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Player 2 has entered the game – Mena eyes $5bn e-sports prize

Team Natus Vincere, from Ukraine, lift the trophy after winning the PUBG Global Championship on Sunday at Dubai's Expo City Dubai Esports Festival Twitter
Team Natus Vincere, from Ukraine, lift the trophy after winning the PUBG Global Championship on Sunday at Dubai's Expo City
  • Mena’s gaming industry is tipped to grow quickly from $1.78bn
  • Dubai has just hosted its first e-sports festival – and a $2m tournament
  • UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are all investing heavily in the sector

Sunday was a big day for sports fans in the Middle East. With the eyes of the media trained on the World Cup opener in Qatar and the final race of the Formula One season in Abu Dhabi, it was easy to overlook the e-sports grand final taking place in Dubai.

It would be wise not to, though. The Middle East and North Africa is the fastest-growing gaming market in the world, with an industry forecast to be worth $5 billion by 2025. At the moment, the sector is valued at $1.78 billion and estimates for the number of gamers in the region hover around the 375 million mark.

The industry’s growth will be fuelled by increased expenditure from existing gamers, surging advertisement revenue, localisation of gaming content and the rise of Web3, according to a report by consultancy RedSeer. 

“There are a few possible reasons for this growth,” according to Dubai-based Mario Pérez, CEO of Mena Tech Entertainment, a division of GGTech, which runs e-sports leagues in Europe and Latin America. 

“The total population of the region – almost half of which is under 25 years old – continues to grow. Also increased spending by current gamers and longer gameplay by users, which may have boomed due to the pandemic.

“Lesser-known drivers include the surge in uptake by both female players and the Gen X demographic – those aged between 41 and 56 years.” 

RedSeer’s report, published in June, points out that nearly 64 percent of adult males and 58 percent of adult females in the UAE are active digital gamers. In Saudi Arabia, 68 percent of adult males and 69 percent of adult females are regular players.

E-sports were a demonstration event at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia. The games will be held in Doha in 2030 and Riyadh in 2034. Picture: Oriental Image via Reuters Connect

“The region has a young population that are digital natives. Not only that, but they are willing to spend when playing,” according to Lucy Chow, secretary general of the World Business Angels Investment Forum and an AGBI columnist on e-sports. 

“The UAE’s spend per capita is the largest in the region and one of the highest in the world. Because we have the consumers, naturally companies abroad are willing to invest in the region’s gaming industry. 

“As players and teams from the region grow, this creates investment opportunities within e-sports, such as events, festivals and training academies. This is creating a virtuous cycle in the region. The more money that is invested in the ecosystem, the more options there are to continue expanding the customer base.” 

One such event was the first Dubai Esports Festival, which ran from November 9 to 20 at Expo City. It included an industry summit, fan expo and international and regional tournaments – culminating in Sunday’s grand final of the PUBG Global Championship for battle royale gamers, with a prize pool of more than $2 million. The winning team, Natus Vincere from Ukraine, took home $1,008,000. Across the city, retail promotions took place to showcase games and merchandise. 

As with any large sporting event, there are plenty of jobs that need to be filled, Pérez said. The best competitive gamers are supported by coaches and team managers – and then there are the people who work on the tournaments and leagues.

“There are a host of careers within the industry. Beyond the players, in-person gaming events require event organisers, planners and managers, advertising, sponsorship, social media promotion, casting, filming and tech support.”

Governments in the driving seat

In September, Saudi unveiled its gaming and e-sports strategy, which hopes to make the kingdom “the global hub” by the end of the decade as part of Vision 2030.  

It aims to create 39,000 new direct and indirect job opportunities by 2030. More broadly, Saudi hopes to improve the player experience, garner more entertainment opportunities for the public and propel the industry to contribute around SR50 billion ($13.3 billion) to GDP. 

Abu Dhabi launched an initiative called AD Gaming last year, seeking to champion the development of regional talent and bring a calendar of gaming events to the emirate. It aims to develop a support system for game developers, players, consumers and businesses – and to offer university courses focused solely on e-sports and gaming. 

Next month, Abu Dhabi is hosting the Blast Premier World Final 2022 – for players of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, with a prize fund of $1 million – at the Etihad Arena.

“The UAE and Saudi government have and will continue to invest heavily in the gaming industry. Both have placed this sector as a priority on their national agendas,” said Chow. 

“The region benefits from having a young population and there is huge potential to grow national economies.” 

Chow also points out that Saudi’s sovereign wealth fund, the PIF, has invested over $3 billion in the sector, recently taking stakes in Nintendo and Swedish group Embracer.

“Unlike other regions, the governments play a vital role supporting the growth of this industry,” said Elie Honain, co-founder and CEO of Quest E-Sports, based in Doha. 

“The beauty of the e-sports industry is that it’s so diverse and can really attract all types of individuals in many sectors. We have players, content creators, production, tournament and event management, marketing and branding, as well as talent such as casters and hosts,” Honain told AGBI.

“Arabic content in gaming is at the core of the region’s growth and this is what sets individuals working in this industry apart.” 

Although Qatar is currently a smaller e-sports player than Saudi or the UAE, its government is also betting big on the sector. 

Doha recently established the Qatar E-Sports Federation, which operates under the supervision of the Qatar Olympic Committee and aims to boost internal and external participation in competitive gaming. In September, Quest signed a strategic partnership to work with the federation. 

“Just as Qatar brought the international football community here through the Fifa World Cup, we plan to host the biggest e-sports tournaments and events in Qatar. We hope this will attract gamers from around the world,” said Honain. 

“Locally, we are working on scouting e-sports talent in multiple games, to recruit and train in order to form national e-sports teams. We are currently training over 22 professional e-sports players across five gaming titles.” 

Quest is also working with Qatari telecoms firm Ooredoo to launch its own e-sports brand, named Ooredoo Nation – Gamers’ Land. Through this partnership it has organised five online tournaments across five games this year. 

Mena Tech Entertainment is organising the first University E-Sports Masters Mena Series – a league for student gamers who represent their universities and their countries, vying to be named continental champion.

Previous tournaments have been held in Europe and Latin America. The first Mena Series event was staged in Abu Dhabi in July, with the second to follow in December. 

“We are currently taking registrations for both UAE and Saudi participants, collaborating with international and local sponsors,” Pérez said. 

The first event had representatives from approximately 170 universities, he added, and more than 8,600 players spread across the UAE, Saudi, Egypt and Morocco. The teams are competing for a share of $50,000 in prize money. 

“Competitions of this level serve as an entry vehicle for young skilled professionals, gamers, creatives and, in general, innovators in this thriving industry,” he said. “This is just the beginning of our commitment to grow the e-sports industry in the region.” 

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