Riyadh – Players from eight countries wear wireless headphones and anti-sweat finger sleeves as they control gun-toting avatars in a virtual battle, under the watchful eye of an enthusiastic audience watching the action on a big screen in Riyadh.
This competitive tour is part of Gamers8, a summer festival that highlights Saudi Arabia’s emergence as a major player in the global electronic gaming field, and officials hope the festival will compete with industry giants such as China and South Korea.
As with Formula 1 and professional golf tournaments, Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of crude oil, has taken advantage of its vast wealth in recent years to cement its position in the e-sports sector.
These moves drew criticism that Saudi officials had expected, with some esports leaders objecting to Riyadh’s human rights record.
But the lack of long-term funding for esports makes the sector particularly keen to deal with the Saudis, which explains why the response has been relatively muted so far, analysts say. Saudi players are enjoying the new prestige of their country and the big prizes they can get.
“In the past there was no support,” said Faisal Al-Ghafiri (22), who participated in the “Battle Royale” game, which included prizes of three million dollars. “Thank God, now is the best time for me to practice e-sports and participate in tournaments,” he added, noting that what was once a hobby has turned into a lucrative “job”.
Support of the leadership
Saudi Arabia’s interest in the gaming and e-sports sector comes from the top of the power pyramid, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is known to be an avid Call of Duty player.
The Saudi Esports Federation was established in 2017, and since then the number of eSports teams in the Kingdom has increased from two to more than 100 teams. A poll showed that 21 million people (almost two-thirds of the population) consider themselves gamers.
And last January, the Public Investment Fund, headed by Crown Prince Mohammed, launched the Sai group for electronic games, which acquired ISL and FACIT in two deals, about $1.5 billion.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last week launched the national strategy for games and e-sports, in a new step towards leadership and making Saudi Arabia a global center in this sector by 2030, achieving of the objectives of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 support in diversifying the economy and providing employment opportunities in various sectors Provision of high quality entertainment to citizens, residents and visitors.
The competitive round “Gamers 8” highlighted the emergence of Saudi Arabia as a major player in the field of electronic games worldwide
The Crown Prince said: “The energy and creativity of Saudi youth and electronic game enthusiasts are the engines of the national strategy for games and e-sports, which meet the aspirations of the gaming community locally and globally by providing them with new and provide distinctive employment and leisure opportunities with the aim of making the Kingdom a global hub for the gaming and e-sports sector by 2030.”
The strategy includes main objectives that have a direct impact on citizens, the private sector, fans and professionals of sports and electronic games around the world, which are to increase the quality of life by improving the players’ experience, providing new entertainment opportunities , and achieving an economic impact by contributing to the GDP by about 50 billion riyals directly. And indirectly, and creating new jobs amounting to more than 39,000 direct and indirect jobs by 2030, and providing the foundational environment for the development of competencies. At Kingdom Studios.
The Kingdom intends to implement this strategy through 86 initiatives covering the entire value chain, launched and managed by nearly 20 government and private agencies, including launching business incubators, hosting major gaming and e-sports events , the establishment of educational academies and the development of stimulating regulations that ensure keeping pace with the rapid pace of growth in this field. These initiatives are divided into eight axes, including technology and hardware development, game production, e-sports and ancillary services, as well as other axes that include infrastructure, regulations, education, talent acquisition, financing and financial support.
The Crown Prince’s launch of this strategy comes as a continuation of the many initiatives and great successes achieved by Saudi Arabia in entertainment, sports and electronic games, within the framework of Vision 2030, especially in light of the revolution and rapid growth that is this sector. evidence that offers new and fundamental opportunities that require a national strategy to take advantage of what is The Kingdom has untapped capacities and capabilities, in order to keep up with developments in this sector, ensure integration with other strategic sectors, the benefit to the nation maximize Saudi Arabia’s economy, empower citizens, increase participation in the private sector and enhance Saudi Arabia’s international standing.
The electronic games sector is the fastest growing of the media sectors, and its audience is increasing rapidly, making it an economy in itself, and is expected to reach $200 billion by 2023. The Kingdom’s position as a geographical bridge between the western and eastern world, and its interested young generation, a lover of electronic games, numbering approximately 21 million people, elements that strengthen Saudi Arabia’s ambition to be a seat of future to be game innovations, an attraction for game developers in the world, and a global platform for e-sports, attracting talent and international companies, and contributing to achieving a local and global impact in the sector, in harmony with the objectives of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.
Next year, Riyadh is scheduled to host the global esports games, described as the “pinnacle” event in the competitive esports sector in the world.
“I think what’s amazing is that the (Saudi) government has put esports at the forefront when many countries are still trying to find it,” British Esports CEO Chester King said. “I can say that (Saudi) investment is probably the highest in the world,” he added.
The Games are also expected to be a key element in the major development projects that Saudi Arabia is undertaking, such as the futuristic city of NEOM on the Red Sea coast, which includes “The Line” city, which is only 200 meters. wide and stretches 170 kilometers, and its height is 500 meters above sea level. .
Currently a team in e-sports in the Kingdom, and 21 million Saudis consider themselves gamers
Nevertheless, NEOM is also where Saudi Arabia has faced the biggest setback in the field of esports; Two years ago, the American company “Riot Games” announced a partnership that would make NEOM a sponsor of the European Championship for the game “League of Legends”.
The announcement at the time sparked an immediate and massive protest, led by LGBTQ players who condemned Saudi Arabia’s ban on homosexuality, which can constitute a capital offense in the conservative kingdom.
The League of Legends is gay and transgender friendly; Last week, he named gay hip-hop star Lil Nas X as his “chairman,” an honorary title. Within 24 hours of NEOM’s announcement, Riot Games backed down, and Danish tournament organizer Plast ended its deal with the megacity after nearly two weeks.
“Saudi Arabia’s reputation will always remain an obstacle for the esports community despite efforts to improve it,” said Jason Delister of the University of Lille in France, who studies the geopolitical dimensions of esports. However, these concerns have not discouraged Saudi officials, who continue to support the e-sports world.
“Games have always been more morally flexible because they are often project-based and lack a sustainable business model,” said Tobias Schulz, an e-sports expert at Siegen University in Germany. “Esports needs money compared to golf or anything else,” he added.
For his part, the president of the International Federation of Electronic Sports Vlad Marinescu rejected any indication that the Kingdom is using esports to try to whitewash its reputation. “Bleaching is a word that must be preceded by something dirty,” Marinescu told AFP. The culture of Saudi Arabia is beautiful and rich.”
The head of the Saudi Electronic Sports Federation, Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan, told AFP his vision is for the kingdom to become a natural choice for fans of e-sports.
“One of the things that surprised me the most at our last Gamers8 event was the number of young Saudi gamers who came up to me and said we’ve always loved watching these things but we never thought we wouldn’t get it here,” he added. “These are the feelings, and this is the image I want to keep,” he added.