What does the future hold for the GCC's gaming industry?
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What does the future hold for the GCC’s gaming industry?

What does the future hold for the GCC’s gaming industry?

The number of Middle East gamers is believed to be over 100 million

A multi-billion-dollar industry and an enthusiastic audience. The script for gaming in the GCC writes itself.

A recent report by Frost & Sullivan lays bare the potential for gaming as an economic catalyst. According to the research firm, gaming in the MENA region is estimated to be worth $4.5bn.

The number of Middle East gamers is believed to be over 100 million.

The GCC will account for about 1.5 per cent of the global gaming market revenue by 2025, the report adds. It places Saudi Arabia in the 19th position globally in gaming revenues in 2019, at an estimated $837m. The sector is expected to grow at a 22.5 per cent CAGR over 2019-2025.

The UAE on the other hand ranks as the 35th largest gaming market in the world in terms of revenue as of 2019. Gamers in the UAE spend an average of 30 minutes per day on mobile games, the report added.

Revenues from the global gaming industry are estimated to be larger than those of worldwide box offices, music streaming and album sales combined. To tap into this potential does however require substantial investment in infrastructure – both virtual and physical, a fact not lost on regional policymakers and investors. Existing and planned facilities put the GCC at the centre of this multi-billion-dollar industry.

In Saudi Arabia, the upcoming $500bn hi-tech city of NEOM will have dedicated gaming/esports facilities, after the developer signed a memorandum of understanding with the Saudi Arabian Federation of Electronic and Intellectual Sports (SAFEIS).

In Dubai, the TECOM Group plans to put up the Dubai X-Stadium, a dedicated esports venue it hopes will establish the emirate as a regional and global hub for hosting gaming events. Technical details have not been released, but renders envisage a futuristic stadium shaped like a giant overturned cone, connected by arcades catering to the wider ecosystem. In September, ‘The Arcade by Hub Zero’ opened its doors in the Al Khawaneej area of Dubai. The venue offers a variety of over 50 games to choose from, spanning artificial intelligence, virtual reality and motion capture genres.

The facility also offers some pop culture hit video games such as Justice League, Batman and Mario Kart. Also on offer are retro classics such as Pacman and Space Invaders.

In Abu Dhabi, the media and entertainment hub twofour54 is teaming up with gaming publisher Unity Technologies to develop a gaming ‘centre of excellence’ where local startups and students can learn the skills needed to succeed in the gaming industry.

The training initiative will be accompanied by a subsidy package for developers, according to a statement from twofour54.

The facility expects to house game development companies of all sizes, from startups to established companies, all of whom could benefit from the technical and business support services provided by Unity.

Then there’s Pixel, a vast gaming complex being built at Al Qana, an upcoming waterfront destination in Abu Dhabi. Beirut-based Robocom VR has been tapped to provide the content and technology for Pixel. It will also include an esports academy to train the next generation of UAE esports stars, as well as an events space to host tournaments and a games arcade.

Karim Ibrahim, CEO of Robocom VR says Pixel aims to elevate gaming in this region to match other global hotspots. “We have identified that there is a gap for gamers in the region,” says Ibrahim. “When we look at North America, East Asia, and parts of Europe, esports and gaming are prized and loved. The Middle East is no different; the community, passion, and love for gaming exist but the platform doesn’t yet.

“Pixel at Al Qana aims to give our local talent that platform, to offer an even playing field with those in the other continents, by providing the best gaming facilities and infrastructure in the industry,” he says.

Pixel aims not only to entertain but to allow the gaming community to participate in competitive VR Leagues. Pixel will also be providing a facility for content creators, gaming streamers, or professional esports players participating in international competitions to hone their talents, adds Ibrahim.

“The platform provided at Pixel is a leap in the right direction providing gamers with everything they need in terms of an immersive experience and an esports ecosystem. This is also supported by the Abu Dhabi government which wants to see gaming in this region grow by providing a space for local talents and developers to act as a catalyst for the gaming and esports industry,” he adds.

Across town, Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management (ADMM), which manages the Yas F1 circuit, launched the Yas Heat esports team earlier this year. Yas Heat took part in the inaugural season of the V10 R-League, part of the Global Racing series. The team competed against motorsport household names such as Williams Esports, BWT Racing Point Esports Team, Ford (Fordzilla) and Jaesa Team Suzuki.

Saif Al Noaimi, acting CEO of Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management says ADMM has a strategic focus to develop and invest in premium racing ventures, and virtual racing is a crucial pillar in this vision.

“Esports, for us, was the next natural space to move into. Yas Heat is a realisation of that vision, bridging the gap between virtual and real-world racing, and providing a perfect way to engage new audiences in motorsport as well as help forge a new pathway into real-world racing,” he adds.

Season one of the V10 R-League, in which Yas Heat competed, recently concluded. The team is looking forward to competing again in season two, says Noaimi. “Longer term, we are building a legacy, the next generation of racing excellence, and aiming to establish the academy element which is integrated across esports and racing. We want to help develop UAE racing talent to a level where individuals are ready to compete and succeed on the international stage,” he adds.

Training and development
Just like any other sport, there’s a clear skills development path for those who want to take gaming to the next level. In addition to game creation services, business development support and academic training, the gaming centre at twofour54 will serve as a training and entrepreneurial platform for cultivating talent and launching new careers, a release by the centre says.

Al Qana will also host an esports academy. “We believe the best way to grow esports in the region is to educate the public by providing numerous classes, dedicated professional coaches, and an environment to build on their skills. By growing the individual, we are growing the region,” says Ibrahim.

