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

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.” 



Green Falcons depart the World Cup with bittersweet memories of Lusail Stadium

Updated 01 December 2022

Green Falcons depart the World Cup with bittersweet memories of Lusail Stadium

  • Despite exiting Qatar 2022 at the site of their historic victory over Argentina, the Saudi players and supporters showed why they will be badly missed at the tournament

DOHA: Saudi Arabia will leave this World Cup having developed a love-hate relationship with Lusail Stadium. This striking architectural masterpiece is where their World Cup sprang to life in sensational fashion with that stunning win over Argentina in their opening game, which will be remembered for generations.

Sadly, after losing to Poland in game two, they could not follow up the triumph over Argentina with victory against Mexico in game three, and so it was that at Lusail Stadium on Wednesday their campaign came to a somewhat anticlimactic end.

But both before and after the game the Saudi fans showed why they will be so badly missed during the remainder of the tournament. Despite the defeat, they were in joyous spirits after the game, spilling out onto Lusail Boulevard to celebrate what was their modern footballing coming of age.

Walking — or should that be running — to Lusail Stadium before the game in a mad dash after witnessing Australia make history at Al-Janoub Stadium, one could be forgiven for thinking there were as many fans outside as inside.

Lusail Boulevard was looking resplendent as ever, with the flags of the competing nations flying overhead as tens of thousands of fans mingled and the match got underway.

As I arrived shortly after kick-off, the screams and cheers could be heard some distance from the stadium, leaving one to wonder what exactly was happening and which set of fans were making all the noise. As numerous and vocal as the Saudi fans were, the Mexican fans matched anything they had to offer.

There was so much green inside Lusail that it was hard to know which team had the greatest support because, once again, the atmosphere generated by both sets of fans was incredible.

Despite their win over Argentina and an impressive showing against Poland in defeat, the Green Falcons were under the pump for most of the first half against a Mexican side that clearly meant business. Mexico knew they needed goals to have any hope of advancing and they came out with only one intent.

Missing a host of first-team regulars, victory was always going to be a tall order for Herve Renard’s side and that is exactly how the first half played out. The Green Falcons managed few advances into the forward third of the pitch, at least few that threatened, and so the biggest cheers were reserved for lunging tackles and desperate saves.

Still, at the break the Saudis were still alive. While the score remained 0-0 they stood a chance, and with Salem Al-Dawsari there is always reason to be optimistic.

Lusail Stadium has instantly become an iconic World Cup Stadium. From its stunning, shimmering gold facade to the steep banks of seats in the grandstands that have the near-90,000 fans sitting right on top of the action, it will provide an incredible setting for the final in a little over two weeks.

But tonight, Mexico did to Saudi Arabia what the Saudis did to Argentina on matchday one, scoring two goals in a four-minute spell inside of the opening 10 minutes of the second half that ended the contest and silenced the normally vociferous Saudi fans.

But while those wearing Saudi green had lost their voice, those in Mexican green had found theirs. Beating drums, screaming chants, waving flags; the Mexican fans brought Lusail Stadium to life and the party did not end with the full-time whistle.

The great shame for the rest of the tournament is that both teams were eliminated, because the World Cup has lost two of its most passionate sets of fans.

But as the party continued on Lusail Boulevard long after full time we were reminded that the World Cup is not only about success on the pitch — it is also about the experience, the atmosphere and uniting the world.

As I looked around at the Saudi fans in Mexican hats, and fans from all over the world mingling and sharing the experience, I’m reminded that tonight there truly were no losers.

Salem Al-Dawsari’s strike too late for Green Falcons as Mexico prevail 2-1

Updated 01 December 2022

Salem Al-Dawsari’s strike too late for Green Falcons as Mexico prevail 2-1

  • Second-half goals from Henry Martin and Luis Chavez secured victory for Mexico but they finished third behind Poland in the group
  • Ali Al-Hassan nearly sent the bulk of the largely Saudi crowd wild late in the first half with a diving header that flashed wide of the far post

