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Saudi Arabia makes bold bid to become the world’s biggest gaming hub

Saudi Arabia is becoming the fastest-growing gaming hub in the world through a combination of ambitious projects and strategic investments.

This sentiment was echoed by a panel of Saudi policymakers and regulators at the Next World Forum in Riyadh.

Organized by the Saudi ESports Federation, the two-day event, which began on Wednesday, gathers leaders from the gaming world to discuss the future and opportunities provided by the industry in Saudi Arabia.

As part of the opening session, federation president Prince Faisal bin Bandar described the growth of the sector as being driven by Saudi youths.

“We have a population of 34-odd million in Saudi Arabia and 63 per cent, or approximately 21 million, consider themselves gamers,” he said.

“So this is a community of gamers and what we are doing is something that they’ve been looking for and striving towards. This is not just a passion, but it’s also a work path and it is what they want to do on a daily basis.

“They want the opportunity to work hand in hand with government organizations and the private sector to really build something that will showcase their skills on a global stage.”

That approach is already bearing fruit, he said, noting Gamers8, a two-month gaming festival in Riyadh and the annual esports charity tournament Gamers Without Borders.

Launched in 2020, the latter went on to raise more than $30 million for various humanitarian efforts, including the global Covid-19 vaccine distribution.

light and easy

To harness growth of the industry in Saudi Arabia, a sound regulatory framework needs to be in place, says Mohammed bin Saud Altamimi, governor of the Communications and Information Technology Commission.

The regulatory authority launched an initiative in February, Ignite, which aims to increase the size of the country’s $3-billion-dollar digital media sector through a “holistic” suite of policies born out of discussions with the local gaming industry.

“When it comes to the gaming market size right now, according to our analysis in Ignite, it is $700 million and we are expecting it will increase more than 250 per cent by 2030,” he said.

To fulfill that potential, Altamimi said a “light touch” is required when forming industry regulations.

“We are following two guiding principles. The first is collaboration with the private sector and the second is transparency,” he said. “We conducted more than one hundred bilateral meetings with the private sector, both locally and internationally.

“We had a two-stage consultation process to make sure that we truly listen to the private sector. So from that came the light touch regulation, which means, for example, there will be no licensing or registration. It will be easy doing business in Saudi Arabia.”

Mega gaming hubs and cyberpunk streets

Also eyeing the gaming sector are representatives from entertainment development projects Neom and Qiddiya.

The heads of both were at the Next World Forum to describe how the gaming sector will feature within the Saudi mega projects.

Neom chief executive Nadhmi Al Nasr said a gaming district will be built in The Line, an extraordinary project within Neom consisting of a 170km-long skyscraper 200 meters wide and more than 300 meters tall.

It is projected to provide homes for nine million people.

“With 40 per cent of Neom employees, mostly Saudis, all in their late twenties and thirties, we have the right generation to not only play the games but design them as well,” Al Nasr said.

“I am very sure The Line will host one of, if not the largest gaming holding businesses in the world, I am pretty sure it will be the capital of gaming.”

With Qiddiya currently in development on the outskirts of Riyadh, the project’s managing director Abdullah Aldawood said the entertainment destination will have a neighborhood “designed by gamers for gamers.”

“It’s about creating a space for gamers and esports athletes. Just imagine you are in an environment where you walk into cyberpunk streets and popular video game final-fantasy castles,” he said.

“We want esports athletes from Japan, South Korea and the Philippines to Brazil to not only dream of competing to play but live in that district in Saudi Arabia.”

Playing the long game

While these lofty visions are being developed, Savvy Gaming Group — an investment company owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund — has already begun laying some of the ground work by acquiring leading esports event organizing company ESL Gaming and online platform Faceit for a reported $1.8 billion .

“That combination of the number one off-line professional esports tournament organizer and broadcaster with the number one online tournament provider has made us the world’s largest esports organization,” said Brian Ward Savvy Gaming Group chief executive.

“As part of their effort we have, roughly, 50 people here employed in Saudi Arabia building a first-class studio and competitive facilities which will eventually become one of the three global hubs for both tournament play and broadcasting of international esports events across the world .”

Prince Faisal is confident the various policies and investments outlined will bear fruit, as building Saudi Arabia’s esports industry is a long game.

“We have the opportunity of being able to look at that long-term outlook and work with partners, not just in Saudi, but around the world and do what’s best for the industry as a whole,” he said.

“As the industry goes up, we will all come up.”

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Updated: September 07, 2022, 2:32 PM

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