Dozens of gaming computers light up with League of Legends, Fortnite, Final Fantasy and countless others. Gamers shout into headsets, type furiously at their keyboards and shout across to friends. It’s midnight at Gee Gee café.
Ramadan is the busiest time of the year for Gee Gee and it opens 24 hours a day, seven days a week over the month. There are 100 computers, separate VIP rooms and even food service to each console. Soft green lights hang from the ceilings, while Anime posters crowd the walls. The upstairs room gets so mobbed during Ramadan that gamers sometimes have to wait two hours for a machine. Business peaks from 8pm to about 4am and an hour costs Dh10.
Malath Alzubi is manager at Gee Gee (in gaming talk, you type GG after a win which means good game).
“It’s the high season,” he said. “Most people are free at night so it’s a kind of gathering,” said Mr Alzubi as he walks the floor of the cafe located close to the Holiday Inn off Sultan bin Zayed the First Street (Muroor Road).
Most of the gamers are aged between 16 and 35 and about 70 per cent on a typical night are Emirati. Pasta is the most popular food and cans of Red Bull appear on many desks.
Jawad Al Blooshi, 27, takes a break from playing Battleground to tell us why he loves coming here, especially during Ramadan. “It’s open 24 hours and it’s the only time of the year when it’s open 24 hours. You meet other gamers - people who have common interests, people who can play with you,” said Mr Al Blooshi, who is from Abu Dhabi, and played until 6am the previous day. “I’m not kidding. I left because I had to.”
Another gamer, Mohammed Al Hammadi, is about to leave after playing since breaking his fast. “My friends and I, we are all close to each other - if you want to make plans, you can make them from here,” said Mr Al Hammadi, 23, who is from Abu Dhabi.
The gaming scene is fast developing in the city. Many of the older internet cafes where people once quaintly checked their emails have been revitalised as gaming centres. Scores of newer cafes have also opened across the city in recent years - they sponsor tournaments, host events and are a social outlet. The UAE community is particularly noted for its community flair.
“The scene in the UAE is totally different from the UK,” said Conrad Lesselles, team leader at Gee Gee for Final Fantasy. Mr Lesselles moved here from the UK six weeks ago for the role and he’s also IT manager. Through Ramadan he’s up later, making sure each Dh10,000-computer is operating to a high standard.
“Cafes aren’t particularly a thing in the UK as people don’t want to admit they like games. The culture is you want to be alpha male or macho male – you play football, rugby and are one of the lads,” he said.
“But I think that’s dying down and will go away eventually,” said Mr Lesselles, 29.
For Mr Lesselles, the social aspect of the Abu Dhabi scene has been the biggest surprise.
“It was a shock that it was so popular here. Everyone loves playing games together which is great and I love it. People are happy just having fun which I think is a bit different. It’s like 5-a-side football, only with Fortnite.”
However, the scene still tends to be male dominated. Gee Gee attracts some female players including Emiratis but on a regular night that accounts for just 1 per cent of the customers. But business is growing, mirroring the international rise of esports – a terms loosely describing these types of games - as a professional sport.
Competitions in front of live audiences for huge cash prizes have packed arenas such as Madison Square Garden. The industry is worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year and Dubai has even announced plans to build its own esports arena. According to Mr Alzubi, business at Gee Gee is growing by 20 per cent a year and expansion plans are in the pipeline. But for now, he has to get through another hectic Ramadan.
“Outside of Ramadan, people are busy but during Ramadan they meet on a daily basis,” he said.
“The atmosphere is one of friendship. People have free time and enjoy being together.”