saw a fragmented industry as an opportunity

The source who sent me this presentation expressed a fear that the esports broadcast landscape was being monopolized. With that in mind, I thought that Ward’s closing comments were most revealing about Savvy’s ambitions.

Covid, Ward said, revealed that the fragmented esports industry was at or near an inflection point. Consolidation seemed likely, according to Ward, given that monetization was “not nearly matching engagement.”

“We thought if we invested in esports and tried to roll up the sector and get all the best people together that we could build not only a completely by far number one esports company, completely unassailable by any competitor — I think with the addition of you guys we’re very near that point — but we could do something else,” Ward said. “We could, over a seven to 10 year investment horizon, build a media, events, and entertainment company off the back of esports, on the theory that esports, with its level of engagement, a decade from now might be one of the cornerstones of how we all consume entertainment more broadly, whether it’s professional esports or more broadly oriented content.”

Ward also assured the audience that mature companies under Savvy’s umbrella operated with near complete autonomy, and hinted at future acquisitions of video game publishers.

“We are actually more operational at the parent company level than we initally set out to be just because it makes a lot more sense to have central plumbing, like finance, legal, HR, and a bunch of things done centrally,” Ward said. “This does not however apply to companies that are mature whom we’ve acquired, like EFG, who are basically completely autonomous, and similar mature companies in publishing that we might acquire in the near future.”

Ward wants Savvy to be bigger than Tencent and Embracer

“Our mandate from the board is to build the world’s — it’s kind of ridiculously audacious to be honest — to build the world’s number 1 global games and esports company,” Ward said. “Which means, we’d be bigger than Tencent. We’d be bigger than Embracer.”

No snarky comment here. It’s certainly possible!

The Saudi royal family includes ‘massive gamers’

Ward told Vindex employees that one of the reasons he had faith in the PIF as an investor is that MBS and Prince Faisal (head of the Saudi Esports Federation) are “massive gamers.”

Here’s the full quote:

“To me it was super important that they were involved in our endeavor,” Ward said. “They’re both massive gamers, number one, so they understand our products. But more than that, they understand how our industry works… from an economic point of view. And then most importantly, they understand the values and culture of our industry. So they understand whats important for our employee base around the world. They understand what’s important for our end users and consumers. Because initially you might think — especially in the west — you might think: Video games… Saudi Arabia… How’s that going to work? It actually works a lot better than you might think because first of all there’s not that much of a divide in terms of vision and philosophy, and secondly, with their leadership and knowledge of our space, they’ve given us carte blanche, basically, to act and operate like a real games and esports company.”

Honey. Wake up, honey. Have you heard the good news? Gamers are over!

About a decade ago, the writer and game developer Leigh Alexander penned a fiery but basically correct opinion piece6 about the term “gamer.” She concluded that it was useless. Increasingly, she wrote, the people who chose to identify with it were console warriors and people who said "social justice warrior" unironically. In reality, a gamer could basically be anyone. The piece was a broadside against the gamer-in-the-basement stereotype — but also against that very real kind of person.

“There are new audiences and new creators alike there,” Alexander wrote. “Traditional ‘gaming’ is sloughing off, culturally and economically, like the carapace of a bug. This is hard for people who’ve drank the kool aid about how their identity depends on the aging cultural signposts of a rapidly-evolving, increasingly broad and complex medium. It’s hard for them to hear they don’t own anything, anymore, that they aren’t the world’s most special-est consumer demographic, that they have to share. ... Of course it’s hard. It’s probably intense, painful stuff for some young kids, some older men. But it’s unstoppable.”

But whatever debate there may have been over that op-ed is surely over now. Thunk, thunk, thunk. That’s the sound of Brian Ward hammering the last, MBS-shaped nail into the coffin.7

I have to be honest. When I heard this quote, I grew livid. I could picture the gormless expression of the c-suite remora reflecting in the Notes app window as the fingers tip-tapped away: M-B-S … a … g-a-m-e-r …

What solidarity could I possibly feel with MBS? What common cause could I share with the crown prince? I've thought about it quite a bit and truly, I, in my station in life8, have more in common with some default murderer in prison than I do with a royal who commands a team of assassins. Gaming could not begin to bridge the gap between us. The idea that “they’re both massive gamers” could do the intended emotional and logical lifting is delusion. It is alien.