Bahrain: Enabling the Arabic esports industry
This article is courtesy of Bahrain Economic Development Board
The Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region’s gaming industry is increasingly capturing the attention of the world’s main gaming markets. There are some 336 million gamers in the region, and the Mena gaming community is currently growing at 25 per cent year-on-year, which is the fastest growing online gaming population in the world. According to a recent white paper from Tencent and Pubg Mobile, the region’s gaming market will be worth $6 billion by the end of 2021, up from $4.8 billion in 2019.
Bahrain is one of the markets benefiting most from this surge, and from strong pro-gaming policies. Sara Ishaq Hasan, assistant undersecretary for support and initiatives at Bahrain’s Ministry of Youth and Sport Affairs, believes the kingdom has emerged “as something of a regional gaming and ICT hub, as it has sought to diversify its economy away from hydrocarbons”.
The Arabic content market continues to be a massive untapped opportunity. Despite being the fifth most spoken language worldwide, only about 3 per cent of online content is in Arabic. Bahrain’s pro-startup regulations, creative drive and tech-savvy population creates a suitable ecosystem for game developers, content creators and esports athletes argues Hasan, so it is not surprising to see a strong community developing in Bahrain’s gaming scene.
Over the past few years, several esports events have emerged in the country, including The IGN Convention, DreamLand Expo, and the Counter-Strike's BLAST Pro Series Global Final, a result of the government’s push to nurture startups according to Hasan.
“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,” she says.
This talent includes esports athletes like the region’s top earner Amer ‘Miracle’ Al-Barkawi from Jordan who has made $4.8 million in prize money and Lebanon’s Maroun ‘GH’ Merhej, who has won $4. 2 million according to esportsearnings.com. Bahrain currently has 14 esports athletes and ranks 89th in the world in terms of their earnings.
The gaming and esports sector has become one of Bahrain’s “biggest assets” according to Robbie Douek, the organiser of the BLAST Pro Series.
“The structure that Bahrain has created will only help aid and support more exciting esports and gaming ventures in the future,” he says.
The esports scene is an increasingly strong driver of regional growth. Over the past few years we have seen the establishment of Dubai-based W Ventures’ $50 million fund dedicated to gaming and esports, new tournaments and dedicated stadiums being built across the GCC and the arrival of international tournaments to the region.
Rami Jamal, CEO of Bahrain-based Piercer Esports, explains: “Having launched just months ago, we are one of the, if not the fastest growing independent esports team in the Middle East and North Africa.”
Piercer is already among the top five teams in the region in terms of trophies in 2021, most recently having won the Legion Gaming Festival Championship in June.
“Our rapid rise in esports is reflected in our following. Online impressions and followers have grown 150 per cent and our videos have had hundreds of thousands of views. In Q3 2021, we plan to sign new content creators, streamers and a second team. And with the launch of our rising stars programme, we aim to promote Bahrain as an esports hub,” he adds.
While the US, China and Korea dominate the esports and gaming sector in terms of earnings, the GCC region and Bahrain in particular, has the right, forward-thinking mindset to enable growth.
“As a predominantly foreign-owned studio, we feel that the support provided to us by authorities such as Tamkeen and the Economic Development Board has been phenomenal. It has helped us in continuing to run our studio even with the harsh effects of Covid-19,” says Saba Saleem Warsi, CEO of The Stories Studio
Warsi thinks this kind of support will help attract some of the best developers on the circuit who are hungry for expansion in the wake of the pandemic. Tamkeen, Bahrain’s national labour fund can also play a key role in enabling this and establishing the kingdom as a gaming hub for the Mena region.
“The first four years are crucial in the life of a business where it requires a lot of effort and support. Tamkeen has developed a range of programmes that provide the support startups need to develop and grow their business. The Ministry of Youth and Sports is also very supportive in encouraging gaming and esports as a way of life and as a serious career option for young people,” says Qutub Dadabai, chairman at Total Esports MENA.
It is not just support from a governmental and regulatory level that local firms and foreign developers can expect in the Gulf. Yousef Buhazza, founder of Unreal Bahrain, a non-profit community driven initiative that focuses on supporting game developers and designers, says that his firm is currently in the final phases of establishing a programme dubbed Bridges. The initiative aims to leverage the organisation’s connections with game developers and companies in the Mena region to help better coordinate and support efforts towards building the gaming industry. All these strings – top down and grassroots – can play a part in helping foreign investors to thrive in an increasingly competitive market.
With a wealth of advanced economies and increasingly mature digital markets in the Gulf region, international firms and regional businesses are not short of options for acquisitions and bases in the GCC. But Bahrain has emerged as a clear frontrunner through its liberal society, access to GCC markets, advanced digital infrastructure and last but not least, the wealth of established gaming businesses alongside and a community of deeply talented local gamers.