How Saudi Arabia intends to become a global hub for gaming and esports

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First place winner Abdulrahman Almasri receiving his champion's trophy plus SR375,000 award from Prince Faisal bin Bandar, president of the Saudi Esports Federation. (Supplied)
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The players are shown online as the game begins. (Supplied)
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A view of the game the participants are about to play. (Supplied)
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Updated 19 October 2022
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How Saudi Arabia intends to become a global hub for gaming and esports

  • Investments worth $37.8 billion in Savvy Games Group will transform the Kingdom into an industry leader
  • National Gaming and eSports Strategy will create 39,000 jobs and contribute SR50 billion to GDP by 2030

JEDDAH: The gaming and electronic sports industry is growing rapidly in Saudi Arabia and the wider GCC, with major investments announced to support domestic game developers and world-class competitions taking place in the region. 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently announced the Kingdom’s ambition to see 30 competitive games developed by firms in the Kingdom by 2030 as part of the country’s national gaming and esports strategy. 

Last week, Savvy Games Group, a firm owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, unveiled investments worth SR142 billion ($37.8 billion) to transform the Kingdom into a global gaming hub with world-class gaming companies.

The investments will include SR70 billion to take several minority stakes in companies that support Savvy’s game development agenda and SR50 billion to acquire a leading game publisher to become a strategic development partner.

Another SR20 billion will be invested in industry partners, and SR2 billion will target industry disruptors to grow early-stage games and esports companies.

“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 last week, according to the Saudi Press Agency.  

Speaking at the Next World Forum earlier in September, Prince Faisal bin Bandar, president of the Saudi Esports Federation, noted the boom in the sporting sector in the past five years, adding: “One of my favorite things about gaming is that you first introduce yourself to someone using your gaming skills, and not history, religion, color of skin, background or gender.”




Prince Faisal bin Bandar, president of the Saudi Esports Federation. (Supplied)

He said: “This young community and population are really striving to take their place on the global stage. The ultimate goal is to have Saudi Arabia move on a natural path on the global pathway for games and esports.” 

Through this initiative, the government hopes to create 39,000 jobs, establish 250 game developers, and promote a thriving in-house talent pool for esports that will raise the sector’s contribution to the Kingdom’s economy to SR50 billion by 2030.

Scores of domestic startups, as well as more established multinational developers, stand to benefit immensely from the flurry of new investment. 

Abdulrahman Al-Sulaimani, an artificial intelligence engineer and games designer who spent nine years working in Japan before returning to the Kingdom in 2020, is among them.




The triumphant Saudi e-Leaguers. (Supplied)

Over the course of his career, Al-Sulaimani has witnessed the astonishing growth of Japan’s world-renowned gaming community. Seeing the same room for potential in his home country, he returned to establish his own studio.

Earlier this year, Al-Sulaimani launched AlBuraq Wings, a games studio that adopts young gamers eager to turn their hand to design and programming. 

“I wanted to help gather them under one roof and created the studio with a vision to create games that are not only made by Saudis for Saudis but to also educate the world somehow about how extremely talented our developers are,” Al-Sulaimani told Arab News.

From designers, to developers, artists, voiceover artists and more, game development is not a one-man show. It is a community of talents that come together to try out new technology tools to come up with innovative game ideas. 




Participants compete in the recent Gamers8 event in Riyadh. (Supplied)

AlBuraq Wings recently won third place in the Gamers8 XR Gameathon, an accelerated innovation time-bound event, where game enthusiasts come together to develop a game prototype from scratch in one week.

“These tournaments are what push many Saudis to come out and put their skills into the spotlight. I dare say it, the skills of many Saudis surpass those of the Japanese,” said Al-Sulaimani. 

“Gaming events not only attract gamers, they also attract three unique and important segments of the gaming community: programmers, designers and artists. If you get all three, you have a game. They all come full circle.”

Saudi Arabia is already fast emerging as a major gaming hub, with local competitors achieving world-class results in global esports tournaments. 

In 2018, Mosaad Al-Dossary, known online as “Msdossary,” became the first Saudi national to win the FIFA eWorld Cup — an event in which more than 20 million gamers attempted to qualify. 




