Think of a current successful athlete from the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region. Chances are you’ll come up with a footballer, like Mohamed Salah or Riyad Mahrez.
But beyond mainstream sports, there is one discipline that is slowly creating some of the Arab world’s most promising athletes – athletes that the majority of the Mena population has never even heard of.
They are a new genre of sportspeople – esports “athletes” – from a discipline that is one of the fastest growing in the world. And industry executives agree that it is high time the Middle East paid attention to the massive opportunities it offers.
Esports, short for electronic sports, is an organised sporting competition for multi-player video games. They are streamed to live audiences online and sometimes in stadiums to millions of fans, who tune in to watch these athletes play.
As an industry, it is wildly popular in the US, China and South Korea, and now the Middle East, known for having the world’s most active 300 million-strong gaming community, is looking to grow its own esports market.
The Rise of Esports
The amount of investment in esports and government backing has increased over the past year. UAE-based W Ventures recently announced that it will be investing $50 million, through its independent brand engagement partner RedPeg Middle East, to develop an online and offline gaming platform in the region to support the local esports ecosystem.
“We see an opportunity to offer gamers in the region a completely unique and authentic experience, by providing them with the tools and infrastructure to be discovered and flourish in this growing global phenomenon,” says Habib Wehbi, chairman of W Ventures.
Meanwhile Bahrain’s government has promised to accelerate the growth of esports in the Gulf state by partnering with the BLAST Pro Series CS: Go final under a special public-private-partnership (PPP) framework to enable greater collaboration between the state and private entertainment franchises. The two-day esports tournament held earlier this month brought some of the world’s best players to Manama to play the first-person shooter video game in the largest esports event in the region.
“Publishers are starting to take notice of the region by localising games and having physical presence,” says Luciano Rahal, a gaming industry professional. “This is truly a first step into developing the market. For esports, teams like Nasr Esports and Yalla Esports have started to make an impact internationally, which has led to more interest to our region. We also have top publishers facilitating servers for our community to play on equal ground with the rest of the world.”
In figures shared by Vincent Wang, general manager of global publishing at China-based Tencent Games, the worldwide video games industry will make $148.8 billion in revenue in 2019, up 7.2 per cent year-on-year. In the Middle East and Africa (MEA), games revenue will reach $4.8 billion this year (an increase of 10.8 per cent year-on-year) and is estimated to reach $6 billion by 2021. Mobile gaming is the most popular, driven by the high smartphone penetration rate, counting for 47 per cent of total revenue (approximately $2.24 billion).
Earlier this year Tencent Games opened its regional headquarters in Dubai to better tap into the Middle East market.
“The UAE’s high mobile and internet penetration is an extremely encouraging indicator for tech firms across the world, and is especially relevant to the global games industry,” says Wang. “We look forward to creating a platform that invests in and improves the regional games market, while encouraging local games enthusiasts and developers to push the boundaries of creativity and innovation.”
The gaming ecosystem consists of subcategories such as developers, publishers, and distributers. Esports is almost an ecosystem of its own within the ecosystem, comprising events (leagues, competitions), content (influencers, user-generated content), and media (official broadcasts and live streams), among others.
"It is important to differentiate between gaming and esports,” says Rahal. “Gamers in our region play video games as an escape from reality. Esports, on the other hand, is an international phenomenon that is taking the world by storm with prize money that reaches up to $30 million.”
In terms of prize money, the top earning countries are the United States with $132,506,253 in prize money followed by China ($106,145,898) and South Korea ($88,141,766). Some esports events in these territories attract more viewers than traditional sports tournaments.
Twelve Mena countries are included in the top 100 earning countries in terms of prize money; the highest-ranking being Jordan, at number 23, with total earnings of $6,219,602. The others in the top 100 are Lebanon (number 27), Saudi Arabia (46), the United Arab Emirates (66), Morocco (79), Iraq (82), Bahrain (83), Tunisia (84), Kuwait (85), Algeria (86), Egypt (87) and Palestine (98).
Notable esports athletes from the region include top earner, Amer ‘Miracle’ Al-Barkawi, 22, who has made $4,692,418 in prize money from 51 tournaments. Lebanon’s Maroun ‘GH’ Merhej, 24, has won an estimated $4,086,426 from 38 tournaments.
