Video game fans will be keeping a close eye on the annual Fifa eWorld Cup 2019 final at the O2 Arena in London, which kicks off on August 4 – not least in this region, given the reigning champion is from Saudi Arabia.
While not yet in multi-million-dollar Fortnite territory prize-wise, one lucky winner gets to take home a not-insignificant $250,000 (Dh918,125) in prize money – more than 10 times the 2016 champion's pot of $20,000 – along with bragging rights.
The 2018 final of the football-videogame tournament generated an online viewership of 29 million across the world football governing body's 12 digital platforms. The 32 best players were selected from a pool of 20 million across 60 different countries in a global series prior to the Grand Final.
ESports, short for Electronic Sports, is the name given to professional competitive gaming. Competitors play videogames while being watched by a live audience. Millions more watch the games online.
According to a World Economic Forum report last year, eSports will soon be a $1 billion business, with China and North America generating over half of that sum.
Of a global audience of around 400 million fans, those buying tickets and merchandise will contribute $96 million, it said.
While Fifa is yet to fully capitalise on this growing market, interest in this genre of eSports is spreading across the globe. The official twitter feed of the EA Sports Fifa franchise has 6.9 million followers, compared to Fifa’s 12.8 million.
Additionally, the EA Sports Fifa 19 Global Series has resulted in more than 680 million viewership minutes, 60 per cent higher than 2018, according to a recent announcement by Electronic Arts and Fifa.
The Middle East, especially the GCC, has a major opportunity to benefit from the growth of the videogames industry, given the very high internet and mobile penetration rate. Videogames are expected to generate $262m in revenue in the region this year and see a 5.9 per cent year-on-year increase in gamers to 4.8 million players, said a recent report by Statista.
In the UAE, interest in the industry has grown significantly. Last year, Dubai announced its intention to build the region’s first arena specifically dedicated to eSports – the Dubai X-Stadium – which will be a hub for hosting regional and global video gaming events.
In October, Insomnia, the UK’s longest-running eSports and gaming festival, comes to Dubai. This is the event’s first time in the Emirates, although the popular UK version has been delighting gamers since it launched in 1999 and has also hosted offshoots in Dublin and Cairo. The three-day event will take place from Thursday, October 17 until Saturday, October 19 at the Meydan Grandstand Conference Hall.
Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, while real-world football club Al Ittihad FC struggled last season, it flourished in the eSports version of the league (known as the eSPL), winning its inaugural season under the guidance of the Saudi Arabian Federation for Electronic and Intellectual Sports (Safeis), formed in 2017. The eSports team was led by the efforts of homegrown international eSports star Mosaad Al Dossary. Al Dossary, who plays under the tag "MSDossary", earned instant fame in front of 29 million online viewers as he lifted the Fifa eWorld Cup title last year at the O2 in London.
The eSports phenomenon fits well into the kingdom's Vision 2030, which aims to diversify the economy.
"Safeis was created as a response to the needs of the gaming community in Saudi Arabia," says its president , Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan. "We have one of the most active and talented communities globally.
"We have world champions in Fifa and in [fighting game] Tekken. We also have some of the best telecommunications infrastructures in the Middle East. However, our role is to ensure that our athletes are competitive globally across all games and that we advocate for better developed infrastructure."
In the wider Middle East, there are naturally still some barriers to overcome to fully embrace eSports, says Saeed Sharaf, chief executive of eSports Middle East and president of the Syrian eSports Association, founded last year, and a board member of the World eSports Consortium.
“Certain reasons why [parts of] the Middle East is still behind in eSports include technical infrastructure such as internet latency and connectivity issues between a player’s machine and game servers, [lack of] investments into the industry – game publishers and advertisers offer little to no support due to a lack of regional offices," he says.
"The industry requires huge investment from game developers and third-party data centres backed by official national support.”
He points out that for events like ESL Cologne, a gaming tournament in Germany, an entire football stadium of 50,000 people is fully booked, "all just to look at 10 people at the centre playing [shooter game] Counter-Strike".
In the West and South-East Asia, eSports athletes have managed to draw in and capture large audiences that are highly engaged, giving advertisers a lucrative captive market to target.
The rapidly growing exposure to and appetite for gaming and eSports also means that investors, too, have opportunities – be that backing budding eSports stars, creating teams or developing the "next-big-thing" game. Meanwhile, tournaments such as the Fifa eWorld Cup provide eSports hopefuls with career opportunities that pay through club representation, sponsorships and prize pools.
Mansour Abdulla, co-founder of UAE sports marketing consultancy Forward Sports, says the potential for players, advertisers and investors is enormous.
“Ninety per cent of the world's population has access to the internet and 95 per cent of those aged 10 to 29 are involved in video games in some capacity. Eighty-three per cent of those simply watch the online games while others play," he says.
"We are talking about these [star] gamers who are followed by hundreds of millions and a few display similar reach levels to that of football athletes like Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo."
Given Barcelona star Lionel Messi earned about $84m last year, according to Forbes, and Real Madrid's Ronaldo hauled in about $61m, the commercial attraction for eSports players, advertisers and investors is understandable.
While Mr Abdulla says while there is still limited understanding of the concept of eSports in parts of the region, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are ahead of the game. "They are clearly driving the industry in the region,” he says.
But as with any industry, advances in technology are likely to make their mark. With the artificial intelligence revolution entering game development, new avenues of revenue are expected to be created.
Although some are concerned that AI may wrest the entire eSports industry from the hands of real players, Julian Togelius, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at New York University, says it's likely that algorithms will – in the beginning, at least east – only be able to use rather narrow and inflexible strategies. The real crown in most eSports games, he believes, will remain with humans for some considerable time.
“I think that long-term, we will see a new approach to eSports evolve where humans play together with AI bots," Prof Togelius says.
"This will in particular be great for training, as you can hone your skills with better 'players'. Also, having bots available that copy the playing styles of top players will allow players to practise playing against them."
However it develops, eSports is already a significant element of the technology, media and sports sectors. Whatever specific path its expansion takes, new opportunities will open up and the UAE and Saudi Arabia, among others, are well placed to take advantage.