Mosaad Al-Dossary, the first Saudi national to win the FIFA eWorld Cup. (Supplied)

A year later, Saudi gamers were thrilled when the Kingdom was chosen to host the region’s biggest gaming tournament to date, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) Mobile Star. 

The global esports market size was valued at $1.22 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach the valuation of $1.44 billion in 2022. Fortune Business Insights predicts the market will reach $5.48 billion by 2029.

According to a report published by Boston Consulting Group earlier this year, there are now 23.5 million gamers in Saudi Arabia, making up around 67 percent of the Kingdom’s overwhelmingly young population. 

About 90 percent of these gamers take part in esports on an amateur or semi-pro basis, while around 100 Saudi gamers are pursuing e-sports as a full-time career, the report said.




Saudi Arabia has around 23.5 million gamers, accounting for 67 percent of the Kingdom’s young population.  (Supplied)

“When it comes to the Arab countries, Saudi Arabia is the number one hotspot of gaming,” one female Saudi gamer and content creator, who goes by the online name “PikaLoli,” told Arab News. 

She, like many Saudis, has been playing games from a young age, and recently decided to pursue gaming as a career. She discovered a platform where a growing community of gamers and developers can share ideas and reviews.

“I play all sorts of games and give my feedback on my social media pages,” said PikaLoli. “The interaction and commitment you find by even young ones is outstanding.

“We’ve been waiting for this moment for a while now and the community made up of thousands has been helping each other grow for years. We have a shared platform to communicate with, share ideas, edit videos, play games for developers and give feedback, and so much more.”




Khalid Aloufi is among the top gamers in the Kingdom. (Supplied)

Recent graduate Waleed Abu Alkhayr, a game designer, found his footing soon after completing university and enrolling in the Game Development Hima bootcamp, which concentrates on game development by mastering skills and later interning for an international gaming company before landing a job at another. 

He told Arab News that IT training programs and learning courses in esport and gaming development appealed to him most, cementing the idea of becoming a game developer.

“I started playing games on Sony Playstation 1 and I haven’t stopped since. The love for games is what led me to want to select this profession, but I didn’t see enough support until very recently when the sector developed at an unprecedented rate; I knew then that this is what I wanted to do.”




With an army of 23.5 million gamers, Saudi Arabia is certain to become a dominant force in international esports. (Supplied)

Abu Alkhayr, also a member of the AlBuraq Wings, said that the boom in esports and gaming development is not simple hype, but has been brewing for years.

“Initiatives and programs launched by entities that teach game programming and development are numerous and the resources even more so, which provide opportunities and build technical competitiveness in the community. The more the participation of talent, the bigger the community will grow and help build the vision that is set for us,” he said.

For Al-Sulaimani, harnessing this energy, enthusiasm and raw talent is precisely what is needed to put Saudi Arabia on the world map of gaming.

“The Kingdom is nurturing homegrown talent; it is ripe for creating a vibrant environment for esports has long been laid out by the youth with their love and passion for gaming,” he said. 

“As game developers have found our platforms, we share our games and receive support, but the recent announcement will give more chances for the younger generation who want to delve into this fun world.” 

 


Jorge Jesus hails ‘showcase for Saudi football’ after Al-Hilal derby win

Updated 02 December 2023
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Jorge Jesus hails ‘showcase for Saudi football’ after Al-Hilal derby win

