Inside the Middle East's growing love for eSports

With high internet penetration and lots of gamers, an eSports boom could be on the way across the region.

eSports is one of the world's fastest growing tech and entertainment industries, with audiences and revenues alike on the rise. Although COVID-19 has inevitably had an impact, the global eSports market is expected to be worth nearly $1.6 billion in 2023 up from $776 million in 2018, according to researchers.

And although much of the growth is driven by major markets like North America and China, the Middle East is also playing a role in the eSports boom.

"The Middle East is a fast-growing gaming market, evolving from casual gaming to virtual reality games and competitive sports. With a growing community of active gamers and a high internet penetration, Gaming & Esports industry in MENA is likely to witness a boom in the future," said market researchers YouGov recently. "Our data shows, for an important sub-section of players, watching video games online has become as much of a pastime as gaming itself." 

SEE: Guide to Becoming a Digital Transformation Champion (TechRepublic Premium)

A few examples: in October 2019, the Dubai-based W Ventures announced that it would spend $50 million to develop a local eSports and gaming ecosystem in the Middle East and North Africa. Meanwhile, in Turkey, Europe's largest eSports venue opened its doors in January 2019.

Other signs of growth and interest in this market can be seen across the region.

Working with the Saudi Telecom Company, Activision has introduced dedicated servers – hosted in Riyadh and Jeddah – for Call of Duty in the region. Riot Games, the company behind League of Legends, followed suit with Middle East servers for the game Valorant, in October. More recently, Kuwaiti telecoms provider Zain Group – which has 50 million customers across MENA – launched a new eSports brand, Zain Esports, with the aim of building a calendar of regional online eSports tournaments.

Last year on Twitch, one of the most popular online-gaming platforms, Arabic language streams were watched by 4.4 million users in UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia, with record numbers during the early stages of the pandemic.

One of the reasons for the increasing interest in eSports is, of course, the limited options for watching and playing traditional sports right now. But this increased interest in eSports is likely to add to the momentum that was building even before the pandemic; the 2019 League of Legends summer league finals at Ülker Arena in Istanbul, which has a capacity of 15,000, sold out in four hours.

Although inevitably impacted by the coronavirus, investment in spaces to watch eSports and gaming continues apace. Scheduled to open later this year, Abu Dhabi's waterside development Al Qana will feature a large eSports and VR gaming complex known as Pixel. It will also host the region's first certified eSports academy.

Dubai hosted the first mainstream, large-scale tournament in the region (ESL Pro League invitational competition) in 2015, with $250,000 in prize money at stake.

Four years on, the city hosted the region's largest gaming festival, Insomnia UAE and KSA, which reached over eight million people online and attracted over 50,000 visitors. The expansion into the Middle East of the Insomnia brand, which began life in London 20 years ago, reflects growing interest in the potential (and demand) for eSports in the region.

As part of this growth, Dubai plans to build a dedicated eSports stadium, and the South Korean-based International Esports Federation (IESF) signed an MoU with the UAE's Motivate Media Group, as part of their plans to expand eSports in the Middle East.

Investors are also eyeing up eSports opportunities.

Anubis Gaming, an Egyptian eSports team, secured €253K ($460K) in two rounds of seed funding last year, money that they intend to use to recruit more players and coaches, as well as upgrade their training facilities. 

Such is the popularity of eSports in Turkey, it's estimated that the nation has 15,000 grassroots teams across the country, including more than 1,000 licenced eSports professionals.

SEE: Microsoft buys eSports platform vendor Smash.gg

For eSports to reach its full potential, governments and other stakeholders will need to work together if the sector is to achieve its potential. The research from YouGov noted that across the 24 markets they surveyed, "countries in the Middle East tend to be less familiar with eSports."

However, "engagement is much higher than the highly aware western markets like [the] US, the UK, and several European countries," YouGov notes. "This suggests residents are more likely to embrace these competitions, once they know more about them, hinting at a bright future for gaming and eSports in the region."

Within MENA, mobile gamers playing on a smartphone or tablet clearly outnumber PC or console gamers. In Egypt, just 14% play on consoles compared to 58% who use a smartphone or tablet. Figures for UAE and KSA are 21% for consoles and 57% for mobiles, and 20% and 52%, respectively, the market researcher said.

The advent of 5G mobile networks, high-profile competitions, the encouragement of participation by female players, and recognition of the potential educational benefits of eSports can all contribute to the growth of the sector.