Globally, esports are booming. Initially predicted to be worth US$ 1 billion in 2025, the video gaming industry – having already exceeded this forecast – is now projected to reach the $1.6 billion mark by 2026. The esports sector, defined as the industry for competitive video game tournaments, has almost doubled in size. The Arab world is a huge player in gaming, with Saudi Arabia alone contributing to a total revenue across mobile, online, and offline games upwards of $650 million, garnered from video games sales, the sales of skins (or outfits in the games), along with related brands, advertising, event tickets, licensing, content creation, prize money, and more. There are some 5.8 million gamers in the Kingdom – and Covid-19 is proving to further boost engagement.
“The crisis forced a lot of people to stay indoors and explore gaming,” explains Mohammad Al Humood, owner of esport business Phoenix, based in Khobar in Saudi Arabia. He believes the Gulf’s hot climate contributes to the popularity of the entertainment genre. In recent years, technology has made gaming even more accessible. “Everything is going digital. It’s easy to download and install a game; it’s not like in the past when you had to go out and buy a cartridge,” he says. With the perfect storm of scorching temperatures and a youth with considerable disposable income, it’s no wonder players in the Kingdom spend roughly three times more on average on video games than their European and American counterparts. Families in the Kingdom tend to gather at least once a week, says Al Humood. “We are competitive by nature,” he states. “One of the easiest ways to have fun together is to plug in the console and start playing.” Champion gamer Sari Al-Jefri agrees. “Gaming is life for my generation of Saudis.” The International Esports Federation’s tournament winner received global recognition after beating the world at 3D fighting game Tekken 7, in 2018. “We grew up with it,” says Al-Jefri of gaming in Saudi Arabia. “The competitive field is growing day by day.”
Saudi Arabia has set 2030 as its target to phase in new developments as the nation evolves alternative industries to oil – and esports is part of that vision. Officials recognized the industry’s potential in 2017, when the Saudi Arabian Federation for Electronic and Intellectual Sport was created to accredit affiliated organizations and help develop esport athletes and professionals. Although things are heading in the right direction in terms of promotion, some believe there is a need for a formal regulatory body, as there are instances where players are not compensated properly. “Unpaid prize money is especially a problem,” explains Al-Jefri. “I don’t see a future for esports without solving the issue of proper regulation.” Independent companies like Phoenix aim to nurture the next generation of players in the Arab nation in a socially responsible framework. It plans, presents, and executes entire esport projects and seasons and acts as a talent agency representing multiple players, hosts, and commentators. It also ensures that they’re not taken advantage of, says Al Humood, in what has become a hugely profitable market with many young participants.
The region at large has a long way to go. Infrastructure is lacking, esports competitions are fewer and further between, and events offer lower prize pots than in other parts of the world. Demand and talent are rife in the region, but those who want to become professional gamers struggle locally, says Al- Jefri. “The biggest challenge is making it a full-time job, as right now the local esport market cannot provide sustainable income.” Prize money at local competitions is around $100 and start at $2 000 at national events. In rare instances it can go as high as $100 000 for the winner, while at international tournaments, total winnings regularly top millions.
Thamer Alharbi is the founder of Redemption Esports, which has dozens of members and an integrated network of designers, editors, and video moderators, based in Saudi Arabia. Alharbi hopes his team will be the best in the Middle East and eventually the world. “It started as an outlet, to let off steam, relax, and improve my mood. It evolved into a lifestyle,” says the gamer, who now lives and breathes esports. One of the main challenges is showing the older generation that this can be a viable business for their children, he says. “Esports as a field is rapidly growing. You never know what will happen in one or two years. It’s constantly evolving, which gives us the challenge of keeping up, or consistently staying ahead of the curve. At this moment, as a tight-knit, family-oriented community in Saudi Arabia, parents represent a challenge as they generally do not see the value of entering this field. They hold a classic ‘games are for children to have fun’ kind of view.” Alharbi believes it would be a waste not to utilize the talent and growing market in the region. “It has many good players that just need one push of support, and we are confident that the talent to compete globally is available.” With big money to be made in the industry, and more people spending time online, parents who may have discouraged their children to stop playing on their consoles can now see potential careers. While there are physical side-effects due to continued screen-time – strained, dry eyes, blurred vision, and headaches – from a safety point of view, Al Humood considers that parents should also be aware of what games their children are playing in terms of content and connecting with other people on the internet. “Being online and talking with people online or adding them to friends lists (in-game chat) has to be monitored by adults,” he says. “Adults should treat it like a content their kids are consuming.”
Today, many Middle East-based gamers earn by competing internationally. Winning esports athletes include Nasser Al- Rujaib representing Kuwait, Sayed Hashim Ahmed representing Bahrain, Adel Anouche, Amjad Alshalabi, and Obaid Al-Muhairi representing the UAE – all of whom have won more than $20 000 in esports competitions. More significantly, Saudi Arabia’s Mosaad Al-Dossary, known as MSDossary7, won the FIFA eWorld Cup in 2018 and has earned $560 000 in prize money for playing video games. Then there’s Maroun Merhej from Lebanon and Amer Al-Barkawi from Jordan, who have reached superstar gaming status in the region, with total wins of more than $4 million, both ranking in the world’s top 10 for esports earners. Those who don’t manage to play professionally get as much enjoyment out of watching others in action. Live esports events have drawn larger stadium crowds than the US Super Bowl in recent years, including 173 000 people on seats in Katowice, Poland, with spectators watching players battle it out in games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, League of Legends, and StarCraft II. VIP tickets to annual gaming conventions like BlizzCon in California can fetch up to $750. Al Humood loves “almost everything” about the esports events. “The games, the crazy plays and the flashy moves from players, the crowd and the hype. Watching esport is a form of entertainment to me – it’s like watching football or any other sport. What I like most about the community is the fact that we speak the same language. No matter where you are from and no matter what gender, we share a love for the game and the hype and we are all eager for competition.”
Originally Published on the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Vogue Man Arabia