Molouk Y. Ba-Isa, Arab News
Tuesday 2 August 2005
Last Update 2 August 2005 12:00 am
ALKHOBAR, 2 August 2005 — Last month 21-year-old Saudi, Badr Hakeem, won the World Cup in Pro Evolution Soccer 4, beating out other international competitors in the Third Annual Electronic Sports World Cup (ESWC) held at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Badr, a Computer Science major at Al-Madinah’s Taiba University, is now back in Saudi Arabia and has been on a tour of the Kingdom’s major cities accompanied by Yasser M. Bahjatt, GM and co-founder, Electronic Entertainment Technology, the Middle Eastern Partner in ESWC.
According to Bahjatt, ESWC is more like an Olympics than a World Cup in the sense that every country in the world is allowed to participate. There is more than one game in the World Cup event and Badr won in his specialty, Pro Evolution Soccer 4. This game is a football simulator better known in Saudi Arabia as Winning 11. For ESWC there were qualifiers in every country that had gamers wanting to participate and the finalists from those qualifiers went on to Paris.
“Electronic Entertainment Technology took three players from Saudi Arabia to the finals at the Louvre and Badr won his event,” said Bahjatt. “We are very pleased with how the event is growing year by year. In 2003, just 30+ countries participated in ESWC. Last year, the Kingdom was one of the more than 40 nations that participated. This year 50+ countries took part. More information on the event is at http://www.esworldcup.com/2005/. We hope to see increasing interest in ESWC from the region next year.”
For the Saudi gaming community, Badr’s success has been encouraging. In 2004, Badr and his brother Ala made it into the ESWC finals. In that World Cup, Ala took the fifth place and Badr won ninth place. More importantly, the brothers came away with the experience of competing internationally.
This year in ESWC overall, there were nearly 750 participants in six games. In each event, the games progress from points to eventual elimination rounds at the quarterfinal stage and beyond. It is essential for contestants to stay calm throughout the competition. Badr is very easy going about his game play and this may have given him an advantage over some other players who were coached aggressively and seemed to succumb to nerves.
“Playing Pro Evolution Soccer started out as a hobby,” Badr said. “Every child these days plays some sort of electronic game. When I first started playing I was quite obsessed with the games but in the past two years, as I’ve gotten older, I only play casually.”
While Badr restricts himself to playing electronic games four to six hours weekly, he agreed that some gamers play a lot more. He doesn’t think that excessive play is a tendency of gamers in the Kingdom alone.
“Playing electronic games is not just a favorite pastime for Saudis,” Badr commented. “All over the world electronic games are popular. So it’s not the fact that we don’t have a lot of other entertainment that’s the driver. What is true is that football — whether virtual or on the field — is very popular, so an electronic game based on football is bound to find many avid players here.”
Badr is an example of a young adult who grew up with easy access to electronic games. He found that over the years only his brother had much interest in his hobby. His parents, while funding the game purchases, never knew much about them. In fact, last year when Badr went to ESWC with his brother, his parents did not believe that there was such an event. They thought he was just trying to get a passport and go to France for a holiday. After he did well in his first outing at ESWC, his family took more interest in his gaming hobby. This year of course, his parents are very proud of what he has achieved. They watched his final match live on the Internet.
“Part of my success with Pro Evolution Soccer is that I have been playing the game since its first release nine years ago,” explained Badr. “I believe that to succeed in the World Cup it’s necessary to be perfect in your game play and that doesn’t come from just practicing. Talent, experience and strategy are all important.”
Bahjatt claims that Badr is just one of many excellent gamers in the Kingdom. Bahjatt is an engineer and gamer himself. Electronic Entertainment Technology owns the gaming center “e-Warz” in Jeddah, so Bahjatt has the opportunity to interact with local gamers and gain first hand knowledge of the gaming market in the Kingdom both from the players and business perspective.
He deplores the manner in which international game development companies have dealt with the Saudi market.