Al-Hilal coach Jorge Jesus believes his side’s 3-0 victory over Al-Nassr in the Riyadh derby on Friday was a perfect advert for the new-look Saudi Pro League.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic opened the scoring for Al-Hilal in the second-half before a late brace from Aleksandar Mitrovic put the result beyond doubt in an often-fiery encounter at the King Fahd Stadium.
“I want to pass a message to the fans that this game was a very good spectacle for the Roshn Saudi League,” Jesus said. “It was broadcast all over the world and was a great showcase for Saudi football.
“It was a high-quality game with high quality players. The game, until right at the end, was of the highest competitive level between the two teams.”
It appeared Cristiano Ronaldo had grabbed an equalizer for Al-Nassr with a smart back-post finish, but it was ruled out for offside, leading to vociferous protestations from the visitors’ players and coaching staff. Al-Nassr coach Luis Castro was particularly irate, something Jesus feels is to be expected.  
“It’s natural that Luis look at the game differently because he ended up losing 3-0,” Jesus added. “I wouldn’t like to comment on the referee’s decisions and on any of his criticisms of referee’s decisions.
“We won 3-0 because we were the better team individually and collectively. In the first 30 minutes we could already have been two or three goals up. In the second half we positioned ourselves a little differently on the field while still transitioning well between defense and attack. At the end we were better and could have won by more.”
Jesus praised the continued resilience of his players in the face of Neymar’s season-ending injury, with the Portuguese coach suggesting Al-Hilal will de-register their star forward to free up a spot in their squad.
“We are used to playing without him… the whole team has grown stronger together,” Jesus said. “I wouldn’t like to imagine Al-Nassr without Cristiano, Al-Ahli without Mahrez or Al-Ittihad without Benzema – how would they be with the loss of those influential players?
“We lost a player that today we could say would have made us much stronger with the presence of Neymar. Without him we are still doing well as a group.
“January we will add, and a player is going to replace Neymar. Neymar is going to go out and for sure a player is going to come. He should be replaced. It’s not a reinforcement, more an adjustment.”
Al-Hilal are now seven points clear at the top of the Saudi Pro League table, though Jesus insists his leaders are taking nothing for granted.
“In my experience, seven points doesn’t guarantee anything. Yes, we have had a good season but there are no guarantees in football.
“We have to prepare ourselves for difficult moments to come because the league is very competitive. I’m happy with the three points today but I want to say to the fans that nothing has been achieved yet.”
Losing Al-Nassr coach Castro admitted the seven-point deficit will be tough to make up, saying: “It will be difficult. For every team in the championship, it will be difficult. But we push and we keep going. We keep applying pressure because it’s still a long way to go in the championship. We are going to compete.”


Newcastle demand UEFA apology as Eddie Howe shuts down discussion of Mbappe comments

Updated 02 December 2023
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Newcastle demand UEFA apology as Eddie Howe shuts down discussion of Mbappe comments

  • The coach said the club has asked for clarity about a controversial late penalty decision against PSG that cost them 2 Champions League points
  • But he refused to be drawn on Mbappe’s post-match assertion that the Magpies ‘have nothing,’ which many considered disrespectful

NEWCASTLE: Newcastle United head coach Eddie Howe on Friday demanded an apology from UEFA and called for fewer calls to be made by the video assistant referee after the club’s Champions League heartbreak this week.

The Magpies are still reeling from the injustice in France when a penalty was wrongly awarded to opponents Paris Saint-Germain and duly dispatched by Kylian Mbappe, robbing Howe’s men of two crucial points in Group F.

They will be looking to put that disappointment behind them on Saturday when Manchester United visit St. James’ Park for a Premier League fixture steeped in history, excitement and needle. Erik ten Hag’s men will be well aware of Newcastle’s capabilities and the threat they pose, having endured defeats on both occasions the sides have met since February’s Carabao Cup final.

PSG star Mbappe was unimpressed, however, and in his post-match comments said he knew the Magpies would offer “nothing” in their Parc des Princes showdown.

Howe had no interest in validation or otherwise from Mbappe, or anyone else outside the NUFC bubble for that matter. He does, however, want a response from UEFA about the refereeing error that could cost his side a place in the Champions League last 16.

“We have asked for clarity but the moment has gone … but obviously you’re trying to help the game reach better decisions,” said the coach, who this weekend will once again have to go into a match without the services of at least 10 first-teamers.

“But I think any football fan watching that — unless you’re from the PSG perspective — would probably say that’s not a penalty. You want the correct decision for the football match being given in most circumstances.

“I don’t think an apology would be meaningless. If there is an acknowledgment that there was a mistake, that this was why the mistake happened, I think that’s a good thing for the game. We all make mistakes.”

He added: “I don’t think we can look at football as if we’re robots. I make mistakes. The players make mistakes. Referees make mistakes. It’s part of the game. If I make a mistake, to a player or any situation, I’ll always apologize and hold my hand up to that mistake. I think that’s important. That’s the process we go down and I think that’s healthy. But then it’s about trying to improve the processes and trying to improve the decision-making to make sure they improve long term.”

