Saudi Arabia exited the 2018 FIFA World Cup with a memorable victory over Egypt thanks to a last minute winner from Salem Al-Dawsari. Weeks later, Mosaad Al-Dossary was winning the FIFA eWorld Cup in London, defeating Stefano Pinna of Belgium. The teenager, with the green flag of his homeland around his shoulders, lifted the trophy and collected a check for $250,000, a fine reward for years of practicing his gaming skills.
With 20 million gamers trying to qualify for the event, the triumph was a big moment for the player, industry and a country that aims to become a major hub for the genre. It announced Saudi Arabia’s arrival in the growing world of eSports, which hopes to produce many more global stars as good as, or better than, Al-Dossary.
Sultan Saad Alsadd is the founder and CEO of Tuwaiq eSports club, which he set up in 2018 to help change the face of the industry in the country. He believes that Saudi Arabia has a bright future. “Gaming and eSports are the next big thing, as they align with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 to diversify income, as sport in the Kingdom is expected to make up to 1 percent of gross domestic product,” Saad told Arab News.
At the moment, East Asian countries, such as China and South Korea, lead the way, with European nations not far behind. “I would rank Saudi Arabia at the moment below the top 50 countries, but when we reach 2030 I would say according to the plans I have seen and heard, (Saudi Arabia will be in) the top 10 world wide,” said Alsadd.
The 2017 establishment of SAFEIS (Saudi Arabian Federation for Electronic & Intellectual Sports) as a body to oversee the development of the sector put the government squarely behind the growth of the industry. The official body is one part of the plan. Another major resource is the young population that loves gaming. “More than 70 percent (of Saudis) are under 30 years old,” said Alsadd. “We also have a young leadership, that believes in gaming and eSports, so they get what we want and need, and this is big in terms of development.”
A young population means that there are other resources. “Moving forward, we have great e-athletes that need nurturing and development, and they will become the best in the world, similar to Al-Dossary — (maybe) even better than him.”
Another world champion is an exciting prospect indeed, but there are some obstacles that need to be overcome in order for Saudi Arabia to keep growing the industry and producing talent. There may be national leadership but while the private sector has been getting more involved, it could do more.
“They have a lack of understanding of eSports and most of them need to be educated but we are getting there,” Alsadd added. “There is a lack of market research and data on the Saudi eSports market and this is stopping everyone from investing in this sector. The ecosystem is not complete in Saudi Arabia.”
This is where Alsadd and his club came in. His football background helps with the FIFA game franchise, especially with Saudi Arabia the second biggest market for the game. “I have the ability to think differently to others in the scene here in Saudi Arabia, bringing knowledge and contacts from the football industry to eSports. We aim to push ourselves and Saudi eSports forward.”
Expansion into Europe and elsewhere is part of the plan. “We look to use our presence to transfer that knowledge from there to Saudi Arabia, and with the players and coaches and staff that we aim to sign in the upcoming two years, we are sure that we can succeed and turn our club;s vision into a reality.”
There is one aspect in which eSports has an advantage over physical sports. When the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic brought football and others to a halt in 2020, eSports kept going. “It did present an opportunity which we took advantage of in Gamers Without Borders, which really was a remarkable event for Saudi Arabia and the Middle East and North Africa region.”
Gamers Without Borders was the biggest eSports charity event in history, and brought together 120,000 players from over 70 countries. It was hailed as a big success. “It’s inspiring to see Gamers Without Borders and Saudi Arabia connect the global gaming community and help respond to COVID-19 through supporting international charities,” said Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan, chairman of SAFEIS.
It was another major step forward. The desire to establish the country as a global eSports hub only serves to strengthen Alsadd’s optimism about the future. “Saudi Arabia has the potential to become among the top 10 eSports markets worldwide in 10 years time or even less,” he said.
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