How the Gulf became the world's gaming capital

The GCC's gamers are unique in their enthusiasm, and their governments are supporting them in levelling up

The Gulf is fast becoming a global centre for gamers. The National
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No matter where you live or how old you are, you most probably know at least one person in your close circle who is a gamer. New data shows that this is especially true if you live in the UAE. Statista’s Global Consumer Survey has found that nine in 10 adults in the country play video games – the highest rate globally.

Decades of stereotypes might lead some to wonder whether these adults are wasting their time. Many still consider video games to be child's play. In my mind, that couldn't be further from the truth.

The market has seen unprecedented growth worldwide in recent years. Revenues in 2022 will reach a new record of more than $200 billion and are expected to grow from there. Today, in terms of revenue video games are the biggest part of the entertainment industry and generate more cash than Hollywood and the music industry combined – a hard-to-believe fact at first sight.

The Middle East and North Africa region is no exception. Its youthful and tech-savvy population is bringing the sector to new heights. As a result, the region has had the fastest-growing video games market worldwide for years. In 2022, it is valued at more than $7bn, mainly driven by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

By now, most of the GCC's governments have understood the importance of developing local gaming capabilities. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are leading the way, implementing strategies to attract entrepreneurs. Earlier this year, a Saudi-backed group acquired ESL, one of the most prominent esports tournament organizers worldwide, and FACEIT, an esports league administrator, for $1.5bn, demonstrating the region’s interest in the gaming and esports industries. In the UAE, specialised government-led programmes such as AD Gaming cater exclusively to gaming professionals and strive to develop a self-sustaining gaming ecosystem. The venue provides an ideal business environment and incentives for local gaming professionals, while fostering talent building in game development, and organising its own esports tournaments.

December 13, 2013 - Dubai,  UAE - 
The Sony Playstation 4 (PS4) went on sale in Dubai at one minute after midnight at the start of December 13, 2013. The Geekay shop in Mall of the Emirates faced large crowds who began to gather as early as 7pm. Some gamers came dressed as video game characters as part of a contest to win a PS4.

Photo Clint McLean for The National

Story: PS4 launch
Reporter: Adam Bouyamourn
Photo Editor: Liz Claus *** Local Caption ***  CM___Sony_PS4_Geekay_MG_8562.jpg

Behind the data and figures that make the video games market attractive to governments and business is a community of passionate people, with complex habits and behaviours, whom we call gamers. The term represents millions of enthusiasts who play games and engage with their peers online. They are from all walks of life. The leading game and esports analytics company Newzoo identifies nine types of gamer personas, based on their habits, on a spectrum ranging from "casual" to “hardcore".

There are, of course, instances where excessive gaming becomes a problem, and cases of addiction are not unheard of. But in the vast majority of cases it is a constructive, safe pastime.

It is also an inclusive one. On the demographics side, the gaming industry is not male-dominated; in fact, 54 per cent of women living in the UAE play PC games, a rate that goes up to 70 per cent for mobile games, according to Newzoo. The same study also shows that gamers have greater spending power than the average member of the public, and are not afraid to spend on brands that earn their loyalty. Gamers based in the UAE are among the biggest spenders globally. Consequently, multinational brands are slowly realising the significant commercial potential that this audience represents and the urgent need to open up a dialogue with them.

With this in mind, an increasing number of non-endemic brands are developing marketing campaigns targeting gamers and looking for ways to effectively speak to this vast and diverse audience. It is interesting to note that gaming has recently become more than just individuals playing. The past decade has seen it enter the mainstream: gamers are now fashion experts, fitness enthusiasts, food and drink connoisseurs, and travellers.

The line between gaming, lifestyle and pop culture is becoming increasingly blurred. Today, some of the biggest names in music and fashion houses collaborate with game publishers, esports organisations and gaming content creators. For instance, Louis Vuitton has launched an exclusive collection in collaboration with the game League of Legends. More recently, Gucci launched its Esports Gaming Academy to mentor and coach up-and-coming talents. One of the most impressive examples in the music industry would be Travis Scott’s digital performances in Fortnite, attended by more than 27 million guests.

Gamers of the SK Telecom professional video-game team, sponsored by SK Telecom Co., play the League of Legends game during a tournament at the 5GX Game Festival in Goyang, South Korea, on Friday, Aug. 10, 2018. Professional video gaming began in South Korea more than a decade ago, and has given rise to leagues that now pack stadiums and draw hundreds of thousands of eyeballs to Twitch livestreams for tournaments. Photographer: Jean Chung/Bloomberg

On the other hand, gamers are a hard-to-reach audience that is not sensitive to marketing tactics such as online adverts and pop-ups. Instead, they react positively to interactive content and spend several hours per week watching videos from their favourite influencers and content creators. The UAE has one of the most engaged communities of gamers in the world and, unsurprisingly, is therefore one of the top markets for streaming platforms such as Twitch and YouTube. It is a community that appreciates genuine efforts from brands trying to enter the scene and start a conversation. It is also speedy to pinpoint epic marketing fails.

These facts highlight the immeasurable potential for developing local solid gaming capabilities to cater to local players. They are hungry for such initiatives. Brands who want to stay ahead of the curve need to rethink their strategy and use specific channels that only gamers can understand and relate to. They are a vocal community that shares their experiences and advocates for brands they appreciate.

Gaming is a golden opportunity for governments, global companies and investors of all types to create value for gamers and establish themselves durably in the biggest entertainment industry in the world. As the gaming market is growing at an incredible rate, the community that surrounds it is one to be reckoned with. It is also one to be understood, something that for now at least might still be lacking.

Published: July 15, 2022, 6:00 PM