Revealed: How Covid-19 impacted the gaming trends, industry

Reuters file photo
Reuters file photo

Dubai - During the pandemic, games became an important way for people to stay entertained.

By Sami Ha Zen

Published: Fri 4 Dec 2020, 5:59 PM

Last updated: Fri 4 Dec 2020, 6:33 PM

When Covid-induced movement restrictions came into effect, there was one category of people who really rejoiced — gamers. While most people had to learn the new normal, having more hours on their gaming chairs was soothing for both amateur and professional gamers.

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“During the pandemic, games became an important way for people to stay entertained, and connected to their friends, and have fun at home while observing social distancing measures,” said Nadeem Bakhsh, co-founder of Hala Yalla that built Kafu Games.

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What is happening in gaming is nothing short of a global revolution, said Michael Korjen, head of Technology Practice at Hill+Knowlton Strategies. “If in hearing the word gaming, you’re picturing teenagers locked away, connected to nothing but a games console then please think again, as that stereotype vanished a long time ago. The average gamer is more likely to be a 20 or 30-something white-collar professional — with female participation almost hitting parity.

“It has been years in the making and has become evident as an unstoppable force during the pandemic, with over 300 million gamers in the Middle East region all playing their part in creating this recent momentum,” he added.

Klaus Kajetski, founder and CEO of YaLLa esports, one of the Middle East’s leading esports teams, echoed the same opinion. “You can see a clear increase in interest and awareness for gaming, especially the demand for e-sports has increased tremendously due to the lack of traditional sports during these times.”

With the easing of Covid-related restrictions, has the trend slowed down? Not at all, said Korjen. “Covid-19 decimated the traditional live entertainment industry and the gaming sector was the biggest winner from this impact as consumers flocked to games during the lockdown to serve their entertainment needs. This year, the global games market is estimated to generate $152.1 billion from 2.5 billion gamers worldwide, and it’s here to stay.

“People need to understand that video games are a form of entertainment which combines the best of social media, messaging and high-quality interactive movies in one package. A truly connected community where location, age, gender and background counts for little. A refreshing experience for many. As such, the games sector is now larger than both the movie and music industries combined, making it a major industry in entertainment,” he explained.

During the peak of Covid-19 pandemic, Gamers Without Borders tournament — world’s largest charitable e-game tournament — was organised by Kafu Games, with seven weeks of non-stop contests and $2 million worth of giveaways in prizes.

Another international e-sports company, ESL, managed the global tournament with a $10 million prize fund which the winners gave to one of many international charities.

Trend set to grow

The UAE generated game revenues of $283 million last year according to games sector market research analysts NewZoo, said Korjen. “Of this number, well-over half ($165 million) came from mobile. There is huge potential for growth in the Middle East games sector as the market has a massive base of avid gamers participating but it is largely untapped and lacks the professionalism compared to the more mature markets of Asia and the US.”

Bakhsh added that figures released by Strategy& in January demonstrate that the GCC games market will reach $821 million by 2021. “The Middle East gaming industry is at a really exciting phase in its growth and development. The sector is maturing, particularly with regard to e-sports,” he said.

Kajetski added: “The growth of the gaming and e-sports ecosystem opens up a lot of new career opportunities not only as gamers or streamers, but casters, commentators, analysts, coaches and much more.”

Korjen said that currently, there are only a handful of professional teams. “Despite having a large passionate gaming population and millions competing online, the Middle East has yet to flourish on a global stage in e-sports tournaments with the exception of a few household names.

“Globally, e-sports athletes now command the same level of coaching, training, management, and professional development that is accorded to traditional sports athletes. This level of professionalism currently does not exist in the Middle East, but it’s not far away as we predict that further investment from brands and strong federations regulating the gaming environment will elevate the prospects of teams in the region as they look to compete with their global counterparts,” he averred.

