ESL and Faceit have merged to form ESL Faceit Group. Savvy Gaming Group bought ESL and Faceit for a combined value of $1.5 billion.

ESL, one of the most recognizable brands in esports, have been sold for a reported $1.5 billion to the Savvy Gaming Group, a company backed by the Saudi Arabian government’s Public Investment Fund (PIF). The deal includes FACEIT, who will now be working side by side with ESL.

The news broke via the Esports Observer on Monday afternoon (January 24th). The news was later confirmed in an official announcement by ESL.

The Modern Times Group, which formerly controlled ESL, sold to the Saudi-backed Savvy Gaming Group for a reported 1.5 billion USD. The deal also included esports competition platform FACEIT, which will now operate in tandem with ESL. ESL is a prominent esports tournament organizer which operates leagues, tournaments, and events for games such as CS:GO, Dota 2, Hearthstone and others. ESL also owns and operates tournaments under the DreamHack name.

Brian Ward, CEO of Savvy Gaming Group gave a statement about the new deal:

We're delighted to be working with ESL FACEIT Group – a deal that will enable us to actively support the creation of a world-class esports ecosystem. With our investment, ESL FACEIT Group will be able to accelerate their development of an unrivalled experience for players and fans.

We want Savvy Gaming Group to become a major global champion of esports, and it's that intent that's behind the news we've announced today. We believe that games and esports are fast becoming key enablers for better entertainment, health, and education, and we want to create and support more opportunities for people to benefit from and progress within the industry. 

Savvy Games Group will be dedicated to driving the growth of the sector globally. Our vision is that, over time, we can give game developers and technology innovators more equitable access to this fast-growing, dynamic sector, and foster the growth of esports more generally.

Backlash against the ESL sale?

The Savvy Gaming Group lists former Activision Blizzard Vice President Brian Ward as its CEO. On the website, Savvy Gaming Group describes itself as “a long-term investor, committed to empowering and enabling the strategies of the partners that we invest in.” 

According to the website, the group consists of five companies. This includes an esports company, an investment fund, an “ecosystem company,” a games studio, and an “infrastructure company.” In addition, the bottom of the website outlines its connection to the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia.

But partnering with the Middle Eastern monarchy has been controversial for esports companies in the past. In July 2020, Riot Games and its European League of Legends arm the LEC partnered with NEOM. NEOM is a Saudi Arabian city and technological investment fund. The NEOM project is also funded by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund.

There was near-universal backlash over the country’s worrying record on human rights. This backlash ultimately saw Riot Games cancel the deal.

A similar deal with Danish tournament organizer Blast came under fire at the same time. Blast, a major CS:GO tournament operator, also cancelled their NEOM deal after intense public pressure.

This deal could potentially draw a similar response.

The Saudi Arabian PIF

If the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund sounds familiar, then you might be a Gunners fan. An 80% stake in English Premier League team Newcastle United was purchased for around £305 million (411 million dollars) in October 2021 by the PIF. The PIF in total is worth a reported $430 billion.

This makes the acquisition of ESL just a drop in the ocean for the massively well-stocked fund. It’s a massive injection of money into the tournament organizer. But this does now mean that the Savvy Gaming Group, and by extension, the Saudi PIF, has a potential monopoly on CS:GO and other tournaments for the foreseeable future.

Commenting on the acquisition, ESL CEO Craig Levine described how ESL would not change its mission. "Our merger with FACEIT, along with the backing of SGG, will give us more know-how, capabilities, and resources than ever before to deliver on this vision."

Whatever the future holds, ESL and FACEIT seem ready with answers. A website detailing new initiatives for the CS:GO scene was launched in alongside the announcement. However, whether the community will accept these changes with open arms remains to be seen.