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Savvy Gaming Group is on the path of expansion. The Saudi Arabian company has made some big moves, acquiring esports tournament firms ESL and Face It in a $1.5 billion deal in January.
And last week news broke that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, through a foundation, had acquired 96% ownership of Japanese game developer SNK, the maker of MohFatal Fury, Metal Slug and The King. of Fighters. The Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, which provided the money for the Savvy deal, also bought more than 5% stakes in both Capcom and Nexon, reportedly for more than $1 billion each.
And today, Riyadh-based Savvy Gaming Group announces the hiring of three key executives to help run Savvy’s ecosystem business, its game studios and its infrastructure business.
Brian Ward, former head of studies at Activision Blizzard, leads the Savvy Gaming Group. I met him at the Game Developers Conference for an interview.
“Given how fast the ecosystem is building up, I think it will be a multi-billion dollar market by 2030,” he said. “We will have a constant cadence of things to reveal and we will be putting some points on the board. We will act in a manner consistent with the values and culture of our industry. And we will show people that we mean business and hopefully 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 ordering the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 in a high-profile case that sparked high tensions between the US and its ally Saudi Arabia. Turkish investigators and reporters from The New York Times concluded that 15 members of the Saudi strike team were closely related to bin Salman. Some were tried and others executed, but various authorities believed that the responsibility for the murder was greater. That’s a pretty big stain on the prince’s reputation, and it affects the investments the country and its companies are making in the fast-growing gaming industry.
Ward did not address that part of the challenge. He said that he believes the opportunities around the games could be transformative for the people of Saudi Arabia.
“What interested me in the work was the scale and scope of the ambition,” said Ward. “And it’s not part of a passive fund (like Tencent), but it’s expected to be more of an active investor, feeding into the other parts of the Savvy Group,” Ward said. “I was looking for an opportunity to build another world-class gaming organization.”
Ward said he went through interviews and visited Riyadh and said that 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 society and modernization and more options for women. But it’s a different thing to go there and actually see it.”
With the ESL/FaceIt group alone, the Savvy Gaming Group has at least 700 people.
The company has hired Kadri Harma, Yannick Theler and Jerry Gamez as operating CEOs of the esports and gaming company.
Harma, CEO of Savvy’s ecosystem company, is an entrepreneur and investor with more than 20 years of experience building startup ecosystems, half of which was spent specializing in the games industry. Building on his track record of building, launching and raising funds for four funds around the world, Harma will lead the Savvy ecosystem company, providing infrastructure, upskilling, network, capital and advice to promising gaming startups.
“Looking at not only the size of the market, but also the young, creative and ambitious population, there is huge untapped potential in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Middle East within the gaming industry,” Harma said in a statement.
She said that it is a unique opportunity to connect global partners in the ecosystem and provide support for this talent to flourish both domestically and in the international market.
Theler, CEO of Savvy’s game studio company, joins from Ubisoft, where he worked for 19 years in Europe, China and the Middle East covering all facets of the company, most notably establishing Ubisoft’s Abu Dhabi studio a few years ago. 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 game studios.
“I am delighted to be part of this newly created group that is committed to learning, talent and rapid growth,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to putting my leadership and vision to work with Savvy Games Studios to build a global powerhouse of developers and studios that will bring unique and memorable experiences to the industry, now and in the future.”
Jerry Gamez, CEO of Savvy’s infrastructure firm, brings more than 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 international development and expansion experience, Gamez will lead the development of and investments in a broad global footprint of innovative gaming venues.
“I am excited to join a group that is destined to make a huge impact both in the region and in the global industry. As for our infrastructure efforts, I am proud to lead a company that is focused on a holistic user experience that will redefine the way 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 with a defined business and strategy. The other 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 industry globally, leading with significant investment, enabling more game developers and technology innovators, and facilitating broader and more equitable access to this dynamic and fast-growing industry.” Ward said. “To achieve this mission, we must bring the best minds to join us, and I am delighted to welcome such successful executives to our leadership team. With his wealth of experience and complementary companies, we will drive the long-term growth and development of esports and the gaming industry in general around the world.”
On his hiring ambitions, Ward said his goal is for around 50% of the game company’s executives to be women. Of course, Saudi Arabia has not been a pillar of equal rights for women for decades. But Ward and others watching the country say change is underway. It will be interesting to see if the company can gain credibility in the gaming industry and overcome those concerns about the treatment of women, as well as Bin Salman’s reputation over Khashoggi’s murder.
The nation has a Vision 2030 strategy to diversify the economy beyond the oil industry.
“I thought, this is really too good of an opportunity to turn down. And it’s not just a great opportunity to try and build something in the industry, to do something, you know, good in gaming and esports. But at the same time, help some people transform their nation,” Ward said.
Ward believes that the gaming and esports businesses will eventually support each other as growth accelerates. As for how active Ward will be with investments in the future, he said: “I’ve had five days off in six months. That’s how fast we’re moving.”
He added: “There is a substantial capital reserve. There are some financial performance targets, but many of them are strategic and aimed at the growth and development of the industry over a very long time horizon. So we can afford to make some long-term decisions, especially in esports for example, that you might not be able to make or might not be able to make if you had a shorter time horizon in the sport.”
He said there will be a steady pace of investment, whether it’s acquisitions for the ESL/FaceIt group or investments in other publishers and developers.
The rise of gaming
When asked what the consequences are for the rise of gaming, he said it was a great question. (That’s the theme of our upcoming GamesBeat Summit 2022 event on April 26-28.)
“One possibility is that we end up in a Microsoft-Tencent world. And I really don’t know what that means,” she said. “It’s making us see how we need to rethink our strategy or at least the timeline for executing our strategy. So I don’t think we’ve settled on which one is the view. We’re still trying to talk to as many experts as we can to try and get some insight into what happened in the first two months of this year.”
There is a lot of consolidation happening in the fragmented gaming space, and it will shift the balance of power between 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 to act in the best interest of, you know, basically whether we can act in the best interest of the building. the ecosystem, I think everyone will be better off, even our competitors will be better off. But in the long term, we will massively grow the pie,” she said.
Ward said he thinks Saudi Arabia and the rest of the region will generate game development talent because “there’s a whole generation of people who play games.” And consequently, it could be a big part of the gaming boom.
He added: “With much of the population under the age of 30, and 70% are already gamers. My theory is that they couldn’t do anything else a few years ago. They couldn’t go to the movies. They couldn’t go to a concert, and socializing between genders wasn’t common. Now all of that is available to them. But there was a whole generation of people whose entertainment options were limited. So they played games. And for that they are very well informed.”
A survey showed that a staggering percentage of college-age teenagers in Saudi Arabia want to study something related to gaming.
“That tells me there’s a, there’s a, there’s a demand well there,” he said. “If we can figure out how to work with all stakeholders to help develop programs with educational institutions and provide 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 fuel that fun.”
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