People in the Middle East like to play games, be it on their smartphones, laptops or games consoles. In fact, the region is home to the fastest growing gaming and esports sector in the world, with some 200 million players and a market worth in excess of $6 billion. The average gamer in the UAE spends $115 per year, one of the highest rates in the world.
So far, we have seen two major exits in the sector, that of Jordan-based Babil Games in 2016, which was acquired by Sweden’s Stillfront for $17 million and more recently, UAE-based Jawaker, which was also acquired by Stillfront for $205 million. Yet despite the growth, the region is still under-represented globally in gaming development, something that James Hartt, director of strategic partnerships at twofour54, is hoping to change.
“The number of games developed here is minimal compared to other parts of the world, the stories from the region are underrepresented. The content created here is not consumed on the global level. The stories, ideas and talent in the region is here, it has all the ingredients, it needs a support programme to put Abu Dhabi and the region on the map,” says Hartt.
twofour54, Abu Dhabi’s state-backed media zone took a minority stake in Jawaker in 2011 after investing $2.5 million. It also established a gaming studio in the freezone, bringing in the likes of France’s Ubisoft to slowly develop an ecosystem for games development. Now, the physical twofour54 location is shutting down, with its operations and the 600 media and entertainment companies relocating to the Yas Creative Hub on Yas Island. twofour54’s gaming projects now all fall under the Abu Dhabi Gaming (AD Gaming) initiative, which seeks to aggregate the key players in the sector to build a self-sustaining gaming and esports ecosystem in the emirate. A key part of the initiative is the 300sqm AD Gaming Hub at the Yas Creative Hub, to showcase the latest technologies, gaming content, ideas and development.
“Two years ago, the question that the leadership put to myself and my team was ‘why doesn’t Abu Dhabi have a bigger game development industry?’ And the answer is that the government hasn’t had a holistic approach and support plan for the industry,” says Hartt, who also leads on strategy and business development for AD Gaming. “That’s something we’ve put together and put in place.”
AD Gaming is designed to bring all the different components of the gaming industry together. So far, Unity Technologies, Emirates Esports Association, UAE Pro League, Flash Entertainment and the Media Zone Authority comprise this support system for gaming companies, their developers and their players. AD Gaming will be providing subsidies to lower the cost of games development and has established 50 new licences categories to cover all the different aspects of the industry.
One of the main elements of the initiative is talent development, and AD Gaming has struck a partnership with US-based Unity Technologies, which develops video games software, to move its headquarters to Abu Dhabi for the next 10 years to develop gaming talent in the emirate. Unity Technologies, is leading the ‘Train-the-Trainer’ development programme, working with several educational institutions across the UAE, including Abu Dhabi University, NYU Abu Dhabi, Higher Colleges of Technology and University of Sharjah. The aim of the programme is to equip professors and teachers with the skills to pass on their knowledge to their students, developing their AI, virtual reality, game development and coding skills. AD Gaming will also help students gain industry experience by matching them with gaming and esports partners.
“We started talent development programmes inside leading Abu Dhabi universities, talent development is the most important aspect, it will provide a pipeline of the next generation of game development experts,” says Hartt.
Abu Dhabi is not alone in encouraging the development of its gaming and esports sector. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have also directed significant investment towards the sector. Both have built esports stadiums, host gaming tournaments and are beginning to develop their own ecosystem for games development.
Where Abu Dhabi might have a slight advantage is the proximity to investors. Part of Hartt’s mandate at AD Gaming is to bring VCs and other investors to the Yas Creative Hub community.
“The gaming industry needs investment at the early stages. When twofour54 invested in Jawaker, there was a distinct need for it,” he says. “The private sector has become much more prolific in recognising the potential of the gaming industry, there are an awful lot of opportunities for startups to get access to capital and investors are keen to tap into this market, they’ve seen how quickly these businesses grow, so there is less need for the government to do it.”
The emirate’s esports sector is set to receive a boost once Amazon Web Services launches three data centres in the UAE, something that will reduce latency in gaming and improve game streaming services according to Hartt.