Saudi Arabia makes bold bid to become the world's biggest gaming hub

From building entire districts to implementing regulations, the kingdom is already making its mark on the international esports scene

Saudi Arabia recently hosted one of the world’s biggest esports events, Gamers8, in Riyadh. Photo: Twitter / Saudi_Esports
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Saudi Arabia is becoming one of the fastest-growing gaming hubs in the world through a combination of ambitious projects and strategic investment, according to a panel of Saudi policymakers and regulators at the Next World Forum in Riyadh.

Organised by the Saudi ESports Federation, the two-day event, which began on Wednesday, gathers leaders from the gaming world to discuss the future and opportunities provided by the industry in Saudi Arabia.

As part of the opening session, federation president Prince Faisal bin Bandar described the growth of the sector as being driven by young people in Saudi Arabia.

“We have a population of 34-odd million in Saudi Arabia and 63 per cent, or approximately 21 million, consider themselves gamers," he said.

"So this is a community of gamers and what we are doing is something that they've been looking for and striving towards. This is not just a passion, but it's also a work path and it is what they want to do on a daily basis.

“They want the opportunity to work hand in hand with government organisations and the private sector to really build something that will showcase their skills on a global stage."

That approach is already bearing fruit, he said, noting Gamers8, a two-month gaming festival in Riyadh and the annual esports charity tournament Gamers Without Borders.

Launched in 2020, the latter went on to raise more than $30 million for various humanitarian efforts, including the global Covid-19 vaccine distribution drive.

Light and easy

To harness growth of the industry in Saudi Arabia, a sound regulatory framework needs to be in place, said Mohammed bin Saud Altamimi, governor of the Communications and Information Technology Commission.

The regulatory authority launched an initiative in February, Ignite, which aims to increase the size of what he said is the country's $3 billion digital media sector, through a "holistic” suite of policies born out of discussions with the local gaming industry.

"When it comes to the gaming market size right now, according to our analysis in Ignite, it is $700 million and we are expecting it will increase more than 250 per cent by 2030," he said.

To fulfil that potential, Altamimi said a “light touch” is required when forming industry regulations.

"We are following two guiding principles. The first is collaboration with the private sector and the second is transparency," he said. “We conducted more than 100 bilateral meetings with the private sector, both locally and internationally.

"We had a two-stage consultation process to make sure that we truly listen to the private sector. So from that came the light touch regulation, which means, for example, there will be no licensing or registration. It will be easy doing business in Saudi Arabia.”

Mega gaming hubs and cyberpunk streets

Also eyeing the gaming sector are representatives from entertainment development projects Neom and Qiddiya.

The heads of both were at the Next World Forum to describe how the gaming sector will feature within the Saudi mega projects.

Neom chief executive Nadhmi Al Nasr said a gaming district will be built at The Line, an extraordinary project within Neom consisting of a 170km-long skyscraper 200 metres wide and more than 300 metres tall.

It is projected to provide homes for nine million people.

"With 40 per cent of Neom employees, mostly Saudis, all in their late twenties and thirties, we have the right generation to not only play the games but design them as well," Al Nasr said.

"I am very sure The Line will host one of, if not the largest gaming holding businesses in the world. I am pretty sure it will be the capital of gaming."

A rendering of Qiddiya City. The planned entertainment development located on the outskirts of Riyadh will be home to the kingdom's first theme park. Photo: Saudi Tourism

With Qiddiya currently in development on the outskirts of Riyadh, the project's managing director Abdullah Aldawood said the entertainment destination will have a neighbourhood "designed by gamers for gamers."

"It's about creating a space for gamers and esports athletes. Just imagine you are in an environment where you walk into cyberpunk streets and popular video game Final Fantasy castles," he said.

"We want esports athletes, from [those in] Japan, South Korea and the Philippines to Brazil, to not only dream of competing to play but live in that district in Saudi Arabia."

Playing the long game

While these lofty visions are being developed, Savvy Games Group — an investment company owned by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund — has already begun laying some of the ground work by acquiring leading esports event organising company ESL Gaming and online platform Faceit.

"That combination of the number one off-line professional esports tournament organiser and broadcaster with the number one online tournament provider has made us the world's largest esports organisation," said Brian Ward Savvy Games Group chief executive.

"As part of their effort we have, roughly, 50 people here employed in Saudi Arabia building a first-class studio and competitive facilities which will eventually become one of the three global hubs for both tournament play and broadcasting of international esports events across the world."

Prince Faisal is confident the various policies and investments outlined will bear fruit, as building Saudi Arabia's esports industry is a long game.

“We have the opportunity of being able to look at that long-term outlook and work with partners, not just in Saudi, but around the world and do what's best for the industry as a whole,” he said.

“As the industry goes up, we will all come up.”

Abu Dhabi's soon to open e-sports and virtual-reality hub Pixoul Gaming — in pictures

Updated: September 09, 2022, 7:36 PM