Qatar, the host country for the World Cup, seeks to capitalize on its people’s gaming abilities as it enters the expanding eSports market. In the gas-rich emirate, numerous “majlis” rooms — community meeting spots linked to residences — have long served as video game hubs for groups of friends, primarily young males.
“Our majlises have a lot of equipment,” Ibrahim Samha exclaimed, explaining that the rooms are frequently outfitted with consoles for five or six gamers who lie on couches while engaged in virtual worlds and conflicts.
Samha is the head of eSports initiatives at Virtuosity, Qatar’s first dedicated gaming center, which opened in 2019 and staged its first big competition in March following a Covid pandemic interruption.
“I think that’s where it all begins,” Samha explained. “You play in these majlises in a really relaxed and pleasant way.”
“However, if you want to take it to the professional level and compete against other teams and players, you’d want to engage in eSport tournaments, which is where Virtuosity comes in.”
Virtuosity, which is part of Qatar’s larger effort to diversify its economy away from oil by 2030, seeks for a piece of the fast-growing global eSports industry, which is worth more than $1 billion each year.
It held the first round of the Smash World Tour, the championship of Nintendo’s crossover fighting game Super Smash Bros, three months ago, with the victor receiving 5,000 Qatari rial ($1,300).
In late 2021, an eSports federation was formed, and gaming has even been included into the curriculum of Qatar’s International School of London to prepare pupils for the digital realms of the twenty-first century.
Ahmed Al Meghessib, at age 24, is already an eSports veteran. He initially played for Qatar in the football game FIFA in 2017, and he led the national team to tenth position in the world rankings early last year.
“Basically, they didn’t have a lot of curiosity at first,” he says of Qatari society’s attitude toward eSports in the past, until officials saw the massive audience and possible cash on offer.
“It’s not as difficult as it used to be.” People increasingly recognise that eSport is a significant matter.”
Khalifa Al Haroon, a businessman and social media influencer known as “Mr Q,” is another early eSports enthusiast in Qatar who dares to dream big.
He stated that Qatar should develop more teams and eLeagues, host more events, and attract investment and studios to generate unique content.
“My ambition is to see Qatar become a leader in the Middle East, and, of course, a world leader in gaming,” he told AFP.
“I want to see the biggest tournaments happen here and I want people to want to come in and build their companies and their teams out of Qatar too.”
Haroon’s ambitions are echoed by Jack AlBlushi, 35, who organises PUBG: Battlegrounds events, a combat survival game set on an island.
“We’ve already created a foundation,” he explained. “Everything is online.” But I need firms to understand that we are working hard to ensure that everything is going in the right path.”
Ooredoo, a mobile firm, has been a big backer, sponsoring a FIFA gaming competition in May with $25,000 in prize money and launching a talent scouting programme to establish a professional squad.
Its first two recruits are Ahmed Al Meghessib, who plays FIFA, and Yousef Al Defaa, who plays Fortnite, Epic Games’ battle royale smash.
Qatar is not the only country attempting to build a name for itself in eSports, which has historically been dominated by South Korean and Chinese players but now includes teams from all over the world in various games.
Gaming is popular in the oil-rich Gulf, and there is a “really strong push from Qatar and Saudi Arabia,” according to Nicolas Besombes, an eSports sociologist. He described it as a “very new phenomena that began a bit before the epidemic.”
“It’s’soft power,’ they’re trying to increase their image and appeal.”
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