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Growing esports market has huge potential in Mideast

The video gaming industry is gaining ground in the Middle East, as its popularity and prize money continue to grow.
A Qatari player competes in the E-sports competition at the 2nd Asian Indoor Games in Macau, 27 October 2007.   Featuring such unusual events as video games, chess and dance sport, the tournament, now in its second edition, aims to fill the gap left by the Olympics or the Asian Games. AFP PHOTO/Ted ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)

The idea of "monetizing your passion" — making money doing what you love — is still a hard sell in the Middle East.

One needs to be a doctor, an engineer or someone with an advanced degree in other fields to be seen as a person with a respected job. In this region, video games are generally classified as an expensive way to waste one's time and a form of entertainment for kids, nothing more. While this distorted image prevails, the industry is evolving and showing more potential for gamers and investors, as the public view is slowly shifting.

Globally, the video games industry is huge: In 2018, the market stood at nearly $135 billion, an 11% increase over 2017. In fact, this segment of the entertainment industry is considered to be the most popular and profitable on the planet. Although the market in the Middle East is young compared with other regions, it's on the rise and is expected to keep growing. According to Statista, the total revenue of the video gaming industry in the Middle East was estimated at around $3 billion in 2017.

In an April interview with Pocket Gamer, Nour Khrais, CEO of Middle East-based game developer Maysalward, said the market for video games in the Middle East and North Africa “has 25% year-on-year growth with the largest youth population in the world, with more than half of residents under the age of 25.”

The industry offers many new opportunities for someone to become a game developer, a pro gamer, a "YouTuber" covering the latest news in the world of gaming, a writer for gaming websites, a streamer who entertains spectators, among many more callings. Now that there are more people playing games in the region, some gamers are turning into money-making celebrities.

Participating in competitive sports through video games is called esports. In this day and age, the most popular video games are released with online competitive modes. While competitive video gaming is in its infancy in the Middle East and North Africa region, esports is booming in the West and global esports revenue is expected to reach $1.1 billion this year. Experts are predicting more growth globally and in this region.

Saeed Sharaf, a board member at the World Esports Consortium and regional manager at World Cyber Arena, told Khaleejtimes in a March story, "Data has shown that a quarter of the world's population will be aware of esports by 2021. We predict that the world's 10 biggest capital cities will each have a dedicated stadium for esports in the years to come. Dubai already has plans for its very own stadium that will be dedicated entirely to esports, called Dubai X-Stadium, which will position the city as a hub for global esports in the region. As prize pools for esports tournaments, and viewership numbers, continue to increase, brands across the world and in different sectors are beginning to notice."

Amer Al-Barkawi, whose gamer name is Miracle- — with a hyphen — is a professional Dota 2 player from Jordan and a member of Team Liquid. He has earned more than $3 million since he started playing professionally in 2016. Other players such as Big Bird and Angry Bird — who are both from the United Arab Emirates and compete in Street Fighter V professionally — have been making names for themselves by qualifying for Capcom’s cup finals last year.

Another motivating example in the MENA region happened recently during the Gaming Tent KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) tournament. Two Saudi players, Shrimboo and Federer, beat Qudans, one of the most skillful and legendary players of Tekken 7.

The Middle East and North Africa region has the talent, though support varies from country to country in the still-developing market. For example, True Gaming hosted an invitational tournament in the KSA for Tekken 7 with $110,000 in prize money, while the biggest esport events in Jordan are few and far between with much less prize money.

Giant game companies such as Electronic Arts Inc. of Redwood, California, and Ubisoft Entertainment SA of Montreuil, France, have showed interest in the Middle East due to the market's huge potential. Electronic Arts is now releasing FIFA soccer games for consoles and personal computers with full Arabic support — fully translated menus and Arabic commentary. More and more companies are localizing games for Arabic; Shadow Of The Tomb Raider and Just Cause 4 are both dubbed in Arabic. The localization and especially the dubbing aren't always of the highest quality — better voice actors could be hired — but it shows that big publishers and developers are willing to invest in their games to reach a wider audience.

The future of gaming looks promising in the Middle East, but there are some obstacles that are slowing its growth. Some countries ban games. This year, Iraq banned Player Unknown's Battlegrounds, one of the biggest and most-played online multiplayer games in the market. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have a history of banning games, too. Violence and nudity can easily get a game banned, and many publishers have altered their games to suit some countries' customs and traditions. Also, the video game content rating system indicates games' suitability for various ages.

In some countries where natural resources are limited and unemployment is a real issue, video games could provide a golden ticket to opportunities. Industry analysis and educated planning should lead to faster growth and prosperity. It appears that the industry in the region has an exciting future in store, as long as doors for the games are kept open rather than closed.

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