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E-sports and gaming: Mena's new global frontier

E-sports and gaming: Mena's new global frontier
Image courtesy of Unreal Bahrain

Yousef Buhazza is the founder of Unreal Bahrain and vice chairman of the Bahrain Internet Society

Growth in Crisis

All manner of industries around the world are feeling the strain of the global Covid-19 pandemic. Margins have been squeezed and cash flows contracted. Even as economies begin to tentatively reopen, businesses are steeling themselves for months of supply chain disruption not to mention the impact of postponed or cancelled projects and the shift to entire offices of staff working remotely – if at all. One industry, however, has bucked the trend. As the whole world went into varying degrees of lockdown, increasingly people turned to video games to combat the boredom and loneliness of self-isolation.

And the rise in number of people playing games has been vertiginous. Steam, the largest PC gaming platform in the world, announced a new record in March of well over 20 million players gaming or chatting on the platform at the same time. The previous week, data from Verizon showed gaming traffic in the US up 75 per cent since the quarantine began. Similarly in Italy, Telecom Italia saw a 70 per cent increase to its landline traffic, which it attributed in large part to gaming industry mega-phenomenon Fortnite. Online streaming sites Twitch and Youtube Gaming saw 10 per cent and 15 per cent jumps in viewership respectively over one week in March alone. According to a report by Cheesecake Digital, Youtube has seen a substantial increase in viewership from just over 1,000,000 hours watched in Feb to 3,000,000 in March. This is in large part thanks to one Bahraini streamer who recorded 911,000 hours of viewership while streaming Minecraft.

A New Market

These developments are of enormous significance to the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region, which boasts the world's most active gaming community and – at 25 per cent year-on-year growth – the fastest growing online gaming population in the world. According to a recent whitepaper from Chinese internet giant Tencent and Pubg Mobile – one of the region’s most popular mobile games – the Mena gaming market will be worth some $6 billion by 2021, up from $4.8 billion in 2019. These figures can now be considered conservative at best. The Covid-19 lockdown has sparked a regional gaming boom with Arabic language Twitch streams more than doubling during March and April.

Moreover, when this crisis is over, most industries will still be dealing with fallout. But gaming has built such rapid momentum, such strong foundations, that it will be one of the few industries to see continued growth. The region has developed an enthusiasm for e-sports in recent years, which will see crowds returning to arenas in greater numbers than ever before once the pandemic dies down. The tiny Kingdom of Bahrain alone has played host to three major gaming and esports events in as many years: the IGN Convention, DreamLand Expo, and the long-awaited global final of BLAST Pro Series CS:Go, the enormously popular multiplayer first-person shooter.

The Opportunity

Indeed, Bahrain has emerged as something of a regional gaming and ICT hub as it has sought to diversify its economy away from hydrocarbons. A focus on nurturing startups, progressive, tech-friendly regulation and savvy public-private partnerships with global digital infrastructure providers has resulted in a supportive, hyper-connected test-bed ecosystem where game developers can thrive. Already, a wealth of exciting, local talent is emerging:

  • Studio S&J AlHajeri Games has produced a card game and has sold over 5000 units of the game “The War” in its early access phase.
  • Couch Party Games a startup that focuses on outsourcing game development talents to game development companies and projects.
  • Stories Studio, focusing on developing games for a cause through storytelling to create an impact and received investment from Flat6Labs.
  • Regnum Studio, a multi-award-winning independent game developer that launched in Bahrain in 2018.
  •  Nalikes focusing on creating fun multiplayer games and interactive solutions.
  • Tap Tap Crack Games focuses on mobile game development.
  • Golden Eagle studios focusing on causal games and others.

Gaming Ecosystem

Bahrain is also home to a growing industry specific ecosystem - the game development sector. At Unreal Bahrain, we play an active role in fostering that community. Before we launched Unreal in 2017, the gaming community was very much still emerging. Without hampering innovation, we’ve sought to put some structure around it in order to provide a healthy environment for game developers on the island. To date, we have focused on driving forward several international initiatives along with partner goals. Some of the initiatives include: physical and virtual meetups to engage and network with local and regional game developers, free game development workshops and training delivered by volunteers, game jams that aim to challenge game developers and introduce new entrants to the field, and supporting game developers in showcasing their games at local and regional events, through our partnership agreements. A personal favourite initiative of mine was our work with the UNDP office in Bahrain, to gamify the Sustainable Development Goals.

Local accelerators such as Flat6Labs are also interested in game development. The Stories Studio was its first gaming investment in Bahrain. Additionally, at the Bahrain Game Jam in 2019, Flat6Labs in partnership with Unreal Bahrain offered a bootcamp sponsorship worth over $32,000 as a special category prize for the team with the most potential to succeed.

Furthermore, Bahrain Polytechnic offers a game development course, further supporting the education and knowledge, offering overlaps in other disciplines such as artificial intelligence in game development, notably facial recognition and machine learning for games.

Connectivity is King

The Unreal community has a global reach and we have formed partnerships with a range of entities – from local government organisations to accelerators to academic institutions.  

In today’s globalised and decentralised world, genuinely untapped growth markets are increasingly rare. The Mena gaming opportunity should not be understated. With Bahrain and others in the region seeking to attract international talent and entrepreneurship as part of ongoing diversification efforts, the market has the potential to really explode as foreign investment, ideas and skills start to flow in. In the meantime, of course, we have been relegated to our homes as we attempt to curb one of the most significant global health crises of the last 50 years. But we are not as isolated as we might feel. Technology, though e-sports and video games, is allowing people from all over the world to come together.

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