DOHA: Mexico suffered an agonizing exit from the World Cup on goal difference on Wednesday despite beating Saudi Arabia 2-1 in a dramatic finale to Group C.
Second-half goals from Henry Martin and Luis Chavez secured victory for Mexico but they finished third behind Poland after Salem Al-Dawsari’s late strike.
Mexico desperately pushed for a third goal in an effort to improve their goal difference as they faced elimination on FIFA fair play rules.
Saudi Arabia’s win over Argentina in their opening match was one of the World Cup’s great upsets, but they crashed back down to earth with a 2-0 loss to Poland in their second game.
Coach Herve Renard urged his players to show that was no flash in the pan and write themselves into Saudi football history by reaching knockout rounds for the first time since 1994.
Having failed to win either of their first two group games for the first time in 44 years, Mexico knew victory was essential if they were to stand a chance of reaching the last 16 at an eighth successive World Cup.
Mexico boss Gerardo Martino ditched the back five he used in the 2-0 loss to Argentina and brought in Martin to lead the attack.
It almost reaped immediate rewards but Saudi goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais raced out to block Alexis Vega after he was slipped in behind the defense by Hirving Lozano.
Al-Owais, one of the heroes of the 2-1 win over Argentina, tentatively palmed away a bouncing cross ahead of a lunging Martin and held weak attempts by Chavez and Orbelin Pineda.
Mohamed Kanno whipped a free-kick just over for Saudi Arabia, who saw defender Ali Al-Bulayhi forced off with injury — adding to their mounting casualty list.
Mexico continued to attack without success and Ali Al-Hassan nearly sent the bulk of the largely Saudi crowd wild late in the first half with a diving header that flashed wide of the far post.
Chavez tested Al-Owais right after the interval and Martin soon broke the deadlock as he turned in from close range following Cesar Montes’ clever flick-on at a corner.
Mexico’s second goal arrived just five minutes later when Chavez sensationally curled a free-kick into the top corner from 30 meters.
Keeping an eye on the score between Argentina and Poland, Mexico pushed relentlessly for a third goal, with Lozano’s effort ruled out for a tight offside.
Martin blazed over when he had a glorious chance and Chavez had another free-kick turned away by Al-Owais, who also sprawled to his right to claw out a drive from Lozano.
Uriel Antuna then had another goal disallowed for offside before Al-Dawsari’s late strike put an end to the drama.


Eriksen flops for dismal Denmark on major tournament return

Updated 01 December 2022

Eriksen flops for dismal Denmark on major tournament return

  • Eriksen's return to the World Cup had been highly anticipated after a good spell for both club and country following a dramatic comeback from a cardiac arrest
  • Demark were toothless after Mathew Leckie's twisting run and low finish gave Australia a 60th-minute lead

DOHA: Christian Eriksen’s Denmark came to the World Cup tipped as dark horses after reaching the semifinals of last year’s European Championship but have exited with barely a whimper after a 1-0 defeat to Australia.
Eriksen’s return to the World Cup had been highly anticipated after a good spell for both club and country following a dramatic comeback from a cardiac arrest.
The playmaker collapsed on the pitch against Finland in June 2021 during the delayed Euro 2020 tournament and had to be resuscitated in front of a stunned Copenhagen crowd and a television audience of millions.
On the way to hospital he told his wife Sabrina that he would probably never play football again but he fought his way back to fitness.
The 30-year-old had an implantable cardioverter defibrillator fitted, which meant he had to quit Inter Milan due to rules in Italy.
But he signed for Brentford in the Premier League and also resumed his international career, subsequently joining Manchester United.
Denmark were favorites to qualify from Group D alongside world champions France, whom they beat home and away in the Nations League.
Before their opening goalless draw with Tunisia, assistant coach Morten Wieghorst said Eriksen was “even better than he was before the accident.”
But he was underwhelming in a team that lacked the spark that carried them to the semifinals at last year’s Euros.
“Christian is a superhero but he performs with the team,” said Denmark captain Simon Kjaer.
“He is an amazing footballer but we have to look to each other and see that as a team we didn’t perform.
“We made one goal, got one point, couldn’t beat Australia at the end of the group and OK we go home.”
Eriksen was wearing the captain’s armband on Wednesday in place of the injured Kjaer but he failed to sparkle at Al Janoub Stadium, unable to inspire his strangely lacklustre teammates.
Demark were toothless after Mathew Leckie’s twisting run and low finish gave Australia a 60th-minute lead, which ultimately gave them the win they needed to qualify from the group, second behind France.
A strangely subdued display from Eriksen was summed up in stoppage time when he miscontrolled a pass even though he had a chance to shoot in the penalty area and then bounced off Australia defender Harry Souttar onto the grass.
Coach Kasper Hjulmand wondered aloud why his team had played with such a “lack of enthusiasm and coherence” in a match they had to win.
Kjaer pinned the blame on the squad as a whole rather than the man who was supposed to show why he is rated as one of Europe’s best playmakers.
“Every team has a player that they count on, and we count on Christian,” said Kjaer.
“This is not on Christian, this is on the team, because if we managed to put him in the right situations, Christian will make the difference. We win and lose as a team.”

