How GCC's esports, gaming sector is on target for growth
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Beyond games: How GCC’s esports, gaming sector is on target for growth

Beyond games: How GCC’s esports, gaming sector is on target for growth

We explore how the region is embracing esports and gaming as a significant cultural and economic force

Divsha Bhat
Esports GCC

Over the past decade, the Middle East, in particular the GCC has witnessed a remarkable surge in the growth of esports and gaming, transforming the region into a thriving hub. This burgeoning industry has captivated the region’s youth, attracting both players and spectators, and has garnered significant attention from investors, sponsors and organisations alike.

One of the key factors contributing to the rise of esports is the increasing availability of high-speed internet and advanced gaming infrastructure. Countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have made substantial investments in technology and connectivity, providing gamers with a seamless online gaming experience and enabling them to compete globally. This has led to a surge in the number of gamers participating in international tournaments and establishing a strong presence on the global esports stage.

Moreover, the region has seen a rise in dedicated gaming arenas and esports facilities. These venues provide gamers with state-of-the-art equipment, professional coaching and a social space to connect with fellow gaming enthusiasts. They also serve as a hub for hosting esports tournaments and community events, boosting the visibility of gaming in the region.

BCG’s latest gaming report titled ‘Game Changer: Accelerating the Media Industry’s Most Dynamic Sector’, highlights that more than 60 per cent of the population in the Middle East are gaming enthusiasts, resulting in one of the highest shares of gaming mobile app downloads.

Dr Alexander Schudey, managing director and partner at BCG, states: “The Middle East is a key player in the global gaming industry, with an impressive penetration rate and a strong commitment from governments to invest in the sector. The region’s focus on gaming and the establishment of dedicated gaming hubs makes it an attractive destination for global gaming companies.

The young and digitally savvy population, particularly in Saudi Arabia, where 70 per cent of the population is below the age of 30, combined with higher disposable incomes and a preference for indoor activities due to the hot weather, further contribute to the region’s thriving gaming ecosystem.”

Khaldoun Mahmoud

Khaldoun Mahmoud, head of Government Relations of BIGO for the MENA region, also attributes the region’s emergence as a consumer and creator hub to its young and digitally savvy population, extensive digital connectivity, and strong government support. “Within the region, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE stand at the forefront of this revolution, leveraging technological advancements and attracting diverse and inclusive audiences,” he says.

The GCC outlook

The Middle East has witnessed the UAE emerge as a prominent destination for esports and gaming. Capitalising on its advanced technological infrastructure and thriving gaming community, the country has successfully hosted major tournaments and attracted international players. By investing significantly in the development of dedicated gaming arenas and state-of-the-art facilities, the UAE offers gamers access to top-notch equipment and a vibrant gaming ecosystem. Furthermore, the UAE government’s supportive policies and initiatives have played a pivotal role in nurturing the growth of esports and gaming, establishing the nation as a hub for both professional players and enthusiasts.

One notable example of the UAE’s commitment to fostering the gaming industry is the DMCC Gaming Centre, launched by Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC), the UAE’s free trade zone, last year. The centre provides a platform for gaming industry professionals to connect, collaborate and explore new opportunities. With over 50 gaming companies currently located in the DMCC, including developers, producers, esports teams and tournament organisers, the facility offers a fully digital setup process and infrastructure to support companies looking to expand globally and engage with diverse audiences.

In another pioneering initiative, Aldar Education and Lenovo unveiled the first esports hub at a K-12 school in Abu Dhabi earlier this year. Situated in Aldar Education’s West Yas Academy, the facility grants students access to gaming equipment and software, enabling them to explore the world of esports. The esports zone at the academy features PCs and monitors, ensuring an immersive gaming experience for students.

Vladimir Nikolsky

Furthermore, My.Games, the Amsterdam-headquartered video game developer recently announced Abu Dhabi as its regional hub for the MENA market. “The Middle East countries heavily invest in the development of young people so that they can start a career in gaming. At My.Games we plan to work with AD Gaming and universities to create various opportunities for talented students as we strongly believe that helping the local gaming community to grow will only enrich the gaming industry,” says Vladimir Nikolsky, CEO of My.Games.

Moreover, Abu Dhabi’s AD Gaming forged a partnership with SAWA Group, a game publishing and esports company. SAWA Group specialises in localising global video games, particularly those developed in China, and aims to make its vast game library more accessible to Arabic speakers across the MENA region. Through this collaboration, Chinese gaming and esports companies will be facilitated in their international expansion via Abu Dhabi, while the local industry gains access to new audiences.

Moving to Saudi Arabia, in 2022, the kingdom introduced its National Gaming and Esports Strategy, with the objective of positioning the country as a global centre for the gaming industry by 2030. The strategy encompasses three key goals: enhancing players’ experiences to improve their quality of life, offering new entertainment opportunities, and generating a significant economic impact by contributing approximately SAR50bn to the GDP, both directly and indirectly. By 2030, the strategy aims to create around 39,000 direct and indirect job openings.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) emerged as the largest external shareholder of Nintendo this year, owning 8.3 per cent of the Kyoto-based company. The investment marked PIF’s third venture into Japanese gaming companies, having previously acquired shares in Nexon and Capcom, the creators of Street Fighter.

