Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently announced that, commencing in the summer of 2024, the Kingdom will annually host the Esports World Convention under the oversight of a non-profit entity. Preceding this announcement was the launch of a strategy for electronic sports in 2022, with the presence of the minister of sport, the president of FIFA, the well-known football star Cristiano Ronaldo, and others.
In late 2017, the Kingdom established the Savvy Gaming Group, headed by the crown prince and backed by the Public Investment Fund. The group acquired existing esports company ESL Gaming, which is involved in the production of esports competitions, and subsequently merged it with gaming platform FACEIT.
PIF also acquired stakes in seven prominent global companies involved in the gaming industry, including Nintendo with an 8.6 percent ownership share, which is the most significant external contributor. All of these efforts are geared toward enhancing Saudi influence within the gaming industry, preparing professional players, increasing the contribution of the electronic gaming sector to the local gross domestic product to approximately $13 billion over the next seven years, and repatriating the $1 billion dollars spent annually by Saudis on gaming back into the national economy.
The inaugural official esports competition took place in 1972 at Stanford University in the US, featuring the game “Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics.” Its popularity grew with arcade games like “Pac-Man” and “Street Fighter,” gaming consoles such as Atari, and subsequently, colorful graphics games like “Super Mario.” South Korea played a pivotal role in elevating esports by developing its digital infrastructure, introducing online gaming, enabling live play with people from across the world, establishing clubs, organizing official tournaments, and getting game companies themselves to play a role in organizing competitions and offering international prizes.
It is not implausible that esports may ultimately supplant their conventional counterparts over time upon the localization of the industry and the activation of its initiatives.
For instance, the prize pool for Dota 2 in 2021 exceeded $40 million in total for participating teams. Esports tournaments like FIFA and PUBG benefit from substantial sponsorship and advertising deals with computer, beverage, and automobile companies, in addition to broadcasting contracts on sports networks such as ESPN, ticket sales, and merchandise, just like traditional sports. There are stadiums for these tournaments, such as Fusion Arena in the US, the Three Gorges Harbor Esports Stadium in China, and the Barclays Center, also in the US, which hosted the Overwatch finals attended by 22,000 spectators and where Saudi Arabia won its World Cup in 2023.
The US government treats “League of Legends” players as professional athletes, granting them American work visas under the category of “gamers.” Players sign contracts and adhere to designated sleep hours, dietary plans, and exercise routines to maintain physical and mental fitness, much like other professional sports players.
According to a Scandinavian public health study conducted in 2013, the metabolic equivalent of tasks — a measure of the physical effort expended by an individual in various activities — recorded a range of four to nine levels for esports practitioners, compared to two levels for slow walkers and eight levels for basketball players. This implies that gamers exert greater effort than basketball players. A study published in 2012 in the journal Current Biology affirmed that engaging in esports helps develop a wide range of skills, particularly those demanding high precision, such as laparoscopic surgery or drone piloting.
American universities offer academic specializations in esports, and within Saudi Arabia, there are training centers dedicated to this purpose. Viewers of esports competitions on YouTube significantly surpass viewers of movies, sports content, news, and educational content on the same platform. This signifies that Saudi Arabia is adopting successful experiences, investing in them, and building upon them.
Crown Prince Mohammed stated in a recent interview with Fox News that the annual growth rate of this strategic sector is estimated to be approximately 30 percent. The global esports market is valued at $200 billion, according to current statistics, with over 3 billion players and viewers, 60 percent of whom are aged between 16 and 34.
In Saudi Arabia, there are approximately 8 million active players and more than 100 teams registered as corporate entities within the Electronic Sports Federation. It is not implausible that esports may ultimately supplant their conventional counterparts over time upon the localization of the industry and the activation of its initiatives.
Dr. Bader bin Saud is a columnist for Al-Riyadh newspaper, a media and knowledge management researcher, and the former deputy commander of the Special Forces for Hajj and Umrah in Saudi Arabia.
• X: @BaderbinSaud