Why Saudi Arabia’s Savvy Gaming Group is diving into esports and games

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Savvy Gaming Group is on the expansion path. The Saudi Arabian company has made some big moves, acquiring both esports tournament firms ESL and Face It in a $1.5 billion deal in January.

And last week the news broke that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, through a foundation, had acquired 96% ownership in Japanese game developer SNK, the maker of MohFatal Fury, Metal Slug, and The King of Fighters. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which provided the money for Savvy’s deal, also bought stakes above 5% in both Capcom and Nexon, reportedly for more than $1 billion for each stake.

And today, Riyadh-based Savvy Gaming Group is announcing the hiring of three key executives to help run Savvy’s ecosystem company, its game studios, and its infrastructure company.

Brian Ward, former head of studios at Activision Blizzard, is leading the Savvy Gaming Group. I caught up with him at the Game Developers Conference for an interview.

“Given how fast the ecosystem is spooling up, I think it will be a multibillion-dollar market by 2030,” he said. “We will have a steady cadence of things to reveal and we will be putting some points on the board. We will be acting consistently with the values and culture of our industry. And we will show people that we’re serious and hopefully going to build something credible, and not just good for Saudi Arabia, but good for the industry.”

Of course, bin Salman has a reputation problem. He was suspected of having ordered the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 in a high-profile case that led to high tensions between the U.S. and its ally Saudi Arabia. Turkish investigators and reporters at The New York Times concluded that 15 members of the Saudi hit team were closely connected to bin Salman. Some were tried and some were put to death, but a variety of authorities believed the responsibility for the murder went higher. That’s a pretty big stain on the prince’s reputation, and it colors the investments that the country and its companies are making in the fast-growing game industry.

Ward didn’t address that part of the challenge. He did say that he believes the opportunities around gaming could be transformational for the people of Saudi Arabia.

Brian Ward is CEO of Savvy Gaming Group.

“What got me interested in the job was the scale and the scope of ambition,” Ward said. “And it is not part of a passive fund (like Tencent), but it is envisioned to be more of an active investor, feeding the other parts of the Savvy Group,” Ward said. “I was looking for an opportunity to build another world-class games organization.”

Ward said he went through interviews and visited Riyadh and said it convinced him that change was happening.

“I had the same perspective on the place that most Westerners have,” he said. “And then I went there. It’s one thing to read about the diversification of the economy and the transformation of the society and modernization and more options for women. But it’s a different thing to go there and actually see it.”

With just the ESL/FaceIt group alone, Savvy Gaming Group has at least 700 people.

New hires

Streets in illuminated cityscape, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The company hired Kadri Harma, Yannick Theler, and Jerry Gamez as operating company CEOs of the games and esports company.

Harma, CEO of Savvy’s ecosystem company, is an entrepreneur and investor with over 20 years of experience building start-up ecosystems, half of which were spent specializing in the games industry. Building on her track record of creating, launching, and fundraising for four funds across the globe, Harma will lead the Savvy ecosystem company, providing infrastructure, upskilling, network, capital, and advisory to promising games start-ups.

“Looking not just at the market size, but the young, creative, and ambitious population, there is huge untapped potential in Saudi Arabia and across the Middle East within the gaming industry,” Harma said in a statement.

She said it is a unique opportunity to connect global partners into the ecosystem and provide support for this talent to flourish both domestically and in the international market.

Theler, CEO of Savvy’s games studios company, joins from Ubisoft where he worked for 19 years across Europe, China, and the Middle East covering all facets of the company, most notably establishing Ubisoft’s Abu Dhabi studio ten years ago, a studio that is today the home of CSI Hidden Crimes, NCIS Hidden Crimes, Growtopia and Clash of Beasts. At SGG, Theler will lead Savvy’s games studios.

“I’m thrilled to be part of this newly created group that is committed to learning, talent, and fast growth,” he said in a statement. “I’m looking forward to putting my leadership and vision to work with Savvy Games Studios building a global powerhouse of developers and studios that will bring distinct and memorable experiences into the industry, now and in the future”.

Jerry Gamez, CEO of Savvy’s infrastructure company, brings over 20 years of senior executive, entrepreneurial, and direct investment experience. He has worked with global B2B and B2C brands such as Walmart, Restaurant Brands International, as well as various Food/Consumer Technology companies. Joining SGG with a wealth of experience in international development and expansion, Gamez will lead the development and investments in an extensive global footprint of innovative gaming venues.