“This will have a huge impact on the youth by highlighting team play, communication, and professionalism in gaming, as well as educating the previous generations on what gaming has to offer when it comes to health, wellbeing, and possible career opportunities,” he adds.

The University of Wollongong Dubai (UOWD) is also offering two gaming programmes. The first one is the Bachelor of Computer Science: Game and Mobile Development. This programme caters to the backend of game development, programming, design, architecture and infrastructure.

Dr Michael Mallory, programme director, Media and Communication at UOWD, says the course is designed to equip learners with the skills to develop video games and related systems on computers and devices such as phones, tablets and wearable devices and to identify approaches to solving real-world problems in video games and multimedia systems.

“Advances in science and technology such as human-computer interaction, the processing power of microprocessors, modelling of business processes, simulation of complex interactions, and the omnipresence of the internet have dramatically increased the scope of this fi eld of work,” says Mallory.

“This programme will prepare learners for various high in demand career paths in the entertainment industry, the game and mobile industry including game animator, designer, programmer, artist, and mobile app developer among others,” he adds.

The university also offers a Bachelor of Communication and Media (BCM) – Digital and Social Media programme. This programme looks at the social, front-end aspects of gaming and game development. Other aspects include user experience, network culture, cyberculture, gaming aesthetics, storytelling, and gaming as a kind of transmedia.

“While sitting down and writing the coding and programming for the games is extremely important, what goes into the coding, how the gamers experience the game, how the game lives in society, how it thrives, the social role of the game and many other aspects of gaming are all part of the approach we take,” Mallory explains.

Meanwhile in Abu Dhabi, the Yas Heat project is hosting an ongoing Open Trials programme, intending to offer a platform for aspiring local competitors to hone their skills, progressing to a level where they can take part in tournaments around the globe, Noaimi reveals. “Our first round has completed and we are reviewing future applications with great interest,” he says.

For Yas, the main challenge is a shortage of local well-known drivers, Noaimi says. “This is something we identified very early on in the process, and one of the main reasons we see Yas Heat as an integral part of the pathway programme to create future champions, aiming to nurture and develop aspiring local talent,” he adds.

Two Emirati sisters – Amna and Hamda Al Qubaisi – who competed in the F4 event at last year’s Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Race weekend, are a prime example of how drivers can inspire the next generation in the MENA region, Noaimi says.

Streaming
Much like how TV revolutionised sports, streaming is emerging as a major force behind gaming and esports. Globally, streaming platforms such as Twitch have exploded in popularity in recent years. According to rating agency DecisionData, Twitch had an average of 7.4 million unique viewers during prime time in May 2020 in the US, more than TV hit shows like The Bachelor or American Idol.

Streaming is also becoming popular in the region – StarzPlay Arabia secured the broadcast rights to the V10 R-League, having never previously shown esports. “There is a massive appetite for virtual motorsport which simply cannot be ignored, and motorsport/esports fans in the region can now access content as and when they wish via StarzPlay Arabia,” says ADMM’s Noaimi.

The ability to partially shake off the stigma associated with gaming is behind its growing mainstream appeal. At best, gaming has historically been seen as a pastime of reclusive misfits; at worst, the genre has been blamed for acts of extreme violence.

Playing games can teach teamwork and collaboration. It can also help teach people how to strategise, think in a nonlinear way, and develop critical thinking skills that are so vital to society today, Mallory of UOWD says. “Many games today require active thinking, they don’t follow a set path, a set template for success. This requires gamers to have to be able to adapt, be flexible, adjust, consider variables, and take a more holistic approach to thinking,” he adds.

But the biggest thing going for gaming is the undeniable economic opportunity, which will only continue to grow, he says. “Not everyone will be a top-tier gamer or have the skills to compete on a high level. But the gaming industry provides a wide range of opportunities and career opportunities outside of the actual gaming.

“Content creation and management, digital branding, hardware development, software development, social media management, network and platform interaction and design, and so many others are all fields I expect the demand will continue to grow,” he adds.

Gaming is also today part of popular culture globally, no longer a misunderstood subculture. “Gaming is widely accepted as a recreational activity, a competitive activity, and as something to make a career out of,” says Mallory.

Future
The regional demographical breakdown bodes well for gaming. More than half the population in the GCC is under 25 years of age, observes Ibrahim. “The barriers to entry, in comparison to real-world sports, are much lower, making esports inclusive, accessible and with talent the only requirement,” he explains.

The UAE government has made clear the desire to see the development of digital media and a digital society. “With the support of the government, universities offering programmes in gaming, and the backing of the business community, I see huge potential for a robust gaming ecosystem in the not-too-distant future,” says Mallory.

Hosting gaming events – such as conventions and competitions – are a great way to promote the UAE as a regional hub for gaming and esports, he says. “These events can help bring the gaming community together, as well as educate the general population as to what gaming is, what it can be, and what it can mean in the future.”

Although Covid-19 has put a damper on live events in 2020, the action continues online, as the community waits for the space to open up next year.

Last month, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Tolerance and Coexistence, inaugurated the first edition of the UAE Tolerance Esports Games to promote the values of tolerance among the youth around the world. The virtual competition began on November 13, open to players from around the world. Set over two days, players competed in qualifiers with the finals being held and broadcasted on the second day.

Meanwhile Esports Insider, a business news, media and events company, also held its ESI Digital Winter event that brings together gaming insiders for networking, education and debate.

There are several esports teams based in the UAE and across the wider region, providing a solid foundation for future growth, says ADMM’s Noaimi. “The MENA region has been described as the world’s most active gaming community, so the future of regional gaming and esports is extremely bright,” he concludes.

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