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[Herald Interview] Saudi Arabia seeks more ‘boots on the ground’ from Korean game makers

Kingdom’s top gaming officials discuss cooperation with game industry leaders in Seoul

By Kan Hyeong-woo

Published : May 30, 2024 - 13:07

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Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, chairman of the Saudi Esports Federation, speaks in an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul on Wednesday. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, chairman of the Saudi Esports Federation, speaks in an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul on Wednesday. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Saudi Arabia is looking for more collaboration with Korean game companies as the Middle Eastern country has been aggressively spending billions of dollars to develop its gaming industry with the ultimate goal of becoming a global esports hub, Riyadh’s top gaming officials said Wednesday.

“We're looking to start a conversation to make sure that we can be a good partner and see where we can collaborate and where we can be good partners,” said Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, chairman of the Saudi Esports Federation, in an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul.

“The problem we face in the gaming industry is the localization aspect. We are usually grouped in as EMEA -- Europe, Middle East and Africa -- which means the localization is very sparse and underserved for our region. So one of our first conversations is (that) we need to have boots on the ground. A regional local headquarters.”

Prince Faisal underscored his willingness to help overseas game companies enter the Middle Eastern market where “288 million people” in 22 countries consider themselves to be “gamers who speak the same language” through games.

Brian Ward, CEO of Savvy Games Group, which is wholly owned by Saudi’s state-backed Public Investment Fund, reiterated the high potential of the Middle East country. Prince Faisal is the vice chairman of Savvy Games Group.

“The main purpose of this visit is the need to have great companies from Korea and elsewhere to understand the opportunity in the (Middle Eastern and North African) market,” said Ward, who has almost 30 years of experience in the gaming field and held senior positions at Electronic Arts, Microsoft and Activision Blizzard.

“Companies should understand the size of this. It’s the second-fastest growing market. These gamers are highly monetizable. … It’s a very underserved market and there’s a lot of opportunities.”

Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud (left), chairman of the Saudi Esports Federation, and Brian Ward, CEO of Savvy Games Group, pose for a photo before an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul on Wednesday. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud (left), chairman of the Saudi Esports Federation, and Brian Ward, CEO of Savvy Games Group, pose for a photo before an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul on Wednesday. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Faisal and Ward met with top executives from Korea’s gaming industry leaders -- Krafton, NCSoft, Netmarble, Nexon and Smilegate -- as well as government officials during their three-day visit to South Korea.

The PIF holds a 9.26 percent stake in NCSoft and a 10.54 percent stake in Nexon as the second-biggest shareholder of the two Korean gaming giants. Ward noted that the investments will be managed by Savvy at some point.

“There’s a plan to establish (a Savvy office) in Asia,” said Ward. “It hasn’t really been advanced enough to determine where that would be but Korea would be high on the list.”

Faisal noted that Korea was one of the first places Saudi looked and studied when the Saudi Esports Federation was established in 2018, adding that Korea played a major role in everything the Kingdom has built in the gaming sector.

“When you talk about gaming and esports, there are certain places that come at the top of your mind: Japan, Korea, California and some places in Canada,” he said.

“We want Saudi Arabia to be a natural part of that conversation so when you think about gaming and esports, you think about Saudi the same way you would think about Korea and Japan. That’s our goal.”

The PIF committed an enormous $37.8 billion investment to Savvy in 2022 when the Kingdom announced ambitious goals to create 39,000 game-related jobs and 250 gaming firms on its soil by 2030. Savvy has spent over $8 billion so far, including a $4.9 billion acquisition of California-based mobile games developer Scopely last year. The Saudi wealth fund-backed game company has also invested in various top game developers such as Nintendo, Capcom, Take-Two, Electronic Arts and Activision Blizzard.

Riyadh will host the inaugural eSports World Cup in July and August with some 2,500 professional gamers competing for over $60 million in total prize money, an unprecedented amount. Faisal emphasized the importance of making the gaming event more similar to a traditional sports event.

“We don’t just have the top esports players and team. We do concerts. We do activities. We do game launches. And we do food and beverage,” he said.

“We want to build a place where you can come and spend the whole week.”

Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud (left), chairman of the Saudi Esports Federation, and Brian Ward, CEO of Savvy Games Group, speak in an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul on Wednesday. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud (left), chairman of the Saudi Esports Federation, and Brian Ward, CEO of Savvy Games Group, speak in an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul on Wednesday. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)