In anticipation of ESI Digital Summer (#ESIDIGITAL), presented by Kinguin LOUNGE, we’ve taken the time to speak with a number of our esteemed panellists and partners involved in the biggest online B2B esports conference of 2020, to share their perspectives of the unique regional esports scenes represented during the event.
ESI Digital Summer is the second digital conference in line this year for Esports Insider, and we invite stakeholders from in and around the industry globally to join us over August 17th-21st for five consecutive days of content, including 35+ live hours wherein each day will focus on a different and important regional market for the esports industry.
To make reading up on the global perspectives from industry veterans and developing brands easy – we’ve broken up the conversations into regional entries, following the itinerary of ESI Digital Summer.
Each entry also features a shortlist of opportunities and challenges – gleaned from our conversations – and employment data powered by Hitmarker. These are not meant to be exhaustive, rather to provide context for each region from the perspectives of some of the industry’s finest.
Regional Esports Market Report – Middle East
- New digital and mixed experiences await
- Massive quantity of Standard Arabic speakers globally
- Fast-growing population of gamers
- Uphill battle against poor first-impressions
- Fragmented landscape, with various languages and cultural differences
- Lack of transparent, trustworthy data to work with
Employment Data – Powered by Hitmarker
- .47 percent of total global market share of newly posted jobs in July
Esports Insider held conversations with Edward Kondrat, Esports Executive at Empire Play from Dubai, UAE, and Mohammad Majali, Founding Partner at FATE Esports from Amman, Jordan – both will be speaking during ESI Digital Summer next week and representing two very different countries with the fertile Middle Eastern esports market.
Empire Play is part of a larger corporation, Empire Entertainment, which turned 100 years old last year. Empire Entertainment has always been in the content business, according to Kondrat, focusing on media distribution in the region. A few years ago, the company decided they needed to embrace gaming as a form of entertainment, bringing on Kondrat due to his involvement supporting the local gaming and esports scenes.
When FATE Esports started in 2017, there were only a handful of esports enthusiasts, a couple of other teams, and a few tournament organisers in the whole Middle East. Today considered to be one of the top teams in the Middle East and among the first to enlist foreign talent from Europe and Asia.
Representing different countries and business types, Kondrat with a background of esports media coverage and tournament organising and Majali from an esports organisation perspective. Both offered compelling and educational perspectives on the Middle Eastern esports landscape and our conversations will hopefully inform those who have been hearing about the buzz of Middle Eastern esports, but aren’t sure where to begin, outside of studying Arabic.
With little to no oversight or regulation, the beginning of the Middle Eastern professional esports scene started off on the wrong foot. Majali shared an anecdote of an early Dota 2 tournament where the tournament organiser hosted an afterparty, ultimately resulting in a riot. This news gave many an overall negative association of esports in the region, many companies wanted nothing to do with esports teams or event organisers making the industry’s attempts to claw its way back up into favourable opinions that much more difficult.
But today, due to the hard work of many, sponsors are looking at the region again. Majali declared, in terms of approaching the Middle East, “Telecoms are interested, energy drinks are interested in esports, anyone that is marketing to youth and gamers is now fully aware of what’s going on and fully understands what esports is.” He suspects that a big motivator of this change has been the lockdown measures taken in response to the global pandemic.
Kondrat detailed the roadmap of Empire Play: spending six months doing market research, then trying out hosting tournaments and supporting teams locally, and finally discovering that the content aspect of esports matched with Empire Entertainment’s DNA: producing high-quality live broadcasts in Arabic. After proving their professionalism with Hearthstone broadcasts, it partnered with Activision Blizzard to pair its top-tier Arabic content with the publisher’s IP to the MENA region.
Just a month ago, Empire Play added World of Warcraft to its esports coverage, this healthy relationship is reciprocated via Activision Blizzard by featuring Empire Play streams in the MENA Battle.Net launcher. The reputation gained by this healthy relationship has led the company to also partner with Riot Games, being the third in the world to host a VALORANT Ignition Series, bringing the tournament to the MENA region.