After the match, having scored the controversial stoppage-time equalizer that rescued a point at home for PSG, many observers thought Mbappe was disrespectful toward the Magpies when he said: “They have nothing. We knew it was their game to have nothing.”

Howe was quick to shut down any discussion of that.

“We’re not seeking that validation of our performances from opponents,” he said. “We’ll seek it from ourselves and our own supporters and people based in Newcastle. That’s fine. I think everyone has got an opinion, everyone will have an opinion; it’s of no relevance to us what that is.”

Howe was praised for the respectful manner in which he conducted himself in the face of the injustice in Paris, which contrasts with examples from many other Premier League managers through the years who have been much more emotional in similar circumstances.

Mikel Arteta was the a recent example at St. James’ Park, and Ten Hag has tried to get under the skin of the Newcastle boss in previous clashes.

“It’s not an act, it’s my personality,” he said of his of his typically calm demeanor. “I can’t change my personality. I can’t change to be more angry ... I am angry but I might not necessarily show it.

“I try to keep my expressions and my emotions to me, unless I need to bring them out for a positive reason, which I will behind the scenes. I’ve always had the same mindset to these things, that’s just my character.

“I’ve also had criticism for it the other way. I remember someone telling me that unless you’re more demonstrative on the bench you’ll never manage in the Premier League. That was very early in my management career. I said I’m not going to change who I am, I’m not going to become someone else because that’s what I ‘need’ to do.

“I can only be myself, otherwise I’m going to turn into an act. It’s been used against me, negatively. I’m sure other people will have a different viewpoint (on) whether it’s a strength or a weakness. It’s not me trying to prove any point. I can only be myself.”

Newcastle will face Man United without a raft of key players. Sandro Tonali, who is serving a 10-month ban for violating betting regulations, is joined on the unavailable list by Sven Botman, Harvey Barnes, Callum Wilson, Sean Longstaff, Joe Willock, Elliot Anderson, Dan Burn, Jacob Murphy, Matt Targett and Javier Manquillo.

As a result, the same starting XI who defeated against Chelsea 4-1 last Saturday, had to put in 98-plus minutes in Paris in midweek. Squad rotation is not really an option at present.

“We want to get through the month, we want to do well,” he said. “I still think we’ve got a very good team on the pitch. I’ve said that all through this injury position we’re in. Yes we have some youth in it but we still have a very good team.

“We’re trying to manage the squad as best we can and not pick up any new injuries. That would really hurt us, so we’re trying to rest the players between games and get players back who are injured. I don’t see any fatigue in the group, mentally. I think sometimes the mental fatigue is underestimated, because of the emotion the players give.

“I think we’re in a good place and, certainly, good results help that. At the moment, everything is positive but, certainly, we could do with more players back.”


Carlo Nohra: Interest in Saudi Pro League is testament to the quality of players recruited in the summer

Updated 02 December 2023
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Carlo Nohra: Interest in Saudi Pro League is testament to the quality of players recruited in the summer

  • The SPL’s chief operating officer says the ‘Ronaldo factor’ has accelerated the journey

RIYADH: In front of a packed King Fahd Stadium, Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr played out a Riyadh derby that radiated significance well beyond Saudi Arabia’s capital city on Friday night.

The top-of-the-table Saudi Pro League clash brought together two clubs whose profile is now growing well beyond the Kingdom’s borders.

While Al-Hilal claimed a 3-0 victory that extended their lead at the summit to seven points, this was an opportunity to showcase Saudi football to a wider audience.

The media center brimmed with international representatives sampling the Kingdom’s football culture for the first time and though injured Al-Hilal star Neymar was absent, the home fans created a carnival atmosphere at the King Fahd.

Among those watching in Riyadh was Carlo Nohra, the Saudi Pro League’s chief operating officer, who since June has been plotting the next steps in the league’s growth.

What began with Cristiano Ronaldo’s marquee signing by Al-Nassr in January evolved into a summer influx of new talent and a host of global broadcast rights deals.

“We said at the very least we needed to go out and distribute the broadcast rights through the world,” Nohra told Arab News at the King Fahd Stadium.

