The head of a new multi-billion dollar gaming conglomerate backed by the Saudi government’s sovereign wealth fund says it is 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 a announcement of 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 not only arrives amid intense nationwide scrutiny, but continues to push back various organizations seeking to partner with Saudi Arabia.
“I’m not there about an image makeover project,” Savvy CEO Brian Ward, a former senior executive at EA and Activision, told Axios during an in-person interview Wednesday, dropping the idea that the project was the game equivalent of so-called “sports wash.”
- “We’re here to build a true business entity that is hopefully a powerhouse in gaming that aims to develop and grow the gaming industry.”
- The domestic gaming market in Saudi Arabia is growing rapidly and reached $1 billion in 2021, according to Niko Partners researchers.
The Savvy Project was developed over the past two years and incorporated last November, Ward says, with “strong interest from Crown Prince” Mohammed Bin Salman, who chairs the company’s board.
- Savvy is fully funded by the Saudi PIF, with the largest 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 sprawling ambitions of the groupas described by Ward, cover a range of games sectors, including the construction of arcades, a studio to create games, an incubator for game development in Saudi Arabia, an esports company and a fund of investment.
- “An important part of our mandate,” says Ward, is to grow the game in Saudi Arabia, the Middle East and Africa, but “the broader reach is global.”
The company is inherently controversialgiven his ties to Saudi Arabia and his close affiliation with the Crown Prince.
- Asked about the human rights case, its crackdown on women activists and homosexuality as well as its ongoing war in Yemen, Ward warned not to trust 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 on the increase in the number 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 US intelligence’s assessment that the Crown Prince approved the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, he said, “I can’t talk about it. I have no knowledge of it. We’re not part of…I’m not part of the government. I am not associated with the government.
Savvy has a grill 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 women’s safety in the kingdom.”
- His response to all of this is that Savvy will operate “within 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 for 25 years love our industry, being forward-looking and liberal in many ways.
Many American companies who had fled the kingdom after the murder of Khashoggi I warmed up again, perhaps emboldened by the US government’s refusal to sanction the Saudis. The PIF invests in many American companies.
The bottom line: Savvy has the money to make big moves, allowing Ward to outline ambitions that include building 300 gambling venues in Saudi Arabia in five years.
- Investments will continue. Savvy has previously vetted developers, publishers and tech companies for acquisitions, and Ward describes other big deals as “likely.”
- Savvy expected criticism and receives it. “I have to respond and respond through our actions,” Ward says, “Not just, you know, talking points.”
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