Messi and Argentina advance at World Cup, beat Poland 2-0

Updated 01 December 2022

Messi and Argentina advance at World Cup, beat Poland 2-0

  • The Argentina great had a penalty saved but his team still beat Poland 2-0
  • Messi’s likely final World Cup rolls onto Saturday

DOHA: Rest easy, soccer fans. Lionel Messi will grace the World Cup stage at least one more time.
The Argentina great had a penalty saved but his team still beat Poland 2-0 Wednesday after second-half goals from Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez and advanced to the last 16.
Argentina finished in first place in Group C to set up a match against Australia, a surprise qualifier for the knockout stage.
It’s a strong position for Argentina to be in, especially considering the team opened the World Cup with a shocking 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in one of biggest upsets in the tournament’s history. Messi’s likely final World Cup rolls onto Saturday.
He will be relieved after failing to score a penalty for the second straight World Cup. It was awarded after being hit in the face by the flailing hand of Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, who made amends by diving to his left to block Messi’s kick.
Mac Allister converted a cross from Nahuel Molina inside the first minute of the second half and Alvarez — selected ahead of Lautaro Martinez — curled the second into the top corner in the 67th minute.

Kane extends World Cup goal drought but equals Beckham feat

Updated 30 November 2022

Kane extends World Cup goal drought but equals Beckham feat

  • Against a Wales team broken by goals from Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden, Kane was looking to finally get off the mark in Qatar
  • Rashford added a third of the match and his third of the tournament

DOHA: For Harry Kane, the wait for a first goal at this World Cup goes on.
Substituted after 58 minutes of England’s 3-0 win against Wales on Tuesday, he embraced his replacement Callum Wilson and made his way to the bench to watch the remainder of the game.
England coach Gareth Southgate clearly thought the job was done and qualification to the knockout stage secured.
Kane, despite shaking hands with his coach, might not have shared that view.
For a man who is famously reluctant to sit out any opportunity to add to his scoring record, it was likely a frustrating watch from the sidelines at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium.
Against a Wales team broken by goals from Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden, Kane was looking to finally get off the mark in Qatar. Instead, Rashford added a third of the match and his third of the tournament.
“He’s enjoying his football, but for any forward you want to be scoring goals,” Rashford said.
England scored nine goals as they topped Group B, but none came from their most prolific forward.
Yet Kane, who was the Golden Boot winner at the World Cup in Russia four years ago and is two short of Wayne Rooney’s all-time England record of 53 goals, has still made a notable contribution.
Providing the cross for Foden’s second-half strike, he became England’s first player to register three assists at a World Cup since David Beckham in 2002. He can add to that total when England play Senegal in the round of 16 on Sunday.
“You need goals from all areas, and it is a problem for opposition teams if the threat is coming from other areas of the pitch,” Southgate said. “Across the three games pretty much all of our forward line has got off the mark — if not with goals then with important, quality assists and that’s a good place for the forward to be. They want to have that confidence.”
England’s captain has always been a creator as well as a finisher and his assist statistics in his opening three games — also setting up goals for Raheem Sterling and Rashford against Iran — is evidence of just how complete a forward he is.
It also underlines his enduring importance to England.
Kane hurt his ankle and foot in the opening match against Iran, but Southgate has started the 29-year-old striker in all three matches.
“It is competition for places, which is what we need and people have to deliver,” Southgate said.
Goals aren’t a particular concern for England, with Rashford, Bukayo Saka (two), Sterling, Jack Grealish and Jude Bellingham all scoring so far.
Rashford, who missed a penalty in England’s shootout loss to Italy in the European Championship final last year, is the tournament’s co-leading scorer alongside Kylian Mbappé, Cody Gakpo and Enner Valencia.
“In a long career, you’re always going to have ups and you always will have downs and it’s all about how you bounce back from them,” Manchester United and England teammate Harry Maguire said after the Wales match. “I can’t speak highly enough about Marcus. He’s a wonderful man and he’s a great player and I think tonight again he’s shown that he belongs on this stage.”