“We couldn’t predict what the appetite would be so the fact that people have both taken and paid for them is testament to the quality of players we’ve brought into the league.

“Did we expect to be here at this stage? No. But the Ronaldo factor has contributed to the acceleration of our journey.”

More eyes are on the league than ever before and Nohra believes the next steps are vital in creating a sustainable, self-sufficient product that is not perennially reliant on investment.

He said: “Over time we know we have to be revenue-generating and move from where we are today with 100 percent dependence on government money to exactly the opposite end, where we are fully independent financially.

“It’s a historic time and such a rare opportunity and great privilege to be here but we know this is a massive project and undertaking and it will take us a long time to achieve those objectives.

“We’ve taken the first early steps. We’re where the J-League was in 1993 and MLS in 1996. It’s a long journey ahead but we definitely still have major aspirations.”

Among those objectives for Nohra — the former CEO of Emirati clubs Al-Jazira and Al-Ain, as well as the UAE Football League — is a desire to revolutionize the relationship between players and fans.

Nohra’s most recent role before the Saudi Pro League was a seven-year stint as vice president and general manager of WWE Asia Pacific and he feels that football can learn a lot from wrestling.

He said: “Stepping out of football and seeing what happens elsewhere was such a valuable experience. It helps you understand that there is a different, and perhaps better, way of doing things.

“Right now, our athletes are not performers, but they should be. We need to better connect them with the fans because there is that great divide between the player and the fan that adores them. WWE is great at this and I hope we can develop a new environment that fosters this.”

It is just one of Nohra’s lofty ambitions for the Saudi Pro League, but more pressing are a series of fundamental infrastructure challenges. Providing a better fan experience is central to Nohra’s manifesto.

“Almost everywhere you turn, there is something that needs to be improved but it is impossible to do everything at the same time,” he said. “At the moment the customer journey for Saudi football needs to be of a much higher quality.

“We are working on the access to the stadium, getting tickets in a more regulated fashion through new platforms. These are some of the pain points right now because what is the point in having a good product on the pitch if people can’t get to the stadium to watch it?”

Despite the teething problems in the Saudi Pro League’s development, the attention given to Friday’s Riyadh derby is indicative of the potential that the division has to capture the imagination of a wider audience.

“Football will always be the real product and it has existed in this country for a long time,” Nohra says.

“We know we can put on good football matches, that’s not the issue. We just want to put on more of these matches that are meaningful for the rest of the world to watch.

“Sometimes we wonder if we should have focused on infrastructure first before the players but there is no question that the presence of these players has triggered the attention and investment to deal with these other areas.

“Bringing the players was key and it’s wonderful to see the interest that we’ve generated.”


Mitrovic turns Riyadh blue as Al-Hilal go 7 points clear

Updated 02 December 2023
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Mitrovic turns Riyadh blue as Al-Hilal go 7 points clear

  • Second-half header from Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and two goals from Aleksandar Mitrovic enough for Al-Hilal in Riyadh derby

RIYADH: The endless line of cars, thousands of people walking the streets dressed in yellow as well as blue, and the Friday night lights beaming out of King Fahd International Stadium could only mean one thing: the Riyadh derby, the most eagerly awaited in years.

Most of the cars heading back home were filled with happy fans as Al-Hilal beat Al-Nassr 3-0 thanks to a second-half header from Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and two goals from Aleksandar Mitrovic.

It was a deserved win, although with a slightly flattering scoreline, that sent the victors, still unbeaten, seven points clear at the top, above their beaten rivals.

It was not a classic by any means, and it was tight and tense right until the last few minutes when Mitrovic bagged his brace.

Any meeting between Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr is always a huge game but the Saudi Arabian capital was throbbing with anticipation ahead of this meeting as it had a little extra: It marked the halfway point of the season, it saw the top two teams in the Roshn Saudi League, and it showcased a whole host of stars, both international and domestic.

The three points were more important, though. Al-Hilal knew that a win would give them, a team with 18 domestic championships under their belt, a huge advantage going into the second half of the season. Al-Nassr were desperate to close the gap to a single point.

