Philip Wride, CEO of esports marketing agency Cheesecake Digital, discusses the growing popularity of esports in the Middle East.

It may have been a little late to the party but the Middle East is on the brink of an esports explosion. Led by a Saudi prince with a penchant for gaming, there are some exciting developments ahead in 2019.

In the Arab world, the embryonic esports movement arguably began in 2015 when ESL– the world’s largest esports tournament organisers – hosted an exhibition event in Dubai. Since then, a number of associations have been created including the Saudi Arabian Federation for Electronics and Intellectual Sports (SAFEIS) and the Arab Esports Federation.

Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan is at the helm of both and has been driving the development of esports in the Gulf and wider Arab world. Working closely with Prince Faisal and Saudi company Vanguard, an official partner of SAFEIS, is Englishman Philip Wride, who brings 18 years of experience in the field  local

“Prince Faisal is a long-time gamer and he understands what esports is all about,” Wride explains to Sport Industry Insider. “To have somebody like that at the helm is absolutely fundamental because he can appreciate what the wider community will be looking for in terms of the products; he fights the battles on behalf of the esports community. Because of his position, as part of one of the largest economies in the region, he has the opportunity to really shape the esports structure.”

While Saudi Arabia has organised a couple of big tournaments in the past with large prize pots, this year will see a bigger offering for gaming fans. The Saudi Professional League has set up an esports arm for FIFA in partnership with SAFEIS and the General Sports Authority. They’re following in the football footsteps of the English Premier League, French Ligue 1, German Bundesliga and other football leagues around the world.

A tournament calendar is now being put together for 2019, which is likely to also include more structure around games like Tekken, Fortnite, Overwatch and League of Legends. The Kingdom already boasts one esports champion; Mossad Aldossary, better known as MSdossary, who won the FIFA eWorld Cup in 2018.

“In Saudi Arabia, there are esports specific venues starting to be built,” Wride says. “There are already gaming cafes but they’re now starting to look at a slightly larger level like elsewhere in the world. Places with 150 PCs and 100 consoles that can host esports tournaments on a stage will be able to showcase the regional talents.

“It’s about showing people that there is a pathway for them in esports. We already know that there’s a global scene and a global structure that, if you are good enough, you can be recruited into. MSdossary is currently playing for an American esports team, Team Rogue. They’ve expanded into the region by recruiting local players and they also have ties in Bahrain.

“We are trying to shine the spotlight both on what’s being created from the structural perspective but also the talents here. People need to know that there is absolutely an opportunity to go from here in the region to the global scene. We’re saying, ‘There are people around the rest of world who are making a living out of this – if you take it seriously, there is a career opportunity here’.”

So how exactly does a nation gauge the esports appetite of its population?

“I think there are two main areas that you can look at,” Wride explains. “One is the volume of players – their time spent playing and those associated metrics. The other is the level of viewing consumption. Whether that’s written content, video content, live streaming. If you know people are interested in what’s happening on the global scene, it makes sense to build a local scene by providing local viewing and playing opportunities.

“That’s what we’re now starting to see in the likes of Saudi Arabia. They’re looking at creating that structure and participation across tournaments. Beyond that, they also want to try to bring international teams and international players here to make The Kingdom an esports destination. Similar to what we are seeing in traditional sports, this complements Vison 2030.”

“Like anything, a mix of both grassroots participation and welcoming international talent is desirable. If big players come it is as an opportunity to showcase some of the things that are happening in Saudi Arabia and potentially get some of those global brands involved.”

In the UAE, too, there are ambitious plans afoot with new esports academies and venues in and around the country’s malls in the pipeline.

“Introducing venues at malls is a smart idea,” Wride says. “It gives more opportunity to get footfall but also utilises some existing facilities. The plan currently, based on the conversations we’ve had, is that some venues will be opening in the next six months. – though there are still details to iron out such as which games they are going to use.”

There is certainly a commercial incentive for the region to embrace esports as it has emerged as an incredibly lucrative segment of the sport industry. While some brands might be a little nervous about entering a market about which they have little knowledge, Wride insists those who take the plunge find the benefits are numerous.

Educating brands is one of the biggest challenges for sure,” he admits. “But the question to brands is simple: do you want to engage your audience or do you not? If you do, you need to be in this space. It’s not going to disappear, it’s only going to get bigger; you either bite the bullet and get in, or you miss out.

“Once you show the numbers globally and talk about the opportunity for growth here, brands tend to be much more receptive. They want to get involved but they need to understand how they can do that. Brands involved in esports need to be authentic, they need to be relevant, and they need to contribute to the overall experience of the audience.

One advantage we are increasingly finding is that as people who have grown up with gaming are moving into decision-making positions at brands so there is more awareness about esports. We are starting to see that transition now in terms of those who have the responsibility for putting marketing plans together and activating budgets.”

Those companies who joined the esports movement early have enjoyed massive exposure and certainly recognise the value of the association. The scope of partnerships can vary massively but Intel, for example, created an eponymous series and recently agreed a three-year deal with tournament organisers worth $100 million.

“In the esports space we have endemic and non-endemic partners. Endemic would be technology companies like Intel. They have been phenomenal, creating the Intel Extreme Masters which carries their brand all around the world. They’ve built that relationship with the audience through their activations over the years and they know that the level of involvement has directly impacted their bottom line.

“For non-endemic, we have automotive, fashion, insurance companies, banks. We’ve seen interesting activations by the likes of Mercedes and BMW, while fashion brand Sephora have been involved with ladies-only tournaments.

“Fashion brands are also finding a way to connect with a different audience, one which may not want to go and walk into a store. This resonates and I think there is certainly a really interesting market for female gamers in the region that has so far been untapped.”

Broadcast rights is another area in which esports is rapidly advancing, though a battle between organisers and game publishers could yet prove prohibitive.

“The challenge in certain areas of esports is that unlike traditional sports you have a publisher who creates and manages the game. There have been certain instances when a third party may be operating a tournament, but the publishers feel they have the rights rather than the organiser.

“Those debates are happening in esports at the minute but we are still seeing broadcast deals done. Recently online streaming platform Twitch, who are owned by Amazon,bought the rights for the Overwatch League for around $90 million – for two years of coverage.”

Whether it is grassroots gaming, international tournaments or sponsorship deals, the Middle East is now looking to claim a share of the ever-expanding esports empire. And Wride feels there is enormous potential in the region.

“The growth has been slow but steady so far but I think now it’s going to speed up significantly. The next couple of years are going to be very interesting indeed.”