Lebanon's online gamers lose their virtual escape from reality

Fantasy web worlds provide respite from all-too-real problems of financial crisis - until the power goes out

Rita stalks her enemy from the fringes of battle, unseen and patient. When the right moment comes, her attack is merciless.

The devastating curse cast by her huge, terrifying figure flashes through the air towards her enemy. But before it reaches its target, Rita’s world goes black and silent.

Rita Bitar, 24, an online gamer in Beirut trying to earn a living in the competitive world of live streaming, has lost this time. But it isn’t a rival player who has ruthlessly taken out her avatar during a game on global smash hit Dota 2.

Instead, and more frustrating, Rita’s internet connection has failed, meaning she has lost her match – and potentially her income – as Beirut is once again hit by power cuts.

Lebanon’s economic crisis is likely to be among the world's worst financial meltdowns since the mid-19th century, the World Bank has said.

Millions cannot buy fuel for their cars, fill their shelves with food or switch on lights in their homes.

Shortages of fuel needed for power stations have disrupted electricity supplies, leading to frequent – and lengthy – power cuts.

Finding a way to escape these worries provides some fleeting comfort for those living in the country.

For many, online gaming provides brief fantasy respite from these all-too-real problems. For some, it also provides a salary.

Rita’s escape is to enter the mystical world of Dota 2 to face ancient apparitions and humanoid beasts. Her fiance Mark Boustany, 28, may grab a computer-generated sniper rifle and rescue hostages from terrorists on Counter Strike: Global Offensive.

Both share their adventures through live streaming sessions with subscribers who help them to earn a wage.

That is until, inevitably, they lose power or internet connection.

“I would go live at midnight in Beirut time,” said Rita. “Then the power would go out at 1am, so the other half of my stream is in complete darkness. Or sometimes our internet provider wouldn’t have electricity when we did, so we'd have electricity but no internet.”

Mark, a keen gamer before internet gaming reached Lebanon in the late 1990s, said it is hard for people living in more developed countries to understand the magnitude of the problem.

“It’s heartbreaking not to be able to do what you love,” said Mark. “Gaming has been my getaway since I was a kid.

“Not being able to go online is so frustrating. And what’s even worse than that is getting disconnected in the middle of our stream.

"That affects our [subscriber] numbers in a huge way. At times, you just want to quit. But this is what we love.”

The pair are part of a growing community of gamers who support each other both socially and financially.

The group is made up of Arabs “who live in different countries, have different nationalities and different religious beliefs”, said Mark.

One member, “LadyJoe”, a 29-year-old streamer, cannot reveal her identity because she works for the Lebanese government. She streams without revealing her face for fear of punishment.

“Many, many skilled gamers won’t make it out of this country because they will go and find other ways to support themselves and their families,” she said.

“At the end of the day, gaming won’t feed them.

“Every time we are streaming, we dread the moment we might suddenly go offline. But since all this hardship, gaming and streaming has been my joy, my safe haven,” LadyJoe said.

“I truly hope I am able to channel all this positivity and hope to my viewers, because most of them are people in the same situation here in Lebanon.”

Mark recently took a small loan so he could ensure a proper connection and start streaming his games on YouTube and gaming live streaming platform Twitch.

He and Rita rented a house together and equipped their computers with powerful batteries at a cost of hundreds of dollars each. Rita plans to move into the house once the pair are married.

They still face power cuts of six hours per day, but they do not regret choosing streaming over potentially more reliable careers, in the field of psychology for Rita and law for Mark.

Khalil Ibrahim Koussan, 27, of Nabatieh in south Lebanon, said he worries he could lose his “online family” due to the cuts.

“We resort to gaming to escape from anything life-related,” he said. “We enjoy this virtual world for a reason; it’s virtual, an escape from reality.

“There were always electricity cuts, long before the crisis. But when the economic crisis grew, it really took its toll on us. You’d look forward to this escape. But now I feel like I’m going to lose my dream, my online family.”

Esports driving demand

The Middle East gaming market is expected to grow at a rate of 12.1 per cent between now and 2026, according to global platform Research and Markets. It says esports – organised professional gaming events streamed to a live audience – is driving that demand.

In contrast, Lebanon lost its only professional esports team soon after the crash began in 2019. E-Lab, one of the Middle East’s first organisations to sponsor a professional Dota 2 team, formed in 2015. The team entered global tournaments and organised its own.

It provided a platform to the country’s best gamers, including Maroun “GH” Merhej, a Dota 2 player with career winnings of more than $4 million.

Now E-Lab exists on paper alone. Mr Merhej is now playing for Nigma Galaxy, a new organisation based in the UAE.

“E-Lab was a very ambitious project and it came before its time,” said former E-Lab tournament organiser Wissam Tarabay.

“When E-Lab was formed, the Middle East was not aware of esports at all, so whenever we went to get sponsor deals, everyone would scoff at us.”

Mr Tarabay is now working alongside many former E-Lab colleagues for a new digital venture called Quest in the Qatari capital Doha. His YouTube channel – named after his gamer tag "Derrad" – has about 380,000 subscribers, while his Facebook page has 530,000 followers.

“Amateur players in Lebanon are losing touch with the games they love and it is getting extremely difficult for them,” said Mr Tarabay.

“Gaming is an escape to most and now access to that escape is gone.

“I left Lebanon a month ago. Three months ago, I wasn’t able to work anymore. There was no electricity or internet and my whole job is based on the internet.

“Gaming has always been the hobby of the middle class. It’s a very expensive hobby – $60 for a game is a lot of money for the Middle East.”

“For Lebanon, it was a lot of money and now it’s an impossible amount of money to pay,” Mr Tarabay said.

“People who want to game now have to go to net cafes or play on a mobile, which is not the ideal platform for a gamer to truly escape.

“Even if you are rich in Lebanon you can’t live life. Money is no longer a factor that is going to make you comfortable," he said.

"You go down the street and people are destroyed mentally. Everyone is so sad and it’s such a gloomy feeling.”

Updated: October 26th 2021, 9:21 AM