Al-Hilal should have been ahead early on. After just 120 seconds, Mitrovic made room for himself on the left side of the area but pulled his shot just wide. Then it was the turn of Salem Al-Dawsari to go close on a couple of occasions.

Yet it was not a complete blue wave. As the home fans booed Cristiano Ronaldo, Anderson Talisca, with his back to goal, lifted the ball over his own head, his lob being just a little too high. It would have been a goal-of-the-season contender.

Four minutes later, Nawaf Al-Aqidi’s clearance was blocked by Mitrovic and fell to Michael whose tame shot was gratefully gathered by the goalkeeper.

Ronaldo’s first real sight of goal came midway through the first half, a low shot on the run that was comfortably saved by Yassine Bounou.

The rest of the half was a tighter affair with neither team really able to create the chances needed. It all became a little niggly with fouls, free-kicks and yellow cards.

The period ended in controversy with Al-Nassr appealing for a penalty after Seko Fofana went down under a Kalidou Koulibaly challenge, but neither referee nor video assistant was interested.

Defenses again had the upper hand after the break and the final pass was not quite good enough to produce the breakthrough.

That is, until the 64th minute when Milinkovic-Savic, from near the penalty spot, headed home into the bottom right corner past the outstretched hand of Al-Aqidi.

It brought the fans and the game to life. Ronaldo told his teammates to stay calm and focused and, soon after, his low shot flew just outside the near post.

With 17 minutes remaining, he volleyed hard into the roof of the net but had been adjudged to have strayed offside. It was close, coach Luis Castro complained for minutes, but soon after Hilal got the all-important second with Mitrovic heading home. There were huge complaints from Al-Nassr who claimed that the former Fulham forward had pushed Ronaldo to the ground.

But the goal stood and moments later Mitrovic added his second and his team’s third.

It was harsh on Al-Nassr and their fans, who started to leave, overwhelmed by the sea of blue and a wave of noise.

Al-Hilal will take some stopping from here. There is a long way to go, but on Friday night Riyadh was blue and the cars honked their horns in delight.


Homeless Hilal shock Esperance in CAF Champions League

Updated 01 December 2023
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Homeless Hilal shock Esperance in CAF Champions League

  • Hilal cannot play at home because of the armed conflict in Sudan
  • After playing a qualifier in Morocco, Hilal moved to Tanzania for the group phase

JOHANNESBURG: Homeless Sudanese club Al Hilal shocked Tunisian giants Esperance 3-1 on Friday in a CAF Champions League second-round Group C match in Tanzania.
After Yassine Meriah conceded an eighth-minute own goal, captain Mohamed Abdelrahman converted a 15th-minute penalty to give the Omdurman outfit a two-goal half-time lead.
Gambian Kebba Sowe halved the deficit in the Indian Ocean port city of Dar es Salaam on 59 minutes before Senegalese Pape N’Diaye restored the two-goal advantage 12 minutes from time.
Hilal cannot play at home because of the armed conflict in Sudan.
After playing a qualifier in Morocco, Hilal moved to Tanzania for the group phase, and their first match there delivered an unexpected success over four-time African champions Esperance.
Hilal are making a record 37th appearance in the premier African club competition and the closest they have come to lifting the trophy was finishing runners-up twice in the 1980s.
Hilal lost to Petro Luanda in Angola last weekend while Esperance won a Tunisian derby against Etoile Sahel, the only club to win all five current and past CAF competitions.
Etoile host Petro on Saturday near Tunis and should they win all four teams in the mini-league will have three points.
A Group D match also produced an upset as Medeama snatched a 2-1 victory in Ghana over Algerian visitors Chabab Belouizdad, quarter-finalists in the past three editions.
Mamudu Kamaradin scored in the fourth minute of added time in Kumasi for the home team, who came from behind to win.
Abdelraouf Benguit netted from a 39th-minute penalty and Daniel Lomotey equalized in the final minute of the opening half.
Success for Medeama came six days after a heavy loss at title-holders Al Ahly of Egypt while Belouizdad were comfortable first-round winners over Young Africans of Tanzania.
Medeama are Champions League debutants who surprised Remo Stars of Nigeria and Horoya of Guinea in qualifiers.
The other six second round matches are scheduled for Saturday, including Young Africans against Ahly.