Game on: The rise of eSports in the Middle East

Game on: The rise of eSports in the Middle East
It is estimated that by the end of 2019, the total audience of eSports will have grown to around 454 million viewers. (Getty)
Updated 07 August 2019

Game on: The rise of eSports in the Middle East

Game on: The rise of eSports in the Middle East
  • What was once a solitary hobby is turning into a global phenomenon, and the Middle East is starting to beat the lag

LONDON: It isn’t often that a new sport becomes part of the cultural mainstream. For example, at next year’s Tokyo Olympics skateboarding will be included in the competition for the first time, marking a culmination of over 70 years as a hobby that turned into a competitive sport.

Much like skateboarding, another sport has bubbled up from its subculture beginnings into the monoculture: Electronic sports — or simply eSports. What started as an amateur pursuit is now too popular to ignore, but is still a mystery to the casual observer. Dismissing eSports as a fad today is akin to somene in 2000 proudly proclaiming that they don’t think the internet will amount to much. It is estimated that by the end of 2019, the total audience of eSports will have grown to an around 454 million viewers and associated revenues — mainly from advertising — will increase to over $1 billion.

The sport is distinct from casual gaming on a console in your living room. ESports consists of competitive multiplayer videogame competitions between professional players, either as individuals or as teams. Although organized online and offline competitions have long been a part of gaming culture, they were a largely amateur pursuit until the early 2000s. The meteoric rise of eSports over the past decade has been led primarily by South Korea, China, Europe and North America. Other regions are catching up quickly, and the Arab world is no exception. Gamers have known this for a while but now investors, governments and the general public are getting on board.




FIFA  is one of the most popular games in the Gulf. (FIFA) 

It is not premature to talk of an Arab eSports movement — there do appear to be regional specificities in the Middle East. Saaed Sharaf, founder of eSports Middle East and head of the Syrian eSports Association, draws us a map of the region.

“In the Levant and North Africa, you tend to have more freemium PC players, compared to the Gulf which is dominated by costlier consoles,” he says. Even the games played seem to differ, with “Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds” (PUBG), “Dota2” and “League of Legends” dominating the Levant and North Africa, and “Fortnite,” “Overwatch” and “FIFA” leading the way in the Gulf. The faultlines emerging mirror those in most other sectors in the Arab world, between a wealthy,well-connected and government-supported Gulf and a scrappier, independent entrepreneurial culture in the Levant and North Africa.

Media plays a central role in eSports, with many tying its rapid expansion in the 2000s to the explosion in livestreaming platforms such as now-defunct Panda.tv, YouTube, and, most importantly, Twitch. These platforms are central to the growth and promotion of eSports online, and they drive fans to attend offline competitions. Eric Husni, a gamer and entrepreneur, thinks these platforms haven’t done enough in the Arab world. That’s why he’s launched a new regional platform, Rawa, that aims to help Arab gamers develop the media side of their careers. “While Arab creators have mastered YouTube, Instagram and other platforms, the switch to live broadcasting — especially for gaming — hasn’t been an easy one, culturally.” Husni says. “We don’t have household names like Ninja in the region. We’re trying to change that with a distribution platform for content for the region.” Husni believes that without this vital element of the ecosystem, there is no way eSports can reach its full potential in the Arab world.




Eric Husni. (Supplied)

While enthusiasm and optimism around eSports is growing in the region, there are still structural problems that slow down growth. For example, there are no servers — players in the Levant connect to European servers, and those in the Gulf connect to Asian ones. This means the “ping” — essentially the network latency between a player's client and the game server — puts Arab players at an immediate disadvantage. Winning decisions in most games are made in milliseconds, and the lag caused by the distance from servers means that players in the Middle East are one step behind from the start.

Luciano Rahal is a veteran former pro with leading eSports team Nasr, and now works in PR and communications at Riot Games, publishers of one of the most popular multiplayer online battle arena games in the world: “League of Legends.” He talks excitedly about the recent announcement by Amazon Web Services (AWS) stating that it would be setting up a server in Bahrain. “It’s a step closer to being competitive. The potential is huge, but there is still an infrastructure gap to fill,” he says.

Rahal adds that those challenges extend to the rest of the ecosystem, beyond technical infrastructure. For example, visas are hard to come by for international players who might want to attend tournaments in the Middle East.

