Steve Arhancet is the co-CEO of Team Liquid and has been with his esports players in Riyadh. | @steve_arhancet on Instagram

One of the most influential figures in esports is bringing Pride visibility to the World Cup in Saudi Arabia, having described its human rights violations as “egregious” and speaking of his own experiences in gaming as a gay man.

Steve Arhancet is the co-CEO of Team Liquid, the winningest professional team in esports history. The 42-year-old from Leesburg, Va., also known by his gamer tag “LiQuiD112”, has been with the organization since 2015 and oversees operations alongside its founder, Victor Goossens.

Arhancet has been attending the first-ever Esports World Cup (EWC) in Riyadh, where tournaments are being held in over 20 different video game titles with a combined prize pot worth in excess of $60m — the largest in esports history.

The location for the major event, which lasts nearly eight weeks and has sponsorship deals with brands such as adidas, Pepsi and TikTok, has caused controversy. Accusations of sportswashing have been leveled at Saudi organizers amid concerns over the Gulf state’s abysmal human rights record.

Team Liquid addressed these concerns before the EWC began, with Goossens explaining in a video that the management had decided to participate after consultation with organizations including Amnesty International, Out Leadership and even the U.S. Embassy.

“We’ve talked to local organizations and members of the LGBTQ community who live on locations,” said Goossens. “We’ve had conversations with women who participate in the workforce in Riyadh.

“All of this has led to lots of internal dialogue and conversations about all of these topics. And as a part of that work, we want to call out the human rights track record of Saudi Arabia, as we think it’s ever important to speak about this.”

On the same day, Arhancet published a lengthy statement on X, explaining how he agreed with his fellow CEO that Team Liquid should compete but that it was “a deeply conflicting decision.”

Anticipating a potential backlash, he wrote: “We will face the controversy and discontent that will justifiably come our way.”

He also offered a very personal perspective. 

“Team Liquid believe that the best way to create change is to include others, and show them that progress is possible,” added Arhancet.

“As a gay man, I understand the pain of exclusion. However, as a U.S. citizen, I know my struggles pale compared to what LGBT Saudis face daily.

“With full acknowledgement of this difference, here’s what I know to be true for myself and my journey: Gaming has been a lifesaver for me when I felt I never fit in.

“Even though there have been times when I didn’t necessarily feel welcome within the esports community itself, it’s been a consistent source of joy and camaraderie throughout my life — and I’m sure that many of you feel the same way about how important gaming is in your lives.

“This is why we are all so protective of it. Team Liquid is in a position where we can bring that message to many more people, as long as we continue to speak about it.”

Team Liquid Pride goes back to at least June 2015 when the organization changed the colors of its logo to rainbow, with Arhancet tweeting in celebration of equal marriage being legalized in all 50 states.

He has also used his platform to call out homophobia in “pub games” (public gaming) and congratulated Vincent Wang aka “Biofrost” when the League of Legends player from Canada came out publicly as gay in May 2022.

Survey data issued by GLAAD earlier this year determined that 19% of heavy or core gamers are LGBTQ. The Gaming Report also found that 52% of LGBTQ gamers reported experiencing discrimination while playing online.

Meanwhile, an X user who replied to Arhancet’s post about the EWC last month asking if Team Liquid would give any money earned from the tournament to LGBTQ charities was told by Goossens: “Donating 50k again this year to Rainbow Railroad.”

Five days later, Team Liquid unveiled its 2024 Pride jersey online, saying: “We’ll be wearing this around the world throughout the summer.”

There was uncertainty over whether they would be permitted to wear the jerseys in Riyadh but when the League of Legends competition began on Thursday, all five Team Liquid players were sporting them. They were eventually beaten by South Korea’s T1 in the semifinals.

Arhancet also posted images of himself wearing the jersey to his Instagram and X accounts, with Goossens replying to the latter post: “Proud of you.”

In an interview with BBC Newsbeat, Arhancet said deciding whether or not to take part had been “quite the quandary and challenge” for Team Liquid because it is “rooted in values of inclusivity.”

Referring to the anti-LGBTQ laws of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, he said: “How do we continue operating with our values in a region of the world that conflicts so strongly, and with pretty egregious human rights violations?”

Ultimately, he said they felt the decision to not just compete but to wear the Pride jerseys was the right course of action.

“Maybe there’s some gay or queer gamers that are going to be watching that will see Team Liquid wearing the Pride colours where that representation has never been seen before,” he added.