Riyadh’s financial district.

“I am excited to join a group that is set to make a huge impact across both the region and global industry. Looking at our infrastructure endeavors, I am proud to be leading a company that is focusing on a holistic user experience that will redefine how people come together and experience gaming,” he said in a statement.

Savvy Gaming Group is 100% owned by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, PIF, and is comprised of five operating companies, each of which has a defined business and strategy. The further two operating companies are the ESL FACEIT Group, led by Craig Levine and Niccolo Maisto as co-CEOs, and the Savvy Games Fund.

“At Savvy Gaming Group we are dedicated to driving the growth of the sector globally, leading with significant investment, enabling more game developers and technology innovators, and facilitating broader, more equitable access to this fast-growing, dynamic sector,” Ward said. “In order to achieve this mission, we must bring the best minds to join us, and I am thrilled to be welcoming such accomplished executives to our leadership team. With their wealth of experience and their complementary companies, we will drive long-term growth and development of esports and the wider games industry worldwide.”

On his hiring ambitions, Ward said he aims to have about 50% of the executives at the game company be women. Of course, Saudi Arabia hasn’t been a pillar of equal rights for women over the decades. But Ward and others watching the country say that change is afoot. It will be interesting to see if the company can gain cred in the gaming industry and overcome those concerns about the treatment of women, as well as Bin Salman’s reputation on the murder of Khashoggi.

The nation has a Vision 2030 strategy to diversify the economy beyond the oil industry.

“I thought, this is really just too good an opportunity to turn down. And not only is it a great opportunity to try and build something in the industry, to hopefully do something, you know, good in, in games and esports. But at the same time, help some people transform their nation,” Ward said.

Ward believes that the games and esports businesses will eventually support each other as growth accelerates. As for how active Ward will be with investments going forward, he said, “I’ve had five days off in six months. That’s how fast we are moving.”

He added, “There is a substantial pool of capital. There are some financial return objectives, but a lot of it is strategic and aimed at the growth and development of the industry on a very long time horizon. So we can afford to make some decisions over the longer term, especially in esports, as an example, that you might not make or be able to make if you had a shorter time horizon in the category.”

He said there will be a steady pace of investments, either in acquisitions for the ESL/FaceIt group, or investments in other publishers and developers.

Gaming’s boom

Savvy Gaming Group is investing heavily in games.

Asked what the consequences are for the gaming boom, he said it was a great question. (That’s the theme of our upcoming GamesBeat Summit 2022 event from April 26 to April 28).

“One possibility is we end up in a, in a Microsoft-Tencent world. And I don’t really know what that means,” he said. “It’s causing us to look at how we should rethink our strategy or at least the timeline for executing on our strategy. And so I don’t think we’ve settled on what the view is. We’re still talking trying to talk to as many experts as we can to try and get a view as to what has happened in the first two months of this year.”

A lot of consolidation is coming across the fragmented space of gaming, and it will change the balance of power among players, teams, publishers, and operators, he said.

“And hopefully, with a longer-term view, we can take a slightly different perspective on how those disruptions might play out and try and act in the best interests of, you know, basically if we can act in the best interests of the building the ecosystem, I think everybody will be better off, even our competitors will be better off. But in the long term, we’ll grow the pie massively,” he said.

Ward said that he believes that Saudi Arabia and the rest of the region will generate game development talent because “there is a whole generation of people that play games.” And consequently, it could be a big part of gaming’s boom.

He added, “With so much of the population being under 30, and 70% are already gamers. My theory is that they couldn’t do anything else some years ago. They couldn’t go to the cinema. They couldn’t go to a concert, and socializing between genders wasn’t a common thing. Now all of that’s available to them. But there was a whole generation of people whose entertainment options were limited. So they played games. And so they are super knowledgeable.”

One survey showed an astounding percentage of college-age teens in Saudi Arabia want to study something to do with gaming.

“That tells me there’s a, there’s a, there’s a well of demand there,” he said. “If we can figure out how to work with all the stakeholders in helping develop programs with educational institutions, and stand up financial and operational support for young entrepreneurs who want to start a company in gaming or esports, we will find people who are already passionate about the sector and will be able to feed that fun.”

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