During our conversation with Kirsty Endfield, Founder and Director of Swipe Right PR, she expressed that something that stands out to her is recently how much the region has been changing and trying to open up. During her company’s research to help in the Middle East, the young and affluent section of the region’s population is hungry for new experiences. Investing in gaming and esports may prove to be a great bet to satisfy the region’s youth, opting to stay rather than leave their homelands for new experiences, Endfield suggested.
Endfield also noted that many game developers have invested in not only the localisation of titles into Arabic, but also culturalisation. Adjusting qualities of titles to resonate with the Arabic speaking audiences, rather than just translating the text and dialogue. This “showing love” to the region’s gamers has helped the population of gamers grow via accessibility of relatable experiences.
New digital and mixed experiences await
Offering a different perspective than that shared by Endfield above, Majali believes that because of the pandemic lockdown measures taking much of daily life to digital counterparts – digital meetings, calls, conferences – the many people are just now discovering that there’s a whole gaming world tied together through digital networks, and there is a developing scene in their own region.
Majali believes that this has helped the region move its gaming and esports agendas along and thus providing an exciting world of new high-quality content and experiences for people to invest in. Kondrat said that locations such as Dubai have safe cities with well-developed infrastructures, big stadiums, and long tourism histories hold huge potential for content creation on-the-ground and appeal for playing host to global championships.
Massive quantity of Standard Arabic speakers globally
According to Wikipedia, citing the most recent edition of Ethnologue, Standard Arabic is the sixth most spoken language in the world. “The potential is huge. No one is arguing against that,” Kondrat continued, “Eventually, in the near future, it’s very reasonable and logical that esports in Arabic is a thing that has to happen.”
During our conversation with Akshat Rathee, Co-founder and Managing Director at NODWIN Gaming (covered in the APAC segment of the series), he explained that NODWIN Gaming had recently moved into the Middle East to help grow the developing communities by providing their infrastructure and formats to an Arabic audience by partnering with local creators and influencers and hiring Arabic speakers on the company’s behalf. The attraction to invest in the region has already been felt by outside parties, it seems.
Fast-growing population of gamers
Maintaining cynicism about the market reports on the region, Majali allowed, “If the numbers are correct, it’s the fastest-growing gaming population in the world. It’s growing by 25% per year.” He explained that from his background in broadcasting and events, the reason he got into esports was due to getting to know popular Jordanian Dota 2 players in gaming cafes and decided to bring them together to form one of the first esports teams in Jordan. He cited the country boasts two of the top Dota 2 players in the world, Amer “Miracle-” Al-Barkawi and Yazied “YapzOr” Jaradat; Issa “ISSAA” Murad, who plays CS:GO for OG Esports.
Majali stressed that Jordan has a lot of talent already in the region, meaning that their audiences are also large; there are a lot of established eyes on what these gamers are up to and receptive to gaming content in general. And because titles have not been localised in Arabic, like with Dota 2 for example, many of these players have a strong grasp of English in order to play the game, making them even more attractive for foreign teams and brands.
Uphill battle against poor first-impressions
Both Majali and Kondrat were quick to note that they believe that the challenges outweigh the benefits of the region. Echoing the sentiment from Majali about the first wave of tournament organisers leaving a bad taste in the region’s mouth, Kondrat shared that there was an early trend of organisers overpromising audiences, receiving investment, and underperforming the returns – leaving many brands to feel that they’ve burnt their hands.
Kondrat also said this sentiment was also shared with game publishers and developers having very little trust in the region’s quality of content and events, being resistant toward licensing their IPs. “Altogether, this created a challenging path for TOs to first break that misconception, that whatever is going to be esports delivered from this region is going to be of poor quality and won’t have the needed impact,” he admitted.
Fragmented landscape, with various languages and cultural differences
The fragmentation of Arabic dialects within the region make it difficult for tournament organisers and broadcasters to find the winning formula to attract the highest viewership. “For example, Arabic speakers in Morocco, with their fusion of French are making their language so unique that it’s almost incomprehensible,” Kondrat explained. A majority of people living in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries won’t understand much of what’s being said. While the Arabic audience is huge, as mentioned above, the dialectical differences prove difficult to navigate.