Other regional challenges are in line with those that eSports face globally. Women make up a tiny fraction of the ecosystem. Sharaf says that, globally, women make up 30 percent of eSports’ players, but in the Middle East that figure is closer to eight percent. “We’re witnessing some clubs forming female rosters and some companies organizing female-only tournaments,” he says. Given that one third of eSports viewers in the region are women, it’s hopefully only a matter of time before representation in the ranks of players comes in line with the global average.




Fortnite is leading the way in the Gulf. (Fortnite)

Talking to industry insiders, you get the feeling that eSports in the Arab world are at a turning point. A lot of the what is expressed by those involved in eSports regionally is not frustration that the Arab word is behind, but eagerness to get things done. There is also pride that, despite the challenges, the Arab world is leaving its mark on eSports. There are Arab players at the top of every game, including Lebanese “Dota2” player Maroun "GH" Merhej. He plays with Team Liquid (along with Jordanian-Polish gamer Amer “Miracle” Al-Barkawi) and ranks eighth worldwide in terms of earnings, having brought in close to $3.2 million from 36 tournaments.

Recently, MBC — the region’s largest broadcaster — announced that it would be setting up the MENA region’s first professional eSports league in partnership with ESL,  the leading league operator in the world. ESL has close to two decades of experience in medium-to-large-scale events and leagues, which brings an immediate sense of legitimacy to the newly formed league. Charbel Khoury, head of marketing at MBC Group’s emerging media division, says the network has eSports squarely in its sights. With a new generation of consumers cutting the cord with traditional media, MBC has identified an opportunity. The group’s thinking, Khoury says, was “How do we bring back millennials to our ecosystem, create brand stickiness and eventually migrate them to the rest of our offerings?”




Lebanese gamer Mroun Merhej. (Supplied)

There is certainly plenty of showbiz appeal to eSports. Tournaments are exciting festivals of light and sound, the players have near-superhuman reflexes, and the money at stake can be overwhelming. Throw in brands, governments and investors — all of whom are now muscling in — and this could be a recipe for great success or a complete disaster. But talking to people in the grassroots scene, they all seem to feel the same: the region is doing very well, but there is a still a lot to be done.

Sharaf singles out the potential of Saudi Arabia. “(With its) technical infrastructure, government investment, internet penetration and consumer buying power, it can be on the global map as powerhouse in five to 10 years if they continue their progress on the same level.”

Rahal, from Riot Games, sees an even shorter timeline, estimating the region will be fully integrated into the global eSports landscape in three to four years. But he warns that stakeholders need to be smart, because “the sport itself will be different by then too, given its exponential growth.” Gamers have lightning-fast reflexes; the rest of the ecosystem needs to keep up.


‘Promising Young Woman:’ A mesmeric, Oscar-tipped performance by Carey Mulligan

‘Promising Young Woman:’ A mesmeric, Oscar-tipped performance by Carey Mulligan
‘Promising Young Woman’ has been nominated for a number of Oscars. Supplied
Updated 49 min 23 sec ago

‘Promising Young Woman:’ A mesmeric, Oscar-tipped performance by Carey Mulligan

‘Promising Young Woman:’ A mesmeric, Oscar-tipped performance by Carey Mulligan

CHENNAI: Director Emerald Fennell’s debut feature “Promising Young Woman” is in the Academy Awards race in a multitude of categories, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay. Penned by Fennell herself, it is Carey Mulligan’s work all the way, and she gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Ohio-based Cassandra Thomas.

A medical school dropout, Cassandra is 30 with no boyfriend and no real friends, much to the anxiety of her doting parents. Of course, there is a reason for this. Years ago, her med-school classmate. Al Monroe (Chris Lowell), sexually assaulted her best friend, Nina Fisher. A corrupt lawyer and the school’s uncaring administration let Monroe off and left him not feeling the faintest sense of remorse. Cassandra, a promising student, dropped out and withdrew from social life.

Against this backdrop, which is gradually revealed in the nearly two-hour movie, we watch Cassandra make a weekly trip to a bar until a “friendly” male attempts to take advantage of her inebriated state, before she reveals she is in perfect control of her faculties, having pretended to be tipsy to lull predators into a false sense of security.

