Over the last few years, the gaming industry has witnessed massive growth and developments worldwide, and the Arab world is no stranger to the rise of online gamers. The Middle East has one of the fastest growing communities of online gamers in the world and statistics show this trend will continue in the coming years. According to research portal Sindibad Business, about 60 percent of the 350 million people in the Arab world are younger than 25 with Internet penetration in the region at almost 70 million users.
The gaming industry in the GCC is worth USD 2.6 billion and is expected to triple in the next ten years, according to T-Break Media, who recently hosted the first international gaming convention (IGN) in Qatar, bringing all those into gaming and pop culture under one roof, to be part of a larger community. “As the scale of gaming grows in the Middle East, we can look at greater economic benefits, being the fastest growing market,” says Abbas Jaffar Ali, publisher, T-Break Media. “When it comes to gaming, people are not merely playing games, but also creating them,” he adds.
These figures are also boosting the progress of game developers in the GCC and the Middle East with some companies even undertaking crowd funding ventures to further their business plans. “If we can bring out game developers in the region and get them to create the titles they are working on, we could be looking at a far more advanced industry,” says Ali.
In the GCC, where disposable incomes are higher, the younger generation has limited entertainment options and hence, their abundance of cash entails higher spending on gaming. According to Peak Games, “The average daily revenue per user is among the world’s highest.” The Gaming Lounge in Qatar claims to witness around 200 gamers on an average every month at their premises.
Social vs competitive gamers
Game players now have more options in both social and competitive gaming and this is no longer confined to a specific country or location. Players and developers are no longer limited to a console, with the introduction of mobile or tablet based games and the ability to play across geographical boundaries.
Gamers in the GCC in general and Qatar specifically are a mix of social and competitive, according to Ali and Alleo Morales, floor manager and event coordinator of The Gaming Lounge in Qatar. “Most of the games who come to The Gaming Lounge have the means to buy games and play it in their homes but they’d rather play it here since there is an element of social interaction as compared to just sitting in front of a TV playing a video game for hours on end,” says Morales.
He adds that he also sees the competitive side of the gamers: “From time to time, we get social gamers that just play for fun, but then all of a sudden you’ll hear someone in the background screaming because he died or missed a point.” Ali, on the other hand, feels in the UAE, several gamers prefer playing at home since online connectivity enables gamers to play anywhere anytime. “Unless you want real competition, in which case you’d need to be in a gaming lounge,” he says.
Endless world of esports
Professional gaming or esports (organized multi-player video game competitions or tournaments) resemble physical sports in a lot of different ways, although some pro gamers claim it is far more gruelling. The ability to break into professional gaming is easier than most other professional sporting leagues and this serves as an added advantage to a lot of pro gaming enthusiasts. Esports is successfully generating enough income to sustain entire leagues and multimillion-dollar competitions.
This region, however, hasn’t warmed up to the massive potential esports presents yet. “There’s so much untapped potential here in esports,” says Morales, who’s a professional gamer himself. “Esports athletes train just as hard as physical athletes,” he says while adding he used to train 10 hours a day, including working out and running to train himself to react faster and respond better.
While a lot of gamers and organisations alike voiced their opinions about esports being classified as an actual sport, pro gamers like Ryan Hart have a different opinion. “Esports doesn’t necessarily have to be seen as a sport,” he says and adds, “I think that in terms of labelling how esports should be viewed, it is definitely to the grade of any existing sport depending on how challenged your mind is.
You are definitely pushed to the limit in terms of dedication, loyalty and training. The training is different because the activity is different. Instead of drills on a pitch, you spend time looking at a screen for how to break down an opponent’s strategy. We do all of that – we look at what other players are doing; we look at holes in their game plan. You need to be very creative as well.”
There is potential for a big esports eruption in the Middle East, according to Hart, who thinks this is a great terrain.
“A big production team can put together the first major esports event and this would give them an upper hand. They will have the monopoly since nothing else is being done right now,” explains Hart.
Companies can easily look into starting something small, and a warm receipt will open many doors.
In some countries, gaming associations are pushing for the setting up of unions to protect the rights of the players and countries like Korea have governing bodies for the same. The Korean government has seen the opportunity presented by esports and successfully tapped it, turning it into a fully-fledged sector with a department (KeSPA – Korean esports Association) for the purpose of governing esports.
Companies like Samsung, SK Telecom and Korea Telecom are fully lending their support to various esports teams in the form of gaming houses – designed for players to hone their skills and master the games they compete in. This of course is true only of countries with fully developed gaming industries.
Locally speaking, only private companies promote or sponsor teams. “As of now we have groups for different genres of competitive esports titles and us that host tournaments. So you could say it kind of already has a government of its own regulated by the gamers themselves,” says Morales. “The private sector will continue to promote and sponsor teams until it reaches a level high enough for the government to get involved,” he adds.
As the industry has grown and developed, it has faced several obstacles, especially in this region. The community here hasn’t really grown the way it has in the West, and gaming is more social here than competitive. “The one thing I see lacking to push development is motivation,” says Morales. True. Gaming in this region is very limited to the confines of your home, or nearest gaming zone, and not a lot of corporates are showing an interest in furthering this sport.
In countries like the US, prize money for these events run in millions, with top teams employing full time managers and coaches, while in countries like Korea, up to 40,000 people go to see an esports event. Without this kind of financial support or sponsors, putting in the necessary time and effort to refine one’s skills seems almost impossible. Organisations like The Gaming Lounge do host monthly tournaments to encourage local gamers in Qatar to be more competitive rather than social.
The piracy levels aren’t helping either. Ali gives some regional statistics to illustrate this: “Around seven or eight years ago, in the West, when someone purchased a console, the average number of games that went out per console were around five or six, over the life of that console. In the Middle East however, for every nine consoles sold, one game was sold, at least until the previous generation of consoles.” Ali hopes to see more resources being diverted towards gaming. “For the companies that create games – why invest in this region if you’re not making any money out of it,” he says.
Ali sees a lot happening in the industry, in the next few years. “I see it changing from console based to mobile based. Gaming has expanded using mobile technology and looks like we will be seeing more of that in the future,” he comments. “In fact, there are two particular technologies that will be reshaping the gaming industry in the coming years – Oculus Rift and Microsoft’s HoloLens.”
These technologies, however, will only be launched by the end of this year, or early next year, according to him. Microsoft’s newly announced augmented-reality HoloLens headset was revealed earlier this year, albeit demo versions. The Oculus Rift is a virtual reality head-mounted display which uses custom tracking technology to provide ultra-low latency 360° head tracking, allowing you to seamlessly look around the virtual world just as you would in real life.
Given the technological advancements, the growing popularity in the West and other regions, massive developments internationally and of course, the financial factors, should the regional governments step in and consider investing into this sport as they do with other sports like football or basketball? There are several examples around the world that go to show the industry is definitely lucrative and this is an idea worth considering.
As several countries in the GCC look towards diversifying their economies, they cannot ignore the vast untapped potential and opportunities this industry presents. That said, the region still has a lot to learn and a long way to go.