Recently, Savvy Gaming Group, a subsidiary of PIF, made headlines by acquiring mobile games studio Scopely for a staggering $4.9bn. Scopely is known for its popular mobile games such as Yahtzee With Buddies, Star Trek Fleet Command, Marvel Strike Force, Stumble Guys and Scrabble Go. Savvy Gaming Group plans to operate Scopely as an independent entity under its umbrella, which also includes esports companies ESL and Faceit, as well as the Swedish gaming firm Embracer.

Furthermore, earlier this year, the Saudi National Bank announced a strategic partnership agreement with Mastercard and the Saudi Esports Federation (SEF) to accelerate the digital transformation of Saudi Arabia and enhance its gaming and esports infrastructure. Leveraging Mastercard’s existing relationship with SEF, this collaboration aims to promote the kingdom’s gaming industry. The three entities will collaborate to create novel experiences powered by Web3 technology, providing gamers with exclusive benefits and immersive experiences in both the physical and digital realms.

In a similar vein, Doha-based Quest Esports unveiled its ‘Gaming District’ in Qatar’s capital as part of its partnership with the Qatar Esports Federation to advance the esports scene in the country. The Gaming District project was launched in 2022, with the aim of fostering the growth and development of esports in Qatar.

Most popular esports

In the Middle East, one of the most popular esports titles is undoubtedly Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO). The competitive scene for CS:GO has gained significant traction, with numerous tournaments and leagues attracting top teams from the region. Another highly popular esports title is League of Legends, which has a dedicated fan base and competitive circuit. The Middle East is also witnessing a rise in mobile gaming, particularly games like PUBG Mobile and Free Fire. These titles have captured the attention of the gaming community, with regional tournaments and events drawing large audiences.

Mario Pérez

MENATech CEO Mario Pérez highlights that within the university ecosystem, Amazon University Esports stands out as one of the most known esports tournaments across Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America. MENATech (a company of GGTech Entertainment) organises these competitions, and Pérez emphasises their popularity and significance.

“The previous season of the Amazon University Esports competition attracted representatives from around 220 universities and had more than 10,000 participants from across the region. Players compete in their respective national competitions. The winners have the chance to participate in Amazon University Esports Masters, the international competition in which they aim to become MENA University Champions. With the abundance of talent emerging from the region, many publishers are localising their games in Arabic and organising competitions that showcase the region’s capabilities on the international stage,” he states.

Meanwhile, the free live streaming platform, Bigo Live has actively forged partnerships with various game publishers. It has become a key platform for the live streaming coverage of major esports events in the region. Notably, it has successfully hosted all seasons of Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, Mobile Premier League and the M4 World Championship since 2022, offering comprehensive coverage of both online and offline matches. Additionally, the brand has collaborated with PUBG Mobile, organising events such as the PUBG Challenger Tournament in the region.

“We have also embraced the spirit of PUBG Mobile by hosting numerous themed events for our region, celebrating occasions like the summer season, Ramadan, and the creativity of PUBG Mobile creators, notes Mahmoud.

Embracing diversity

Diversity in esports and gaming is gaining momentum in the Middle East, representing a significant shift in the region’s gaming landscape. As more players, content creators and professionals from diverse backgrounds emerge, the community becomes more inclusive and representative. The Middle East is witnessing a surge in esports tournaments, organisations, and initiatives that embrace diversity, fostering a space where individuals of different genders, races, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds can thrive. This wave of inclusivity is challenging stereotypes and promoting unity, breaking down barriers and offering opportunities for talent to shine.

For instance, last year, G2 Esports, announced the addition of the first GCC-based, female gamer, Maryam “Mary” Maher, to the G2 Gozen roster. Making her Tier 1 debut at just 16, Bahrain’s Maher has been showcasing her skills in online video games such as Fortnite since 2017.
“Gender diversity and inclusivity are actively being addressed in the esports sector, with many talented women showcasing their skills and professionalism in this field. In fact, there has been a notable increase in the number of female players, sometimes even surpassing their male counterparts, as well as an increase in the participation of individuals from the Gen X age group (between 41 and 56 years),” explains Pérez.

“Reports indicate that in the Emirates, approximately 64 per cent of adult males online and 58 per cent of females online are involved in digital gaming. Similarly, in Saudi, there are 68 per cent of online male gamers and 69 per cent of online female gamers. These statistics demonstrate the growing engagement of women in gaming and esports, reflecting the efforts made to promote gender diversity and inclusivity in the sector.”

The Middle East has experienced a remarkable expansion in esports and gaming, fuelled by technological advancements, the hosting of major tournaments, increased investment, and the establishment of dedicated gaming facilities.

As the industry continues to thrive, the Middle East is poised to become a prominent player in the global esports landscape, showcasing the region’s talent and passion for competitive gaming to the world.

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