The plot is extremely gripping. We watch with trepidation as Cassandra challenges men, who on the surface seem so jovial, friendly and highbrow — the ultimate “nice guys” — until the moment of reckoning, when they fail to do the right thing.

Director Emerald Fennell’s debut feature “Promising Young Woman” is in the Academy Awards race in a multitude of categories. Supplied

Cassandra’s life of solitude is upended, however, when she re-connects with Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham), an old classmate who finds a chink in her armor. The pair does have genuine chemistry — enough for a whole film on them.

“Promising Young Woman” is not about their romance, however. It is about Cassandra, it is about Mulligan, and audiences will be amazed to see her comic side in a film on such dark subject matter — it is a mesmeric performance.

The soundtrack is moody and meaningful — songs like “It’s Rainin’ Men” and Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” fill the air, as well as Paris Hilton’s cheery pop numbers that are foot-tapping but jarring.


UK actress Jameela Jamil to host 2021 Webby Awards

UK actress Jameela Jamil to host 2021 Webby Awards
Updated 21 April 2021

UK actress Jameela Jamil to host 2021 Webby Awards

UK actress Jameela Jamil to host 2021 Webby Awards

DUBAI: British actress Jameela Jamil, who is of Indian-Pakistani decent, is set to host the 25th edition of the Webby Awards, organizers announced this week. 

The event will be held virtually and winners will be announced on May 18. 

South Korean band BTS, US singer-songwriter Billie Eilish and rapper Cardi B are among a long list of nominees for the 2021 Webby Awards. 

The nominations also include Trevor Noah, Jennifer Garner, Kevin Bacon, Shaquille O'Neal, Rob Gronkowski, Ryan Reynolds, Martin Lawrence, James Corden, LeBron James, Stephen Colbert, Chris Evans, John Mayer and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

The awards show, which was founded in 1996, celebrates excellence on the Internet, including websites, media and public relations, advertising, video, apps, mobile and voice, social, podcasts and games.


From Cairo to Barcelona, jewelry guru reflects on his family’s almost 100-year-old label

From Cairo to Barcelona, jewelry guru reflects on his family’s almost 100-year-old label
Updated 21 April 2021

From Cairo to Barcelona, jewelry guru reflects on his family’s almost 100-year-old label

From Cairo to Barcelona, jewelry guru reflects on his family’s almost 100-year-old label

DUBAI: A Cairo-born jewelry brand that has been running since 1923 must have quite a story to tell, with plenty of insight for up-and-coming designers to learn from.

Egyptian label El Baz Jewelry is a family business that has been on the market for almost a century, fueled by its evolving artistic vision and mastery of the complex art of jewelry making. 

Youssef El-Baz, one of the owners of the brand, spoke with Arab News about how jewelry design in the region has changed over the past 100 years and why he believes El Baz has endured, as well as the launch of his own brands, one of which he kickstarted in Barcelona. 

“In the past, people were keen on buying jewelry that… was chosen based on the material and the resale value, with little attention to the design,” said El-Baz.

“Today… the customers who want to buy jewelry are (more interested in) the design (rather) than the material,” he added.

However, the designer, who founded two other labels – Grace Jewelry and B Jewelry – believes some things in the industry will never change. 

“I believe what will never change about jewelry is the sentimental value it holds, like inheritance and the idea of passing on jewelry through generations,” he said.  “People hold their loved ones forever (by) wearing and keeping their (designs).”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Grace. (@graceyourjewelry)

When it comes to the brand’s longevity, El-Baz shared his thoughts on why the label has lasted.

“In jewelry, people are always looking for authenticity or people are always looking for high quality, because they are buying something precious … and taste for sure. If the brand is not developing and adapting to the different tastes that change during the years it will die out,” explained El-Baz.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Grace. (@graceyourjewelry)

On that note, in 2019, El-Baz launched his own brand, B Jewelry, during a spell in Barcelona and quickly followed it up with the launch of Grace Jewelry in 2020.

“I wanted to create a jewelry brand that was socially responsible. I felt like Grace can be the beginning of a change in an industry where people start brands that are environmentally aware through their designs, manufacturing and packaging.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by B Jewelry (@bjewelryworld)

El-Baz got the inspiration to open the Cairo-based label Grace when he was in Milan.

