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ESL FACEIT and Qiddiya Gaming discuss establishing gaming district in the KSA am | Pocket Gamer.biz

ESL FACEIT and Qiddiya Gaming discuss establishing gaming district in the KSA amidst MENA growth

Ahead of the first-ever Esports World Cup in Riyadh this summer, it’s clear that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has become a vibrant hub for the gaming industry.

In an exclusive interview, we caught up with ESL FACEIT Group Co-CEO Craig Levine and Qiddiya gaming chair Mike Milanov to shed light on the MENA region’s accelerating growth trajectory with esports seemingly leading the way.

Both Levine and Milanov spoke to us about the significant investments in the MENA region, how their partnership to create a Gaming & Esports District ensures inclusivity and opportunities for female gamers, and overcoming the challenges that come with establishing an esports and gaming hub in Saudi Arabia.

PocketGamer.Biz: Can you share more details about the recent partnership between ESL FACEIT Group and Qiddiya. How will it contribute to the growth of esports in the Middle East?

Craig Levine: We’re honored and excited to work with Qiddiya City to develop its Gaming & Esports District. We’ll collaborate to engage our global audience of 225 million gamers and better understand what their vision is for the world’s future gaming and esports hub – a vision that will inform Qiddiya’s future. EFG will be tapping its entire portfolio – including ESL events, DreamHack festivals, and our FACEIT platform – to connect with a spectrum of gamers to capture their vision for the future of play and how it will manifest through Qiddiya. We’re looking forward to working together to build a global gaming hub in the Middle East.

What specific initiatives or facilities will be included in the esports and gaming district, and how will they cater to the needs and interests of gamers in the region?

Mike Milanov: Our goal for the Gaming & Esports District is to create a truly global destination where gamers and communities come together for authentic experiences that they can’t find anywhere else in the world. The vision is to create a hub not exclusively designed for the hardcore or ultra-passionate gamer but also for casual gamers of all backgrounds. We want visitors to be completely immersed when they’re there. Spanning 500,000 square meters, the district will feature four distinctive “zones,” ranging from high fantasy to ultra-cyberpunk themes, with each showcasing its own lore and narrative. The entire destination, down to the last detail, is designed to make you feel like you’re in an IRL Game or IRL MMO.

The Gaming & Esports District will cater to the needs of gamers because those same gamers will be part of the creative process. Through our partnership with EFG, which has decades of expertise, unique global distribution platforms, and world-class competitive tournament products, gamers in the region and all over the world will be invited to share their vision for the future of the Gaming & Esports District.

What opportunities do you foresee for local game developers and content creators within the esports and gaming district?

Milanov: We’ve approached this process by looking at the needs of every component of the industry, from players and teams to creators and developers, and started to build from there. The creator economy is special and content creation is always innovated yearly with new creative platforms but also means of capturing content such as IRL streaming or IRL backpacks. We are very inspired by our favorite content creators planning trips to major cities such as Tokyo with their friends and capturing the experience and needing certain lodging facilities when they arrive. Our goal is to incorporate all of this into the vision for the Gaming & Esports District and make creating content seamless.

The Gaming & Esports District will have a large digital component to it and we will be ready to announce what this entails. From a game development perspective, we have a large undertaking and cannot wait to speak about this more!

There has been what’s been described as an ‘esports winter’ in recent times. Why are you bullish on esports?

Levine: Esports is in a state of recalibration. As we adjust from COVID-induced highs, stakeholders across the industry are identifying new, sustainable avenues for growth and ways to monetize and retain fandom. What’s important to note is that the underlying KPIs – with the gaming market on track to grow over 26 percent globally between 2024 and 2027 – are there as gaming continues to track as the fastest-growing sector of entertainment.

At EFG, we’re incredibly bullish on esports and we see a number of avenues for continued growth amidst a shifting landscape. Emerging regions like the Middle East – particularly Saudi Arabia – has one of the largest addressable audiences for young gamers, and initiatives like the Esports World Cup are offering new opportunities to compete on a never-before-seen scale. Mobile is the platform of choice for nearly 80 percent of gamers, and mobile esports competitions are drawing and growing viewership on par with traditional esports games like Counter-Strike 2 and Dota 2. In partnership with Qualcomm, our multi-title mobile esports league, the Snapdragon Pro Series, facilitated nearly 1 billion matches in its second year – a testament to how the accessibility of mobile gaming is democratizing esports.

