SDL's build system was traditionally based on autotools. Over time, this approach has suffered from several issues across the different supported platforms. To solve these problems, a new build system based on CMake was introduced. It is developed in parallel to the legacy autotools build system, so users can experiment with it without complication.

The CMake build system is supported on the following platforms:

  • FreeBSD
  • Linux
  • Microsoft Visual C
  • MinGW and Msys
  • macOS, iOS, and tvOS, with support for XCode
  • Android
  • Emscripten
  • RiscOS
  • Playstation Vita

Building SDL

Assuming the source for SDL is located at ~/sdl

cd ~
mkdir build
cd build
cmake ~/sdl
cmake --build .

This will build the static and dynamic versions of SDL in the ~/build directory. Installation can be done using:

cmake --install .        # '--install' requires CMake 3.15, or newer

Including SDL in your project

SDL can be included in your project in 2 major ways:

  • using a system SDL library, provided by your (*nix) distribution or a package manager
  • using a vendored SDL library: this is SDL copied or symlinked in a subfolder.

The following CMake script supports both, depending on the value of MYGAME_VENDORED.

cmake_minimum_required(VERSION 3.0)

# Create an option to switch between a system sdl library and a vendored sdl library
option(MYGAME_VENDORED "Use vendored libraries" OFF)

    add_subdirectory(vendored/sdl EXCLUDE_FROM_ALL)
    # 1. Look for a SDL2 package, 2. look for the SDL2 component and 3. fail if none can be found
    # 1. Look for a SDL2 package, 2. Look for the SDL2maincomponent and 3. DO NOT fail when SDL2main is not available 

# Create your game executable target as usual 
add_executable(mygame WIN32 mygame.c)

# SDL2::SDL2main may or may not be available. It is e.g. required by Windows GUI applications  
if(TARGET SDL2::SDL2main)
    # It has an implicit dependency on SDL2 functions, so it MUST be added before SDL2::SDL2 (or SDL2::SDL2-static)
    target_link_libraries(mygame PRIVATE SDL2::SDL2main)

# Link to the actual SDL2 library. SDL2::SDL2 is the shared SDL library, SDL2::SDL2-static is the static SDL libarary.
target_link_libraries(mygame PRIVATE SDL2::SDL2)

A system SDL library

For CMake to find SDL, it must be installed in a default location CMake is looking for.

The following components are available, to be used as an argument of find_package.

Component nameDescription
SDL2The SDL2 shared library, available through the SDL2::SDL2 target [^SDL_TARGET_EXCEPTION]
SDL2-staticThe SDL2 static library, available through the SDL2::SDL2-static target
SDL2mainThe SDL2main static library, available through the SDL2::SDL2main target
SDL2testThe SDL2test static library, available through the SDL2::SDL2test target

Using a vendored SDL

This only requires a copy of SDL in a subdirectory.

CMake configuration options for platforms


CMake 3.14+ natively includes support for iOS and tvOS. SDL binaries may be built using Xcode or Make, possibly among other build-systems.

When using a recent version of CMake (3.14+), it should be possible to:

  • build SDL for iOS, both static and dynamic
  • build SDL test apps (as iOS/tvOS .app bundles)
  • generate a working SDL_config.h for iOS (using SDL_config.h.cmake as a basis)

To use, set the following CMake variables when running CMake's configuration stage:

  • CMAKE_SYSTEM_NAME=<OS> (either iOS or tvOS)
  • CMAKE_OSX_SYSROOT=<SDK> (examples: iphoneos, iphonesimulator, iphoneos12.4, /full/path/to/iPhoneOS.sdk, appletvos, appletvsimulator, appletvos12.4, /full/path/to/AppleTVOS.sdk, etc.)
  • CMAKE_OSX_ARCHITECTURES=<semicolon-separated list of CPU architectures> (example: “arm64;armv7s;x86_64”)


  • for iOS-Simulator, using the latest, installed SDK:

  • for iOS-Device, using the latest, installed SDK, 64-bit only

  • for iOS-Device, using the latest, installed SDK, mixed 32/64 bit

  • for iOS-Device, using a specific SDK revision (iOS 12.4, in this example):

  • for iOS-Simulator, using the latest, installed SDK, and building SDL test apps (as .app bundles):

  • for tvOS-Simulator, using the latest, installed SDK:

  • for tvOS-Device, using the latest, installed SDK:


[^SDL_TARGET_EXCEPTION]: SDL2::SDL2 can be an ALIAS to a static SDL2::SDL2-static target for multiple reasons.