Not to Be Underestimated: The Rise of Esports in the Middle East

In recent years, few AAA games have released without a competitive mode of some sort. Developers and publishers realize players’ desire to feel a sense of achievement, get rewarded for skill, and triumph others as a result of putting more hours into the game. Streamers, YouTube personalities, and professional gamers captivate the younger generation, and it is a common dream for children who grew up around video games to want to play them for a living.

Developers like Blizzard, Electronic Arts, Activision, and many more recognize the importance of establishing a strong and dominant esports scene for their titles. But this support is not evenly distributed around the world. As an Egyptian who has lived my entire life in the Middle East, I’ve experienced firsthand a lack of real interest from and sponsored competitions in the Middle East and North Africa region (known as MENA for short). Luckily, developers are beginning to take notice of this part of the world and its tremendous potential as a relatively untapped market.

A Lack of Support

Growing up in Egypt during the early 2000s, I was an avid FIFA fan. My only reward for the hours I dedicated to the game was when my friends and I gathered to arrange our own competitions and form our own prize pool, or when a local PlayStation cafe held a tournament. There were little to no actual prizes, and yet dozens of kids like me used to show up.

We got excited for these events for the dramatic moments — the cheering, the wild comebacks at half-time, or the feeling of relief after scraping by and winning on penalties after a tough match. This is what we wanted to experience through organized esports tournaments. We wanted the pure emotion and passion of our hard work to finally pays off. But almost no one was even there to offer us the opportunity.

Fast forward a few years. YouTube’s popularity was picking up and Twitch launched its streaming platform in 2011. The latter provided a new platform for gaming enthusiasts to reach an audience and showcase their skills. At the time, MENA residents were still faced with obstacles like slow internet connections and a lack of proper streaming equipment. You had to order such things from abroad, making them extremely expensive for teenagers to get their hands on. And even when they did, streaming League of Legends, Fortnite, or any other game at 150+ ping just isn’t enjoyable — for the streamer or the viewer.

Are You Being Served?

This leads us to a bigger problem limiting MENA players from playing at their full potential: the lack of dedicated servers in the region. Dedicated servers are one of the most requested features from the region’s game-playing residents. They allow players to connect to a stable server, instead of an unreliable peer-to-peer network. This allows for lower ping and a smoother overall experience. The closer you are to a dedicated server, the better. That’s true whether you’re in Egypt, with its relatively slow internet services, or in Dubai, with its hyper-fast connections. I’ve lived in both locations, and the lowest ping I ever encountered was still somewhere in the 90s — much too high to play online games competitively.

People in the region are obliged to connect to European or Asian servers. This issue was recently recognized by Epic Games, the studio behind Fortnite, with several streamers and gaming personalities supporting the request for Middle Eastern servers under the hashtag “#FortniteMiddleEastServers.”

Even those capable of playing at their best in these conditions haven’t historically had the opportunity to showcase and hone their skill against players of the same level. There was a severe lack of sponsored championships or any official tournaments, until Power League Gaming came along in 2014. PLG managed to bring official tournaments to the region, thanks to strong partnerships with the likes of EA, Blizzard, and others. Since then, the organization has arranged countless tournaments, ranging from FIFA’s Fanta Masters tournament to the PLG Grand Slam, testing players’ skills across various games to crown the ultimate player. This helped give the spotlight to some truly talented people who went on to either sign professional contracts with teams in the region like Yalla, Nasr, and Osh-Tekk Warriors, or to realize their talent in other ways like starting personal Twitch channels. And none of this was possible just a few years ago.

Rising Stars

Since 2014, the MENA region has been host to a number of high-profile tournaments thanks to PLG. In November 2018, PLG hosted Grand Slam weekend at du Forum, a multi-purpose indoor venue. This was one of the first live dedicated esports events in the region. It featured Dragon Ball FighterZ, Call of Duty, League of Legends, and Fortnite tournaments, with considerable prize money up for grabs. A number of indoor events were organised following the event’s success, the most recent being December’s PLG Grand Slam. It featured some of the biggest esports teams in the region, with thousands in attendance to watch all the drama unfold live.

Nasr Esports’ General Manager Luciano Rahal, says that “Esports in the region can really be referred to as esports only in the last two years.” Considering that short history, Nasr’s performance is impressive — the 2018 roster won the Asian and European Street Fighter world league, and their Counter Strike: Global Offensive team snatched second place at the Zowie Extremesland in China.

Not only that, Nasr player Big Bird currently sits at 17th place in the global Capcom Pro Tour rankings. And he  isn’t alone in achieving success internationally while still representing the Middle Eastern region. Ailan “LastBoss” Al-Marri, a former member of Yalla esports’ Overwatch team, reached the number one rank worldwide playing as Doomfist. This was in addition to his several outstanding domestic and regional performances. Al-Marri thinks the West and most of the world underestimates the talent present in the region.

There are several other Middle Eastern gaming figures proving their skill and clutching wins for their organizations — including FIFA World Champion and 2018’s Console Esports Player of the Year, Musaed Aldossary. Two Team Liquid Dota 2 players, GH and Miracle, also come from Middle Eastern descent. All of these players and many more are present within the region, but they need the developers’ and publishers’ support to rise and shine. We need better servers, more tournaments, and general aid from the industry. This region has a massive pool of undiscovered talent, but it will stay buried unless someone comes to dig it out.