To many, videogames exist in a separate realm from “real” sports, and that time spent perfecting offensive strategies in a fantastical cyber world is time wasted.
But competitive eSports are becoming a huge worldwide phenomenon.
The Middle East’s video games industry is worth more than $1 billion, and is expected to rise to $4.4bn by 2022, according to a study carried out by the consulting firm Strategy& and the Abu Dhabi media free-zone twofour54.
Despite this, the most talented and dedicated of this crop of gamers still lack the sponsors, promotion, regular competitions and league infrastructure to compete with their counterparts in Europe, North America and the Far East.
“No one’s really thinking of creating a consistent, structured scene,” says Karim Mousa, who launched an organisation called Cyber Sports League in Dubai in 2015 to help unite and develop the regional gaming community. “The benefit in that would be massive to everyone involved: the sponsors, the players, the network cafes. The potential is there. In the Middle East we’ve got one of the youngest populations in the world, one of the highest gamer bases in the world, one of the highest penetration rates in the world, one of the highest monetisation rates in the world.”
Individual videogame championships have attracted more viewers than the baseball World Series, with a peak 14 million fans streaming the League of Legends final concurrently during the 2015 Riot Games, broadcast from an arena in Berlin.
The prize pool surpassed $18 million at the Seattle-based final of a popular League of Legends spin-off game, Dota 2, the same year. And the biggest platform on which these games are streamed, Twitch, was bought by Amazon in 2014 for nearly $1bn.
In the Mena region, videogame competitions have been around for almost as long as the games themselves, but they have only begun to get serious, with serious money involved, in the past few years.
The world’s biggest eSports league, ESL, held its first tournament in Dubai last year, but only pro teams from Europe and the US were invited to compete for the $250,000 prize pool.
The opportunities open to regional players are not yet at that level – the Jordanian organisation AFKG set a record in December with a Counter Strike: Global Offensive tournament that offered $15,000 in prize money. But a growing crop of passionate gamers are determined to build the infrastructure that eSports athletes need to compete with their counterparts in the West and Far East.
“No one has properly invested in these gamers,” says Mr Mousa.
At present the only regular competitive outlet for the scene consists of scattered, informal events at network cafes (internet cafes that cater particularly to people playing multiplayer videogames for several hours at a stretch).
Mr Mousa says for companies to capitalise on this growth, they could consider spectator tickets, deals with streaming platforms, product placement behind commentary booths and commercial stands at live events: “The revenue streams are kind of infinite.”
Cyber Sports League’s third tournament, with a prize pool of Dh5,000, took place over the first weekend of this month.
Players from around the Mena region competed remotely via the internet, and the game was streamed on CSL’s Twitch channel.
Meanwhile, AFKG, which was also launched last year with the aim of uniting the industry, is working on an international event to be held in September 2016.
The next two years are going to be transformative for the Mena eSports region, AFKG’s founder Ahmed Hijazi says. “You’re talking about 18 countries that are untapped.”
Saeed Sharaf agrees. He is the Dubai-based founder of another competitive gaming organisation called eSports Middle East (ESME), which organised a Call of Duty tournament in Bahrain in 2014, and put on similar tournaments last year as part of Games 15 and the Middle East Film and Comic Con.
“ESports in the region is a really hungry market,” Mr Sharaf says, “and companies must start penetrating that market.”
One of the factors that will make a difference, he says, is the development of a “hub or website that has all the information about the activities going on, because if the market doesn’t have any official statistics, it’s a risk for investors”.
In addition to this centralisation of information, Mr Sharaf says publicity for gamers will help to grow their fan bases, and opportunities for regional athletes to compete at a high level will motivate them to put more effort into training.
He describes one dedicated gamer whose parents saw him as a “loser” until he began to earn a revenue through eSports. Eventually they came to understand that what they’d seen as a brain-numbing pastime could actually be a rewarding, lucrative career.
As a new crop of gamers grows up in videogame-crazy countries like UAE and Saudi Arabia, this shift in perspective is inevitable.
“The upcoming generation is split in half,” says AFKB’s Mr Hijazi. “You’re either a social butterfly, bouncing around talking to people, or you’re a gamer.”
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