There are more ways than ever before for fans to watch, play, and compete in their favorite titles, and we’ll continue to see how these opportunities shape and scale the industry.

Why is esports such a big investment in the MENA region? What do you hope to achieve here?

Levine: MENA is one of the world’s most promising esports markets, with the gaming industry projected to grow to $6.7bn this year. Not only is the region’s population predominantly young, but the gaming community is one of the fastest growing. Esports is a huge part of youth culture, and governments like Saudi Arabia recognize that and are making it a priority through its strategic Vision 2030. We’re excited to see this type of investment in the region, and we are exploring ways to bring world-class esports programming directly to local fans. Our partnership with Qiddiya is a great example of how we’re already looking for ways to reinforce the Middle East as a global gaming hub. Expect to see a bigger presence from EFG in the region in the coming months.

Given that 63% of Saudi Arabia’s population is under 30, how do you plan to cater to this younger demographic in your esports initiatives?

Levine: We’re seeing that gaming and esports fans – especially young ones – engage with their favorite games and teams, and with each other, in a variety of ways, both on and offline. These experiences beyond gameplay are fundamental to how fans consume esports, and we want to create more platforms in our ecosystem where they can interact with each other. This includes chatting during a match on FACEIT Watch where they can see their favorite players with multiview, connecting with other fans and top creators at our DreamHack festivals, and experiencing the electricity of live competition at IEM tournaments. The cornerstone of esports is community, and especially amongst young fans in the Middle East, we want to provide as many opportunities for gamers to celebrate their fandom with each other as possible.

What challenges do you anticipate in establishing an esports and gaming hub in the Middle East, and how do you plan to overcome them?

Milanov: We’re not afraid to imagine the future and we’re willing to take risks to be the best in the world. We’re not just building an esports arena or a bootcamp space – we’re building an entire destination at an unprecedented scale. With ambitions this high, we understand there will be challenges along the way.

With that being said, it is seldom that you find a nation as dedicated to this industry as The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As a key pillar of Vision 2030, the Kingdom’s gaming and esports initiatives will be an accelerator for today’s ecosystem and create a sustainable infrastructure that elevates the entire industry for years to come – with the Gaming & Esports District at the heart of it all.

With the increasing focus on women in esports, how will this partnership ensure inclusivity and opportunities for female gamers in the Middle East?

Milanov: One of the main pillars of our partnership with EFG is Qiddiya’s support of ESL Impact – EFG’s initiative that creates a more diverse and equal gaming environment. Through this partnership, we will support the Women’s CS2 League for the next five years.

Are there plans to collaborate with other regional organizations or developers to create unique esports experiences or game content that resonate specifically with Middle Eastern audiences?

Milanov: Yes 100%. Everything we do has a local and global consideration. KSA has a large, passionate, growing gaming community and this destination will be created not just for tourism but for them!

What potential impact do you envision this partnership will have on the overall growth and success of the esports industry in the MENA region over the next 5 years?

Levine: Qiddiya will be a city designed by gamers, for gamers, from the ground up. With its advanced technology infrastructure and awe-inspiring arenas and player facilities, Qiddiya will serve as the headquarters for global game publishers, training grounds for esports professionals, and hotspot for major esports competitions, like the Esports World Cup. With this in mind, Qiddiya will spur future innovation and opportunity not just in the region – but around the world.

Be part of our next MENA event!

After a triumphant first year in 2023, The Dubai GameExpo Summit powered by PG Connects returns on May 1st to 2nd, 2024 alongside the Dubai Esports and Games Festival at the Dubai World Trade Centre.

The summit will feature more than 100 renowned games industry speakers from all over the globe delivering insightful talks, panels and seminars across a number of themed tracks.

There will be extensive networking opportunities for anyone looking to get established in the region, whether you’re a developer looking for a local publisher, or interested in exporting a hot new game from MENA to find a global audience.

The event kicks off this week grab your tickets on sale now!