Over the last few years, competitive gaming has gained a lot of attention in the western hemisphere. One can almost bet that if you turn on any big sports-related TV station (e.g. ESPN) at 3 PM EST during weekdays you might tune into an esports competition taking place somewhere around the globe. Although this is not news to the sports industry, the amount of popularity esports is receiving in the Middle East is certainly something to be reckoned with.
In fact, while many westerners are just getting familiarized with professional gaming and its benefits, the people of the Middle East have been enjoying competitive gaming for years now; especially in Saudi Arabia where a majority of esports events are taking place. The increase of interest and popularity in esports from the Middle East is hardly a surprise to anyone knowing how big role video games play in people's social lives in the region.
According to Jawwad Kamal, head of mobile marketing at Vodafone Arabia, "Gaming is synonymous with being young in the Arab world," an overwhelming majority (90%+) of all gamers fall within the demographic aged 18-35, which is a large portion of any population. This fact alone makes it easy to understand why competitive gaming has become so popular among Middle Eastern citizens who typically live in the age of technology.
The younger audiences in these countries are more likely to play video games: 91% of males aged 15-24 years old and 89% of females aged 18-35 years old play at least one hour per week, according to a study conducted by UNESCWA (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia). The large amount of gamers also makes it easier for game developers to create new releases tailored towards specific audience demands. Games such as Fallout 4 or Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 were developed with different cultural preferences in mind than western countries; resulting in better sales figures from Middle Eastern consumers.
Initially, most of the esports fame and popularity in the Middle Eastern countries came from successful Counter Strike teams. The rise to fame started with a 2007 award for CS player Sayid "sayiN" Abdel-Mottaleb at World Cyber Games when he led Saudi Arabia's National team on victory over all other contenders. Over 4 years later, Team Saudi Arabia was introduced to an entire new level as they took second place during 2011 Asian Indoor Martial Arts games held in China; this time competing against well-established South Korean teams. Arab pride was rising and more people wanted to take part in this new phenomenon that was online gaming.
In 2012 - only two short years after Saudi Arabian Counter Strike victory - a petition for official recognition competitive gaming in Saudi Arabia was filed, and by the end of that year, the Saudi government had announced its support.
This led to various gaming events hosted in Saudi Arabia for a variety of games such as League of Legends, Dota 2 or even Hearthstone. The most popular so far has been Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) Series held in Jeddah and Riyadh; where world-renowned professional gamers compete against each other on a large esports stage for a prize pool worth over $50,000 USD. Despite some controversy surrounding CS:GO, more developers are creating releases that cater toward Middle Eastern customer needs and expectations. Rocket league is a recent example of this: a game where players compete against each other in rocket-powered cars and soccer.
The Middle East is ushering in the new era of competitive gaming, but what does "esports" look like? What are its benefits to the region as well as how can it grow even bigger? The rest of this article will attempt to answer these questions by explaining why esports are so important to the region's culture and mentioning some ways that competitive gaming can be further promoted there.
This all happened due to public demand for more competitive events. People, especially those living in urban areas such as Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, want something fun and educational to do; which has led to an increase in companies providing products with less emphasis on violence and more on multiplayer interaction.
A new trend in the Middle East has resulted into a rapid growth and development of esports as evidenced by the creation of local leagues: Saudi Electronic Sports League, Bahrain's ESports Organization, UAE's official CS league (UAE Rank), and UAE's official FIFA league (FIFA Online 3).
In order to have an organized structure, dedicated studios are needed - hence EMP eSports Arena was opened for business in Dubai back in 2013. It is the first serious attempt at creating a home base for esports in the region, complete with soundproof booths, high-speed internet connection and amenities like multiple VR stations which can help train even professional gamers without leaving their homes or office spaces. Local businesses are now starting to catch on and invest in esports by sponsoring teams mostly on a regional level.
Once this trend catches on, companies will realize that there is great potential and profitability in catering toward young, urban audiences. Most of the Middle East population still watch television programs and movies or listen to mainstream music; however, modern technology has made it much easier than ever before for people to play online games with each other (even while watching something else at the same time).
One example of a popular game in relation to this is "League of Legends" (LoL), which brings millions of players together from all over the world in their respective servers; creating communities known as "Teams". Each player can create his own profile, design an avatar and represent himself as a "pro gamer" using his unique nickname. They can also connect with other players through messenger or video chat applications like Skype if they want to talk while gaming, creating an environment that is similar to real-life social interaction. This means that LoL gives people the opportunity to stay connected and get to know one another in an entirely different way than simply talking over the phone - all whilst having fun!
In addition to LoL, Rocket League is catching on in the Middle East. The game works in a similar fashion but instead of players controlling characters that enter battle against one another, they are placed in rocket-powered cars and tasked with hitting soccer balls into their opponent's goals. This game fits the demographic perfectly because it is accessible across multiple regions; it has simplified controls so anyone can pick up a controller and play. The fact that this game is played by men and women also makes it stand out from other popular games like "Call of Duty" or "Guitar Hero", which are known for being marketed toward (and mostly played by) young, male audiences. This trend in gaming culture will only grow as access to online networks increases.
In addition to new gaming studios opening and large, online communities being formed; it is also becoming much more common for companies to set up local competitions. This means that gamers all over the region are getting a chance to represent their business (E.g.: DUBAI MIRACLE, The Green Shield Association) or country in a way that is fun and competitive. For example, in Saudi Arabia, the GSA organized an esports tournament where top teams were chosen from each city to compete against each other on behalf of their home city. There was also a separate tournament held by Al-Noor School where students competed in both FIFA and LoL locally. An even larger competition hosted by Abu Dhabi Classics & Gaming was aimed at fully -grown adults, who all came together to represent their organization and country by playing CS:GO (Counter-Strike Global Offensive). These tournaments give younger gamers the chance to compete locally or even internationally in front of a large crowd and be cheered on by family members.
The Middle East has enjoyed great success with its regional esports competitions; however, it is still lagging behind when compared to other global regions like Europe or North America. In order to make the region more competitive, numerous changes need to be made. First off, there are not nearly enough gaming studios operating in this part of the world yet. Most gamers settle for practicing at home because they are limited by financial means - which ultimately hurts practice time & overall performance once tournaments around the world do start gaining traction. Secondly, there needs to be cooperation between networks and gaming studios. Promoting competitive gaming is a difficult task because streaming platforms such as Twitch are already being used for other games like "League of Legends" or "CS:GO". There needs to be more exposure for these tournaments and larger prizes need to be given out in order to maintain the fans that have already been built up over time. As competition only gets stiffer - gamers will need all the help they can get to stay on top internationally.
The esports scene has grown tremendously (especially within countries like South Korea) and it looks likely that it will continue growing at this same pace for some time now. If nothing else, it is certainly becoming much more recognized in the Middle East as a whole. This can be attributed to more people playing games online, but also due to larger gaming studios opening and holding local tournaments which catch everybody's attention. As more events are held by companies all over the region; the more money will be injected into this growing industry . Ultimately, this means there will be even bigger prize pools (and thus even greater fame) available for gamers who do succeed internationally.