“We have a complete collection called For A Better Tomorrow, (where) every design is dedicated toward a good cause. We donate 10 percent of the sales toward a good cause.” 

El-Baz ships worldwide for all three brands. 


Netflix working on film about Syrian refugees-turned-sports stars Sarah, Yusra Mardini

Netflix working on film about Syrian refugees-turned-sports stars Sarah, Yusra Mardini
Syrian refugees and swimmers Yusra and Sarah Mardini pose for photographers with the trophy at the Bambi awards on Nov 17, 2016 in Berlin. AFP
Updated 21 April 2021

Netflix working on film about Syrian refugees-turned-sports stars Sarah, Yusra Mardini

Netflix working on film about Syrian refugees-turned-sports stars Sarah, Yusra Mardini

DUBAI: Netflix has announced that it has teamed up with Egyptian-Welsh director and screenwriter Sally El-Hosaini on a new film titled “The Swimmers,” based on the true story of Syrian refugees-turned-Olympians Sarah and Yusra Mardini.

The film tells the story of the two sisters and competitive swimmers and their miraculous journey as refugees from war-torn Syria to the 2016 Rio Olympics, where Yusra competed as a swimmer as part of the Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROT).

Lebanese actresses, and real-life sisters, Manal and Nathalie Issa will portray Yusra and Sarah Mardini in the upcoming movie.

They will be joined by Arab-Israeli actor Ali Suliman, Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek, Syrian actress Kinda Alloush and “The Good Karma Hospital” star James Krishna Floyd, who starred in El-Hosaini’s last film “My Brother the Devil,” which won the World Cinema Cinematography at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.  

Rounding out the cast are German actor Matthias Schweighöfer and YouTube star Elmi Rashid Elmi.

The forthcoming film will be produced by Working Title’s Eric and Tim Bevan, Ali Jaafar and Tim Cole. Stephen Daldry is the executive producer.

“The Swimmers” is set to begin production this week, shooting in the UK, Turkey and Belgium.

It is slated for global release on Netflix in 2022.


Finish him! ‘Mortal Kombat’ stars reflect on bringing hugely popular game to life

 Finish him! ‘Mortal Kombat’ stars reflect on bringing hugely popular game to life
Updated 21 April 2021

Finish him! ‘Mortal Kombat’ stars reflect on bringing hugely popular game to life

 Finish him! ‘Mortal Kombat’ stars reflect on bringing hugely popular game to life

LOS ANGELES: The cinema adaptation of much-loved video game Mortal Kombat recently hit the silver screen — and fans can breathe a sigh of relief as it’s a fairly faithful take on the hugely popular game in that the plot and characters are mostly an excuse to string together a series of fight scenes.

For action fans and players of the famously gory fighting games — which featured the ominous and oft-quoted phrase “Finish Him” just before violent wins — while not flawless, the movie is a victory.

“A lot of people grew up with these iconic video games and these pop culture icons,” said Ludi Lin who plays series mainstay Liu Kang. “The more I grow the more I learn that I’m still a kid inside. I think a lot of adults pretend to be someone that they’re not. So, I want these characters and this story to tell people that ‘your childhood actually meant something.’”

The film features several of the franchise’s iconic characters testing their might in a tournament to defend Earth and earns its audience, and its R-rating, with its fight scenes, choreographed and expertly executed by experienced stunt performers, including members the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, a group of stuntmen and martial artists who work alongside the legendary actor.

“All the actors or most of them in this film have extensive martial arts training,” Max Huang, who plays fighter Kung Lao, told Arab News. “Acting or stunts, that’s all part of the whole process in order to create a great film. So having an understanding of creating action definitely helped me to then be in front of the camera and pull off certain types of movements.”

The cast is noteworthy not only for its fighting ability but also for mostly featuring actors of Asian descent — a definite positive in Hollywood, where filmmakers have long been accused of whitewashing.  

“It familiarizes people with the culture of who we are and with seeing us in a different light… we are telling and controlling the storyline,” said Lewis Tan, who portrays series newcomer Cole Young. “I think that that will have an ever-lasting impact eventually, but there’s obviously a lot more that needs  to be done.”