Should eSports Events Be Hosted in Anti-Queer Countries Like Saudi Arabia?

As the world becomes increasingly connected through our shared love of video games, significant cultural differences can still divide us. Gamers often view video games as an escape, but it becomes challenging when the realities of our world take center stage. This issue is particularly pertinent in discussing the current state of eSports and the locations of these events. This year, the Esports World Cup is being held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

As Pride Month is underway in the U.S., it is crucial to reflect on our changing world and how queer people navigate it. Saudi Arabia has a well-documented history of violence and persecution against LGBTQIA individuals. The legal recognition of non-binary gender in Saudi Arabia is nonexistent, Sharia laws prohibit cross-dressing, and there are no protections against LGBTQIA discrimination. Homosexual activity is illegal, with the death penalty as a potential punishment.

The eSports community includes many openly trans, non-binary, and queer players. Within the Fighting Game Community (FGC), numerous professional players identify as LGBTQIA. For example, two games, Tekken 8 and Street Fighter 6, feature queer players who might be unable to enter the country or face criminalization for simply existing as openly queer individuals. Prominent figures like SonicFox and Sajam have chosen not to participate in the event due to their moral objections to Saudi Arabia’s policies against queer people. Both Tekken 8 and Street Fighter 6 have $1 million prize pools, which could be life-changing money for a player looking to make a name for themselves.

SonicFox and Sajam tweets

Conversely, there is pushback from some Muslim players who view the condemnation of the event in Saudi Arabia as Islamophobic. Defenders of the event argue that cultural differences should be respected, even if they directly oppose someone’s right to exist. However, reconciling respect for cultural differences with the need to allow people to exist fully and safely in spaces that do not recognize their humanity is challenging. I personally believe that religious beliefs should not justify severe penalties for simply being a human being who does not conform to sexual and/or gender binaries. This issue is further complicated by the event’s funding and partnership with the Saudi Arabian government, making it impossible to separate “church and state” as they are irreversibly intertwined.

Moreover, what about the queer staffers working for these companies and eSports teams? How are they supposed to navigate this event safely? These are critical questions that demand answers. People should not fear for their safety simply for being queer. That does not sound like a welcoming and open event.

One thing is clear: something needs to be done regarding hosting events in Saudi Arabia. The very nature of hosting events there, given the country’s laws, feels like passive discrimination. Queer people should not be excluded or made to feel their safety is in jeopardy if they decide to compete. They should be able to compete just like cis-gender heterosexuals do. While the goal of connecting the world through eSports is noble, it should not come at the expense of the safety and rights of queer individuals. The eSports community must reflect on the implications of hosting events in countries with anti-queer laws and work towards creating inclusive and safe spaces for all players.

If you want a more in-depth deep dive into the Saudi Arabia’s activities in eSports, check out Sideshow’s comprehensive video on the matter.

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