When it comes to eSports and gaming in the region, places to congregate and play against like-minded people are relatively unknown. That's not to say the scene doesn't exist, though. It's practically an underground movement – you tend to find out about teams looking for players or gaming cafes via word of mouth. But a change is coming.
As video games continue to grow rapidly in the GCC, more gamers are looking to connect with each other in the real world. So it makes sense that venues such as the newly opened Alt Gaming Lounge in Dubai Investments Park are coming to the fore.
The cafe not only provides hot and cold drinks, and snacks, but it's also home to a number of PlayStation and PC gaming set-ups. It caters to those who prefer their gaming away from the digital worlds, too, as it has a selection of board games on offer.
"I have toyed with the idea of starting a gaming cafe since childhood," Alt Gaming Lounge owner, Ahmad Nasser, tells The National. "Growing up in Abu Dhabi, I spent most of my free time in similar places. There was a vibe that connected people from different cultural backgrounds."
Video gaming in general often gets a bad rap as an insular pursuit. It's has been called "antisocial", a "waste of time" and a "danger" to impressionable minds in the media, but many people disagree, saying they love meeting up in a neutral area to chat and play games. Nasser agrees. "To me, gaming is a form of education. It enhances social interaction between individuals and breaks down cultural barriers."
And judging by the clientele buzzing around Alt Gaming Lounge on our recent visit, it would appear the sentiment is true. The energy was palpable in the dimly lit venue. Young teens queued up patiently for their turn on Fortnite while sharing tips and strategies, which seem like a foreign language to the layman. One animated stream of consciousness went as thus: "The snipe [sniper rifle] is way too OP [over powered] and should be nerfed [made weaker] with the next update." Quite.
But whether you understand gamer speak or not, it's easy to see how integral the likes of Alt Gaming Lounge is at uniting these players for good. "Dubai is a leader in the region when it comes to catering to the gaming scene. I have no doubt that the industry will keep on growing innovatively in the foreseeable future," says Nasser.
He noticed the thirst for a gaming venue while walking through the Green Community district in Dubai Investments Park. He overheard children talking about Fortnite and its biggest star, Richard Tyler "Ninja" Blevins, the streamer who earns a reported Dh1.8 million a month, and an idea sprung to mind.
"I feel like each community in Dubai should have a gaming lounge that serves as a club house," says Nasser. "These clubs could then create competition among others and lead to tournaments, which would only increase mass interaction of eSports in the region."
This last point is important. Without venues such as Alt Gaming Lounge, eSports will remain a fractured, almost exclusive club where only those in the know can try it out, never mind compete in it. The demand is there, but the resources are not. So it makes sense that entrepreneurs like Nasser see a future where gaming lounges become the norm. So will we see more Alt venues springing up in the near future?
"Definitely. The ultimate vision is to have the Alt brand as an eSports convention centre in Dubai. An important aspect of gaming is the competition it creates between the players. Tournaments at Alt are just around the corner, with even more surprises to come."
You can sign up for a membership at Alt Gaming Lounge – with prices ranging from Dh199 for six months or Dh299 for the year. Becoming a member entitles you to a discount on the general hourly rates – for example Dh14 per hour becomes Dh9 when you sign up.
But even if you drop in, you can still use the facilities for as long as you like and the regular cycle of games are changed if and when the crowds decide.
The opportunity for venues such as Alt Gaming Lounge to tap into the billion-dirham industry is a no-brainer. Simply providing a base for players is a lucrative business for these proprietors. Looking at the bigger picture, these places help the region to nurture its budding eAthletes and cement the GCC as a future powerhouse on the eSports circuit.
For now, the gateway to social gaming and beyond has been clearly marked by Alt.