Female gamers growing

It’s no secret that gaming/e-sports is a traditionally male-dominated activity, said Nadeem Bakhsh, co-founder of Hala Yalla. “However, in recent years, there has been a significant growth in female gamers, not just in the region, but across the globe. In fact, based on recent figures, nearly half of all gamers are now women — 46 per cent to be exact.”

“Female gamers have been dominating the region’s gaming scene. Recently, we have seen more female gamers and even e-sports teams popping up, with this year marking the formation of the Middle East’s first-ever all-female e-sports team: Galaxy Racer – a significant step for female gamers! Comprising five talented women representing the UAE, Iraq, and Pakistan, team Galaxy Racer even went on to win Girl Gamer 2020, held in Dubai earlier this year,” said Bakhsh.

Michael Korjen, head of Technology Practice at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, said it is encouraging to see some of the most popular streamers and content creators in the Middle East are female. “While e-sports is an area where men lack a physical advantage over women, on a global level we still see far greater men in professional e-sports than women. However, since the professional era is only starting in this region, perhaps the Middle East changes that.”

The region is definitely catching up with a good pace, so maybe ask me the question again in few years and we might already be there, said Klaus Kajetski, founder and CEO of YaLLa esports.

Gaming opportunities expanding in UAE

If there’s anything we’ve learned from the Middle East, it’s that it catches up fast, said Nadeem Bakhsh, co-founder of Hala Yalla. “Any skyline in the region, from Riyadh to Dubai, will tell you that. In my opinion, the gaming scene is no different. Looking at the region’s mobile gaming industry, specifically, it’s growing at a rate of 25 per cent each year – making it home to the most active and fastest growing online gaming population in the world. We are also already seeing Arab teams and players proudly representing the region on global e-sports scale,” he said.

Some of the largest publishers in the games industry are investing heavily in the Middle East over the past year, said Michael Korjen, head of Technology Practice at Hill+Knowlton Strategies. “If that potential is seen by brands who want to connect with consumers through their gaming passion then we can fast-forward the process. When you have a massive community of committed people then you have the most important aspect needed to make rapid advances and it’s something that has our serious attention.”

Pixel, the largest e-sports hub and VR Gaming Complex in Abu Dhabi, is set to open in 2021. “Gamers will have a chance to fully immerse themselves into new dimensions and develop their professional talent to compete in international competitions and tournaments,” said Karim Ibrahim, CEO of Robocom VR.

Pixel will also include the first ever certified e-sports academy in the region with the mission of highlighting the importance of playing responsibly. “The hub will feature an events space to host tournaments as well as an arcade area that will be run by gamers for gamers.”

The UAE also has further plans to develop the region’s first e-sports-dedicated arena — X-Stadium — which will host regional and global events.

Comedian to increase Arab gaming content online

Jordanian comedian Naji Elqaq is now trending on Youtube, not only for his humour, but as an Arab gaming content creator.

With over one million Instagram followers and over four million YouTube subscribers across his channel ‘GXR Boombastic’, he is dedicated to give a boost to the gaming scene in the region.

Signing a deal with Galaxy Racer Esports (GXR), the only organisation in the Middle East with a diverse roster of international talent, Elqaq now streams e-sports on multiple platforms. As a household name in the Middle East, he knows the pulse of Arab gamers and hopes to excelling it to a global level.

“I knew the potential as I am a passionate gamer too, said Elqaq. “But not a professional yet,” he soon added. “I’ll be one soon. But till then I can entertain and stoke passion to compete.”

We are the softest people on earth, say gamers

Gamers are some of the softest people on earth, glued to their own zone, said Jordanian comedian Naji Elqaq. “It’s a stereotype that videogames induce violence. It’s not good that you put all the blame just because one plays games. Gamers are often happy in their gear and comfy chair,” he said.

Pakistani female gamer Madiha echoes the sentiments. “Most people don’t understand games and think of it as a waste of time. Also, many think that girls are only good for simulation games and not for real-time strategy gaming, which is not true at all. We are in our avatar and often more quick than our male counterparts. I hope these stigma will soon change with the surge of young female gamers.”

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