Picking a specific dialect to host and broadcast in means that a specific audience is being targeted and that might alienate viewers that would naturally prefer to watch in their own dialect. Majali added that the concept of a competitive gaming team as a business is still not well understood by many in the region, stating that every time he has a meeting he has to thoroughly explain what being a competitive gamer looks like – whereas he believes explains what a broadcaster or tournament organiser does in meetings is an easier sell to outsiders currently.
Lack of transparent, trustworthy data to work with
Both Kondrat and Majali loudly expressed their frustration with the lack of data for the region. Majali said that while he has never signed up for any games market analytic services, he hasn’t found accessible data for gaming and esports in the region. “I don’t know how much information is available for the Middle East, in terms of how many gamers there are. Every day I check and the numbers are changing every day, nothing is accurate. One day I read an article saying there are 80 million gamers in the Middle East, the next day I read an article that says there are 130 million gamers.”
Kondrat shared that streaming platforms, ISPs, and even publishers are not sharing their data within the industry. Without having proven, trustworthy figures to work with, both Kondrat and Majali expressed that this makes approaching partners or sponsors extremely difficult to back their pitches up. If Empire Play was to approach a brand for a title that it hadn’t broadcast yet, “We’re blind, absolutely, we have no clue about the number of people we will be addressing.”
Employment Data – Powered by Hitmarker
During Esport Insider’s conversation with Hitmarker’s Managing Director, Richard Huggan (featured in the Europe focused entry of this series), he shared regional data from the premier English-language esports and gaming job site. You’ll find these insights in each respective entry of the series.
The Middle East is the least represented on Hitmarker, with only 16 active jobs for July 2020, equaling less than half of one percent, .47 percent, of total market share globally, including remote, of active jobs on the site.
Israel’s capital, Tel Aviv, houses all 11 of the country’s listings, but again, this number is not likely reflective of the potential opportunities of the region, as these listings are English-language specific.
It follows that with Tel Aviv’s bustling tech scene and affinity for international business, the correlation is no surprise, however even though much of the region has proficiency n English, the job opportunities listed are not exemplary of this.
The top five companies hiring in the region, according to Hitmarker’s data from March 1st to July 31st, are Moon Active, ASUS, Huuuge Games, Playtika, and CrazyLabs.
It’s difficult to imagine what the region’s esports scene would look like without the jolt of attention and education afforded because of the lockdowns, according to Majali. He shared an anecdote of injust: December of last year FATE Esports was facing many difficulties that are disappearing thanks to increased exposure. “At least now when I contact a brand or contact a sponsor, whoever it is at least they know exactly what esports is. They take it a bit more seriously than they used to,” he explained.
But with this increased attention there are more people wanting to get into the scene as well. Many new teas are popping up every day, he said. Before a few months ago, FATE Esports was the only organisation in the region with a foreign esports team, but now another team has recently picked up a Swedish CS:GO team. “So now we have competition. Someone doing exactly what we’re doing: a Middle Eastern organisation with a foreign team.” The rising tide can also raise the stakes, it seems.
Kondrat states that today, production is cheap, an esport event can easily be broadcast via OBS and Twitch with a few enthusiastic gamers willing to commentate, and boom, you have an esports broadcast. “To pull off a watchable tournament, not with [super-high] standards, but a watchable tournament for a local audience in their language is pretty doable. And the fact that such tournaments are not gathering high viewership stats, I don’t believe it is because of [a lack of] investments. It comes from something being wrong with the formula of attracting or maybe promoting it or making it visible to local people,” he shared.
Even though Empire Play has been active in the market for a year and a half and achieved monumental partnerships with publishers, Kondrat still believes that a majority of MENA region esports fans would not instantly recognise PowerPlay or most other “big” tournament organiser or broadcasting studio in the region – as opposed to esports fans in Europe and their immediate recognition of ESL or DreamHack, he explained.
Majali is bullish on the region coming up hard and fast into the global esports stage over the next two or three years, given the sudden boost of attention the scene has enjoyed and the immense talent he believes the region boasts. Kondrat also noted that due to the presence of developers and publishers with headquarters and studios in the region, this makes development and growth of the gaming and esports industries that much more seamless.
Be sure to catch both Kondrat and Majali speak during ESI Digital Summer during the Middle East programming on Tuesday, August 18th.