“There is a perception that Saudi gamers are only interested in pirated games. This is false,” explained Bahjatt. “In the US or Europe it is much easier to get a pirated copy of a game simply because of the ubiquity of high speed Internet. There, every game has a pirated copy available. So why in Saudi Arabia should we have more counterfeit games than they do, when dial-up is still the primary means of Internet access in the Kingdom? It’s mostly an awareness issue here. In the US and Europe, gamers understand that if they like the game and want to enjoy new games, then they have to support the developers. That means they must buy the original game not the pirated version. If everybody only bought pirated games then the electronic gaming vendors would go bankrupt and there wouldn’t be any new games.”
He continued, “Here in Saudi Arabia that mentality doesn’t exist yet. This is in part because the gaming companies are actually ignoring the Middle Eastern consumers. They do nothing to support the market here. There are no awareness or marketing activities. How many events or conferences do we have in the region focusing on gaming? Zero. Another problem is that its impossible in Saudi Arabia to find originals of all the new games. Companies ignore the Middle Eastern market in general when it comes to launching new titles.
Bahjatt gave as an example of this marketing behavior, the game World of Warcraft (WOW). The new version of this game was released about six months back. In one week in the US over 600,000 copies of the title were sold. In Europe almost that same number were sold, as well.
“Saudi Arabia was officially part of the European launch, however the entire Middle East got only 1,200 copies of the title for distribution,” Bahjatt said. “It was impossible to get. Fortunately for Blizzard Entertainment, the game’s developer, the only way to play the game is to play it on the Internet with an original copy. Most of the serious Saudi gamers were forced to buy the game from the US.”
Bahjatt pointed out that every Saudi gamer he knows buy their games from the US. Unfortunately, this skews the market numbers and makes it look as if few gamers in the Kingdom are interested in new original games.
“The latest versions of games are bought both online and physically,” remarked Bahjatt. “People buy them while on vacation or to get around US regulations in regards to overseas software sales, they use a shipping company that provides them with a US address and then the order is delivered here. We have to expend more effort to get an original copy but many in the Kingdom still do it. These gamers could buy a pirated copy but there’s a certain pride in displaying the original package. The gamer might have to wait months for the original to arrive from abroad but they wait rather than buy pirated.”
When he attends gaming events and conferences abroad, Bahjatt is constantly amazed at the false information international game development firms have gathered about the Saudi market.
“International companies believe that our market is very small and there is no potential for sales of original software here. All they need to do is look at the population and income statistics,” said Bahjatt angrily. “If the gaming companies would just expend a little effort they’d have a huge client base in the region.”
Electronic Entertainment Technology is trying to change the mentality of international game vendors. The company is investing time, effort and funds to work with the market. They hope that once international game developers see the success they are having, those vendors will consider taking a second look at the Middle East. However, that is in the future. For now, due to the poor marketing activities in the Kingdom it is difficult for any but the biggest games to attract a serious player base. Bahjatt has found that football games meet with overwhelming favor in all the Kingdom’s market segments and believes that there are possibly more electronic football gaming players in Saudi Arabia than in China.
For the present, Bahjatt’s primary concern is to increase awareness among parents about the different types of electronic games before any major developer starts a serious push in the Kingdom.
“A lot of parents when they go into a shop to buy a game, whether it’s a copy or an original, they just think it’s a computer game and so its fine,” Bahjatt explained. “They never really check what’s in that game or what that game is about. They don’t consider what beliefs are being fostered by the game or if there’s violence or criminal activity in the game. It is very important that parents and schools start to understand that there can be benefits from playing electronic games but there also must be oversight and control to ensure that children aren’t exposed to inappropriate content.”
He added, “Most of the large bookstores and electronic game stores in Saudi Arabia are well aware if they are selling copies or originals. What they either don’t know or don’t care about is the content of what they are selling. Many shops are struggling to make sales because they are having a hard time getting new games in the first place, so they’ll sell anything that’s new. Honestly, there is a need for the government to step in sometimes. Right now on shelves in Saudi Arabia it is possible to buy the game Grand Theft Auto. This game has been removed from sale in the US due to the inclusion of pornography in the action scenes, but in the Kingdom it’s still available. Both parents and the government need to take notice of the content and ratings of imported electronic games for the benefit and safety of our youth.”
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