Asian Games: The wider battle to become a premier esports player in the Arab region begins
This week sees the start of the 2022 Asian Games, a year late but that is not the only reason why it is eagerly awaited.
It is the first major international competition which will offer medals for esports. It is the dream of millions around the world to win gold, earn money and have – or extend – a career playing video games.
"This time around there will be teams competing from Oman, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Palestine and Jordan as well as Saudi Arabia"
The delayed tournament, taking place now because of China’s strict lockdown policies that were in place last year to prevent the spread of COVID, will see the best gamers from around Asia competing in seven events.
The games are Arena of Valor Asian Games Version, Game for Peace Asian Games Version, League of Legends, Dota 2, Dream Three Kingdoms 2, FIFA Online 4 and Street Fighter 5.
ESports was a test event at the last edition which took place in 2018 in Jakarta. There were six games played with China winning two, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan winning one each and then the hosts Indonesia also earning a triumph.
Back then, the only Arab country that took part was Saudi Arabia and their best performance was getting into the semi-finals of the League of Legends (LoL), a fantasy multiplayer battle arena game.
This time around however, even in that one game alone, there will be teams competing from Oman, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Palestine and Jordan as well as Saudi Arabia.
It will be no surprise if most of the medals go to nations from the eastern side of the continent. East Asia was the first mover in the industry now worth an estimated $180 billion a year (video gaming is now bigger in financial terms than movies and music).
South Korea had television channels devoted to games such as Starcraft being played long before streaming channels such as Twitch and YouTube existed.
With high-speed internet and thousands of PC rooms around the country, cheap places set up for friends to meet for communal gaming, it was fertile ground for rapid growth.
Corporations such as LG and Hyundai got involved as soon as there were professional players, paid to practise around ten hours a day and then as part of teams in tournaments around the world. China was quickly following suit and Japan, a slow starter, has also been improving.
Battles in the Arab World
The industry has spread around the continent to the west side where Saudi Arabia is the regional powerhouse.
In May 2022, esports made its debut in the third edition of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) games that were held in Kuwait. Saudi Arabia defeated United Arab Emirates to win gold in the League of Legends. It confirmed that the victors were the leading Arab power as UAE coach Ali Gaaloul said.
"Esports is part of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s Vision 2030, a recognition that oil revenues will not last forever and that the economy needs to diversify"
“We came into the tournament as the underdogs,” he said. “Saudi Arabia has played with this same team, or the nucleus of it for more than five years, while we as a team only came together a fortnight before these Games began. We knew it would be a formidable challenge to beat them and so it proved.”
There have been other triumphs worth writing back home to Riyadh about. In 2018, Mossad Al-Dossary won the FIFA eWorld Cup final, defeating a Belgian opponent at London’s O2 Arena, to win $250,000.
Two years later, Najd Fahd became the inaugural winner of the FISU (International University Sports Federation) esports challenge female tournament. She then won gold at the GCC games. That capped a fine tournament for Saudi Arabia.
“We are very happy to see our young athletes making history at the GCC esports competition. I congratulate our amazing athletes and I’m sure that the future of esports is going to be unique in Saudi Arabia as a result of the generous and caring support from our wise leadership,” said Saudi Arabian Olympic and Paralympic Committee Vice President Prince Fahd bin Jalawi Al Saud.
It is no accident that Saudi Arabia has become the main player in the Arab region.
The country has been making headlines around the world as football clubs spend huge sums of money to sign some of the biggest names in the game such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema. The ambitions to become a major player in the world’s most popular sport are reflected in the video games industry.
Esports is part of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s Vision 2030, a recognition that oil revenues will not last forever and that the economy needs to diversify. It is hoped that esports will create almost 40,000 jobs for what is a youthful population by the end of the decade.
In September 2022, the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund that has been active in sports, allocated nearly $40 billion to create a new global hub for esports by 2030 and to establish the Savvy Games Group.
This company’s name appears on the front of the shirts worn by Al-Hilal, the most successful football club in Saudi Arabian and Asian history, and its superstar Brazilian forward Neymar. The plan is that Savvy will drive the development of the industry to ensure that Saudi Arabia becomes a place where games are not just played but made.
“Savvy Games Group is one part of our ambitious strategy aiming to make Saudi Arabia the ultimate global hub for the games and esports sector by 2030,” the crown prince said as it was launched in September 2022.
“We are harnessing the untapped potential across the esports and games sector to diversify our economy, drive innovation in the sector and further scale the entertainment and esports competition offerings across the Kingdom,” he added.
Other countries in the region are also investing. In June, the United Arab Emirates hosted one of the biggest esports events with around 75,000 participants. In July, the Qatar Investment Authority bought a minority stake in Monumental Sports & Entertainment, a US company that owns global esports franchise Team Liquid.
Competition then is hotting up both on and offline. Winning gold at the Asian Games will be a fantastic achievement for any who manages it but for esports, it is just the start of a wider battle to become a premier esports player in the Arab region, Asia and the rest of the world.
John Duerden has covered Asian sports for over 20 years for The Guardian, Associated Press, ESPN, BBC, and the New York Times, as well as various Asian media. He is also the author of four books
Follow him on Twitter: @johnnyduerden