The next generation of star athletes from the Middle East and North Africa recently gave spectators a glimpse of the future of sports.
Across three grueling days of competition, five-person teams from across MENA came together and battled one another, displaying skill, agility, and endurance.
But at the tournament’s end on December 19, one team reigned victorious: Viva Algeria.
But Viva Algeria isn’t your typical sports team. The game they played was Counter Strike: Global Offensive - a video game.
The competition was the MENA CS:GO Championship, an online eSport competition organized by AFKG.com, a Amman, Jordan-based community gaming platform focused on MENA.
Sponsored by the North Africa E-Sport Organization, the competition was an example of the beginnings of a professional competitive videogaming scene in MENA. Although the sports equipment and arenas were virtual, the players were professionals who made money from competing.
The tournament featured 32 teams—15 that were invited directly and 15 that had to play their way in. The prize pool was $15,000. The winner, Viva Algeria, took home $7,000.
According to AFKG’s Ahmed Hijazi, the MENA CS:GO Championship is the region’s largest eSport event so far. Going forward, AFKG.com’s goal is to unlock competitive gaming’s potential in MENA by hosting regular such events.
Organized online and offline competitions have long been a part of video game culture. But in recent years eSport participation and spectatorship has exploded in popularity.
In 2014, 205 million people watched or played e-sports, according to market research firm Newzoo.
That’s more than the population of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC combined.
By 2017, that number is expected to reach 335 million.
Revenue from e-sports in 2014 was estimated at $194 million according to Newzoo. By 2017 it’s estimated to be $465 million.
Like traditional sports, these numbers are fueled by live competitions, which allow for spectatorship, brand sponsorship, and athlete endorsements.
E-sports are flourishing in places like Asia, North America, Europe, but it has yet to power up in MENA.
“It is just a matter of time before global organizations and franchises will be looking strategically at MENA, an immature market that they can grow and expand their value offerings in,” said Hijazi.
Hijazi said he and his cofounders began considering starting a MENA-focused e-sports platform as far back as 2009. But at that time the market wasn’t quite ready yet.
The main issue was the high cost of broadband internet, which prevented many regional players from competing in online tournaments. Forced to play at lower broadband speeds, gamers encountered slow and lagging gameplay—a virtual death sentence in online, high-stakes competitions.
But internet infrastructure has improved in the region in recent years.
Another development aiding gamers was the founding of twitch.tv, a live-streaming video platform that broadcasts videogames competitions.
“The introduction of twitch.tv in 2011 was the game changer on a global level,” Hijazi said. “Twitch allows you to broadcast and stream live games and events to millions of viewers, while also providing you with a platform to monetize on.”
A subsidiary of Amazon.com, in 2015 twitch.tv reported that it had hosted more than 1.5 million broadcasters and received 100 million visitors per month.
The increasing availability of online streaming media platforms, particularly Twitch.tv, has become central to the growth and promotion of e-sports competitions.
“Just like in traditional sports, e-sports events are now broadcasted with commentators and tactical and strategical analysis desks,” Hijazi said. “In return the viewers are watching more engaging and professional content, directing their passion towards the game, giving them a familiar environment as in watching football or NFL.”
Additionally, games are now being developed with multiplayer features tailored specifically for competitive gaming. The most influential titles in MENA, according to Hijazi, are Starcraft 2, League of Legends, Dota 2, CS:GO, and Hearthstone.
The introduction of better infrastructure, game titles, and gaming-tech has coincided with increased regional interest in e-sports.
“We are seeing more and more players convert from casual gaming to professional gaming and doing well on the global stage,” Hijazi said.
According to Hijazi, talented gamers are now regularly emerging from the region, like Amer Barqawi (gamertag: Miracle), an 18-year-old who is ranked as one of the top Dota 2 players in the world. Barqawi and his team OG recently won the European Dota 2 tournament the Frankfurt Major. The tournament’s prize pool was $3 million.
The combination of all these developments convinced Hijazi and his cofounders that the time was right to pursue competitive gaming in MENA.
In early 2015, they founded AFKG.com.
But creating a competitive gaming community in MENA isn’t without challenges.
Mapping the sector
“When it comes to e-sports and professional gaming, it’s very difficult to gather the information,” Hijazi said.
As one of the first e-sports startups in MENA, AFKG is not only met with a largely untapped market, but also an unmapped market. That’s one reason AFKG organized the MENA CS:GO Championship.
“As we are looking forward to hosting many e-sports events in 2016, we had to identify the reach of the scene and get to know the communities across MENA,” Hijazi said.
The tournament was designed in part to gather info covering viewership, preferred language, ages, gender, team-size, location, and more. This will provide the AFKG team with crucial insight as to how to focus their energies as they build their platform.
There’s also the issue of creating a viable business. e-sports ventures are largely reliant on advertising and sponsorship to bring in revenue.
AFKG hopes to attract advertisers and sponsors by providing access to a large youthful audience via live-streamed e-sports events.
Although a main part of AFKG’s mission is to enable more gamers from the region to begin competing on a global level, Hijazi said the platform itself is to be focused solely on the MENA market.
“The global level is already saturated,” he adds.
In 2016, AFKG plans to begin saturating MENA’s eSport landscape by organizing more tournaments, both online and offline. An offline competition is known as a “local area network” or “LAN party”. At a LAN party all players come together to play at one location. This makes it easier to monitor gameplay for cheating or misconduct.
And after completing their first event, AFKG seems to have discovered a regional appetite for e-sports events.
AFKG said it received roughly 80 team applications from 400 from individual players spread out across 14 countries.
The hope from AFKG and groups like the North Africa e-sports Organization is that these events will begin forming the framework for a larger more connected gaming community in MENA.
“We want to develop one united nation for gaming, that is not affected by borders or politics,” Hijazi said.