Narrowing it down to the GCC, the UAE’s top two in terms of prize money are Adel ‘Big Bird’ Anouche ($44,024), and Amjad ‘Angry Bird’ Alshalabi ($23,325), while in Saudi Arabia, they are Mosaad ‘MSdossary’ Al-Dossary ($527,865) and Cuyler ‘Huke’ Garland ($277,977).
International business players are taking notice. This past October, Roc Nation Sports, founded by Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter, made its first esports signing, taking on Al-Dossary to represent him internationally.
The region will soon see an all-women esports team for the Girlgamer World Finals tournament in Dubai next year, an initiative put together by government entity 10X Media, Dubai Ladies Club, Grow uP eSports and Galaxy Racer. The five-member team is set to compete at regional and international events in League of Legends tournaments throughout the year.
“Brands are more than ready to invest in the region,” Edouard Griveaud, vice-president of gaming esports at Webedia told the audience at recent Dubai industry event, ON.DXB. “Compared to a year ago, you don’t need to [explain esports as much] as we used to. But we need to take baby steps; we can't overpromise and scare them off.
“Today, the region is not ready for these 10,000-20,000-capacity events that we see in Asia, Europe or the US. You won't get the attendance.”
Event companies have been quick to take note of the popularity of gaming, incorporating an element of esports into their offerings.
For example, this year’s Middle East Games Con in Abu Dhabi hosted the region’s first-ever Brawlhalla tournament, while Dubai’s Middle East Film and Comic Con (MEFCC) hosts an esports arena every year. Several government-led bodies have also emerged throughout the region to establish new events and help grow the sector. The Saudi Arabian Federation for Electronics and Intellectual Sports (SAFEIS) and the Arab Esports Federation are leading the construction of several esports venues and academies to create an environment to encourage and nurture talent.
“The Middle East is the fastest growing gaming market in the world, yet unlike saturated Western markets, the region is still completely untapped,” says James Magee, co-founder and chief executive officer at UAE-based Global Event Management (GEM) which manages Insomnia in the GCC. “We have a huge opportunity in both the UAE and Saudi Arabia to give consumers something they really want.”
Magee believes it is a “duty” to play a pivotal role in nurturing local talent.
“We’re running student-specific tournaments with Go Gamers. School and university students can compete in our online championships with the aim of giving them guidance and support to go into a profession in the gaming industry. One of the tournaments will be creating a scholarship programme specifically for this reason,” he said. “[This] shows gamers in the region that we are serious about esports, and it gives them a great platform with a strong network and community to support and nurture their development.”
Despite the rate of growth, esports still only attracts a niche audience.
“What we’re lacking is support and recognition. Things are changing, but very slowly here in the Middle East. There are hardly any teens or adults who are interested in going pro because it doesn't seem realistic for them, nor is it stable enough to be worth the time and effort,” says Anouche. “Maybe in the future, things will change, but as of now, it's just brushed off as ‘gaming’ and not something serious.”
Educating the wider public is essential, says Klaus Kajetski, founder and chief executive officer of Yalla Esports, a UAE-based startup managing an esports team that recently secured a six-figure seed funding round.
“[The biggest misconception about esports] is that it is a waste of time, or that gaming is harmful. There’s a big lack of education for parents [who need to know about] positives of gaming for their kids. Mena players are mostly semi-pro who work or study on the side.”
Therefore, investment starts with the players – before the events.
“It’s important to make sure that the money we get from these brands is properly distributed within the ecosystem,” says Griveaud. “The players are the key component of this ecosystem, but they are the last in the food chain when it comes to getting money. It [creates] this ‘chicken and egg’ discussion: For a player to be interesting for a brand to invest in, they need to have exposure and be able to create content about themselves.
“But creating content costs money. So what do they start with? Do they start with creating content in the hope that they will catch sponsors? Or do they participate in more tournaments to get more exposure? And this is where our world is essential, to make sure this redistribution of money happens properly.”
Anouche echoes Griveaud’s sentiments.
“Professional gamers can make an income from multiple sources – a salary from a sponsor or team; creating content for YouTube, or streaming daily on Twitch. None of those are easy and require a lot of commitment, which brings us back to [my original point] – people here have to believe it's worth their time and effort.”
For now, it seems that the region’s governments do think it is worth the time and effort as more partnerships, more events and more facilities open but it remains to be seen whether it will enable the talent and content creation that it requires.