In the midst of the global pandemic, Saudi Arabia is hosting one of the biggest sports tournaments on earth. While Saudi investment in a 127-year old soccer team in Newcastle has met with great resistance, its investment in e-sports could ensure a pioneering role in what could become the sport of the future.
Booming esports market
One of the few industries that has increased hiring during the pandemic, electronic sports are experiencing a boom. The industry is offering six-digit wages for employees at leading companies in the market, even as many people are still unsure what esports actually are.
E-sports, also known as eSports or electronic sports, refers to the growing interest in video game tournaments where players compete in front of large audiences. The esports market has seen a steady rise. The trend originally started in the 1970s and 1980s when arcade gaming tournaments began to receive significant press coverage, but the advent of the internet proved to be the start of a global phenomena.
The popularity of video gaming steadily grew. In the 2000s, video-gaming tournaments started to receive television coverage, with South Korea dedicating two 24-hour cable TV channels solely to broadcasting video gaming. Esports started to become more organized and- 2006 saw the first tournament . The initial competition offered a $1 million prize to the competition’s winner.
Since then, esports has grown exponentially, with major international tournaments, celebrities and millions of fans filling stadiums. In 2015, Las Vegas saw the construction of the first dedicated ‘Esports Arena’ and top tournaments offer prize money worth tens of millions of dollars. The top 80 digital athletes have all made more than a million dollars in winnings.
Pioneers in MENA esports
The popularity of electronic sports has been noticed by traditional athletes. Soccer legends like Gareth Bale, Ronaldinho and Ruud Gullit all have started their own esports teams, while basketball legend Michael Jordan started investing in the sport back in 2018. With growing popularity and prestige, esports appear to be going nowhere but up.
Saudi Arabia has clearly picked up on the trend. In 2017, Saudi Arabia started SAFEIS, the Saudi Arabian Federation of Electronic and Intellectual Sport, which aims to push Saudi Arabia to the forefront of electronic sports. It also started Kafu Games, an online platform hosting esports. The country even has a national team for various games as well as a professional esports league.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, esports have moved from large stadiums to online streaming, a more or less seamless transition compared to the difficulties most major sports leagues face. The global health crisis has presented an opportunity for esports to grow even faster and Saudi Arabia is now contributing to that growth by organizing one of the largest tournaments in the world.
Gamers Without Borders
Saudi Arabia is organizing the massive “Gamers Without Borders” tournament, a seven-week-long tournament where some of the world’s elite gamers compete. In order to promote local talent the tournament also features a dedicated SAFEIS tournament, and between June 1 and June 3 the eMBS Cup Challenge will see Saudi gamers and soccer players compete.
Unique to the tournament is the charity element. The online tournament features a $10 million prize pool, to be distributed to COVID-19 charities of the winner’s choice. The tournament has been going since April 24, with Reuters coverage publishing the names of winners, much like it would for traditional sports tournaments.
With esports rapidly growing in popularity, Saudi Arabia appears to have found an investment in the future that causes less opposition than its forays into traditional sports. As esports tournaments start to rival traditional leagues and tournaments, the Gamers Without Borders tournament and Saudi gaming initiatives could become a new avenue into the world of competitive sports.