UAE: Gamers want in on multi-billion dollar industry
With plans to launch the first video game inspired by Gulf cuture, the region’s gaming ecosystem is fast gaining traction in esports.
From a brand new facility in Dubai, young gamers are hosting virtual regional eSports competitions sponsored by global brands as they shoot to become major players in the multi-billion-dollar industry.
Indian expat Saad Khan said he realised there was “huge opportunity” in promoting eSports in the region four years ago, when he saw people crowding into rapidly sprouting cyber cafes in Dubai, one of the UAE’s seven emirates.
That’s when Khan, who has a strong background in technology, decided to found Gamers Hub Media Events (GHME) to host e-Sports tournaments in the Middle East and North Africa.
“We’re here for the gamers, we are here for our sponsors, and we are here to give the best experience possible,” said 45-year-old Khan, who is CEO of the company.
In an effort to diversify its oil-dependent economy and boost its soft power, the United Arab Emirates and its legion of young expats have in recent years jumped into a range of sectors, including sports and technology.
The global games and interactive media industry grew 12 percent to $139.9 billion last year, according to US-based data analytics company Nielsen.
Meanwhile in the Gulf, the gaming market is expected to reach $821 million this year, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia the biggest players, according to consulting firm Strategy&.
“There’s a huge sponsorship value that has increased... the number of gamers has increased, and I’m also seeing a lot of teams being formed, which was not happening before,” said Khan, who declined to disclose GHME’s profits.
The company has partnerships with Intel, Dell Alienware, Lenovo Legion and Omen by HP, and last year it landed a deal with German luxury automaker BMW, which sponsors gaming tournaments in the region.
And GHME is set to expand its reach further, opening offices in Spain, India, and South Africa.
For Ghazi Beydoun, a gaming enthusiast heading business development at GHME, the future of eSports in the Middle East is promising, with major talent emerging in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
“We have a lot of players here with a lot of talent that are lacking support, but this support is now coming,” the 29-year-old Lebanese expat said.
“Little by little, a gaming ecosystem is forming and will improve and grow.”
Dubai-based company Boss Bunny Games is now part of that “ecosystem”, with plans to launch what the UAE says is the first video game inspired by Gulf culture.
Set for release later this year, the game will feature Emirati characters from the popular local children’s cartoon Freej, which revolves around four old Emirati women in full traditional dress, living in modern-day Dubai.
“It’s 100 per cent a private initiative, but we do have massive support from the government,” said Geraint Bungay, CEO of Boss Bunny Games.
The British expat, with 25 years’ experience in the industry, said he co-founded the company in Dubai because of the emirate’s thirst for technology, its international engineers and proximity to major game consumer Saudi Arabia.
“Saudi is the number five market in the world for games in terms of revenue, so it’s absolutely a huge market,” Bungay said.
“A lot of people... don’t realise the size of the games market in the region at all.”
According to Robert Mogielnicki from the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, Gulf countries’ appetite for eSports is part of a more general push for “home-grown industries” and “greater self-sufficiency”.
“eSports and other gaming industries provide new platforms for Gulf Arab governments and companies to reach global audiences,” he said.
“This is about more than just entertaining young people; it has to do with depicting Gulf societies as thriving and creative hubs worthy of an expansive global audience.”
Did you know?
Millions of viewers tuned in to Arabic-language Twitch streams in 2020 during a record year for GCC gaming, new figures have revealed. More than 4.4 million fans watched thousands of channels across the UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia, with figures spiking to 556,391 views in May. The video site, which allows users to broadcast their gameplay live to fans around the world, recorded a total of 252,850 active streams throughout the year from countries across the region. During March, Twitch streams in Arabic increased by 95.3 per cent year-on-year and 36.9 per cent compared to the previous month, while in April the yearly increase was 109.9 per cent. Following a slowing in viewers as #StayHome restrictions eased, the figures once again rose with 572,143 fans tuning in at the end of last year. The figures point to a gaming surge across the Middle East, with many of the top players coming from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. The MENA region has the world’s most active gaming community and, at 25 per cent year-on-year growth, the fastest growing online gaming population in the world.
Abu Dhabi getting in on the action
Time was if you told your parents you wanted to dedicate your career to video games they would have laughed you out the house. However, with the amounts of cash involved, now that move may seem a little outdated. Throw the might of Abu Dhabi’s government agencies into the argument and, these days, chances are your ma and pa will be signing you up themselves.
The recently launched Abu Dhabi Gaming (AD Gaming) collaboration is a new initiative pioneered by twofour54 Abu Dhabi, that aggregates the Emirate’s drive to build a thriving gaming and esports ecosystem.
Supported by Unity Technologies, Flash Entertainment, UAE Pro League, Emirates Esports Association and the Media Zone Authority, AD Gaming will provide a comprehensive support system for game developers, players, consumers, and businesses in the UAE capital. The initiative will champion the development of regional talent and bring a calendar of year-round gaming events to Abu Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi’s media and entertainment hub, twofour54 will provide space within the Free Zone for all businesses that make use of the Media Zone Authority’s bespoke gaming, esports and virtual reality licenses, as well as subsidies for new partner companies. Flash Entertainment, UAE Pro League and Emirates Esports Association will provide a flexible infrastructure to grow the esports community and will lead to the growth of the esports community and support esports businesses in the region.
AD Gaming has also announced that 15 new gaming and esports businesses will be joining Yas Creative Hub when it opens in Q4 2021, including the Emirates Esports Association, Boss Bunny, Kashkool Games, Khousouf Games and RobocomVR amongst others. Yas Creative Hub will include a purpose-built Gaming Hub, operated in partnership with industry giant Unity Technologies, which will provide a physical home for the gaming industry in Abu Dhabi. On-the-ground support will be provided to start-ups and aspiring professionals through a range of talent development and business support programmes.
AD Gaming is also launching a one-stop-shop website (adgaming.ae) for the gaming community including an esports events calendar, a directory for game studios and companies that are based in Abu Dhabi. AD Gaming will also have a dedicated twitch channel which will showcase Abu Dhabi’s gaming talent. Welcome to the e-entertainment era!
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