eSports in the Arab world are associated with hurdles

Status: 09.01.2022 3:31 p.m.

eSports, i.e. computer games at a professional level, is also trendy in the Arab world. But although many are already playing at the top there, they are faced with major obstacles.

By Tilo Spanhel, ARD-Studio Cairo

Flashback: Several thousand people watch live in a large hall as the Chinese team FPS wins League of Legends against the Europeans from G2. For more than an hour, the teams fought each other in the online role-playing game – in a colorfully animated fantasy world. Huge screens hang over the heads of gamers. The audience clap, bawl, and lie in each other’s arms. That was before Corona.

The temptation: there is no need for stadiums, expensive sports equipment and no club fees. A computer or game console will do. And that’s exactly why eSports are a great opportunity for young people in the Middle East. And they raise high hopes: professionals earn millions. The gaming events sometimes have the character of a game of the football Champions League. And the prize money is also comparable: depending on the game, it can be between five and 40 million dollars.

First win: a cassette recorder

When Saeed won something with eSports for the first time around 25 years ago, things looked very different. His first major achievement was a tape recorder. “It was probably the biggest surprise in my life,” he recalls. “And finally I had something that I could show my parents. According to the motto: Look! I won that playing computer games.” But his parents didn’t really believe him: “They thought I bought it just so I could play more.”

Much has changed since then, says the 36-year-old, who lives in the United Arab Emirates. “If you were to tell the kids today that the prize is a hundred dollar audio system – they would cancel immediately. They are way too spoiled!”

In 2014 Saeed and a few friends founded the platform “eSport Middle East” – the first and, according to the company, still the only company that specializes in gaming in the Arab world. They organize competitions, sponsor teams and train players. The potential is huge, says Saeed. “We estimate that there are around 70 million people in the region who like to gamble. Six million of them – we believe – are passionate about eSports.”

Women and girls also gamble with success

One of them is Madiha Naz. She started gambling when she was eight. Like most children, she too had to escape the strict eyes of her mother. “Whenever she went away in the summer and my brother took care of us, I always bribed him,” says Mahida. “The deal was: I’ll do the dishes and I can play through the night for that.”

Like Saeed, Madiha lives in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Ever since she won the title “Girls Gamers Champion” for the Arab world, she has been an established player in eSports. She can live well on her income, as she herself tells us. But getting started was anything but easy. “When I started, I was judged so badly for being a girl,” she recalls. “That’s why I always wore hoodies to competitions in order not to attract attention.”

There are hurdles not only in the game

Stereotypes and misogyny are also a problem in esports. But in the Arab world there are not only these social hurdles to be overcome. Technical factors also cause problems for gamers in the Near and Middle East. Professionals always sit in one room during competitions. This ensures that a slow internet connection doesn’t get in the way of winning. After all, milliseconds count for them.

Then there is the political moment. “I know a lot of people who really wanted to go to competitions but couldn’t get a visa,” says Saeed. “In the end it is the decision of the individual foreign ministries to allow something like this – or not.” As a result, players with potential cannot develop further, explains Saeed, and they lag behind in an international comparison.

There is also a regional division, between the Near and Middle East, due to the money factor. In the traditionally rich Gulf States, young people can more easily afford one of the new and expensive consoles. That’s why games like FIFA, Fortnite and Rocket League are more likely to be played here. In North African countries such as Egypt, Tunisia or Morocco, classic PCs are still the first choice. The games can be downloaded illegally and therefore free of charge from the Internet. That is much cheaper. That’s why games like League of Legends or Dota are more popular here.

Lots of money, lots of hope

There’s a lot of money in eSports. Saeed would love to expand: more events, more sponsorship deals. But there is one thing missing in particular: employees. “We need audio engineers, cameramen, cutters, video specialists, an accountant, a lawyer,” the eSportsman lists. The list is long. But until now there is a shortage of skilled workers.

Regardless of the general conditions: online games offer young people in the Near and Middle East a perspective – even for those who do not gamble themselves. There is great hope among young people that they will manage, at least on the Internet, to soften boundaries and gain more freedom.

eSports – from the desert to other galaxies

Tilo Spanhel, SWR, zzt. ARD Kairo, 4.1.2022 ยท 16:57 Uhr

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