Esports is a fast-growing, multi-billion dollar industry, with a significant cultural impact worldwide. The Middle East’s large, youthful demographic, coupled with the fact that video games can be played in all climates, means the region has serious potential for growth.
The Middle East’s esports industry is currently worth more than $1 billion and is expected to rise to $4.4bn in the next three years, according to a study conducted by the consulting firm Strategy& and Abu Dhabi’s media free-zone ‘twofour54’ in 2017.
With this projected growth, and a central geographic location between Asian and European markets, esports is destined for a bright future in the region, especially given that over 400 million people watch video games online globally each year.
An increased appetite for esports is bringing an increased appetite for esports-compatible arenas. Design company HOK, which is behind FC Barcelona’s Palau Blaugrana arena, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium and State Farm Arena renovation in Atlanta, and the Yas Arena in Abu Dhabi, has encountered this growing esports interest first hand.
And Nuno Guerreiro, an Architect and Principal at HOK, feels further expansion of esports in the Middle East over the coming years is inevitable.
“There is a lot of potential,” Guerreiro told Sports Industry Insider. “Firstly, the Middle East has one of the youngest demographics in the world. For all the large scale spectator sports, the average age is going up, but for eSports it’s the opposite.
“One of the other aspects is that there are lots of large scale venues to produce these big events too and the venues are world class. We’ll see a lot more of these when Expo 2020 starts. Those aspects indicate to us there is enormous potential in the UAE.”
The Yas Arena – due to open later this year – will be one of the UAE’s most exciting sporting and entertainment multi-purpose venues, which can expand from an intimate 500-seat theater to an 18,000-capacity venue.
It can accommodate a wide range of events, with those behind the arena recognising the importance of esports in the design process.
“When Yas Arena was designed, esports was only starting to take off. All these buildings take four to five years to build, and six years ago when we were putting plans together for Yas Arena, the biggest titles in esports either didn’t exist then or hadn’t been anywhere near the success or interest there is now,” said Guerreiro.
“When we provided the design, we catered for all types of events including esports. When the design was decided, we went to huge lengths in relation to all aspects, including esports. We carried out the design so venues can host and be welcoming to esports events.”
As it stands, a lack of formal infrastructure and consistent tournaments has meant that, despite the vast potential in the Emirates, competitive esports has yet to take off in comparison to marquee events currently being held across Asia and America.
In 2015, for example, Dubai hosted a large scale tournament; the ESL ESEA Pro League invitational where the prize money at stake was $250,000. But little has happened since.
And while many people suggest simply setting up a traditional venue for an esports tournament, various requirements need to be taken into consideration to stage these big events.
“In terms of the venues for these events, there is a tendency for a super theatre or other seated arrangement where people are closer to the action,” said Guerreiro.
“A large scale event looks more like a festival. People want better food and want to take part in other activities alongside the tournament. Esports fans are more sophisticated and demanding than the traditional sports fan. These people are technologically focused.
“There is tendency on people to expect more from events and have the right experiences provided for them. With this, we are trying to balance the requirements for esports against the requirements for other bigger, popular events.”
The League of Legends World Championship was the most viewed esports event of the year in 2018, with over 200 million fans tuning in to watch the finals taking place in South Korea.
With such a huge following, could there soon be esports-specific arenas in every major city to sit alongside traditional sporting stadia? Guerreiro is convinced that it could happen, with arenas of 10,000 the optimum capacity ideal to host esports.
“In cities worldwide, I think we will see venues catering to over 10,000 people for esports in the next few years. It’s difficult to know which city will be the first one to build one of those,” said Guerreiro.
“For the time being, it’s still a fractured landscape with so many leagues and games. It will take someone who can get as many leagues and large scale events under the same roof. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see something of this calibre happening some time in the future.”
In recent months, there have been plans to build an entirely dedicated arena in the UAE, called the X-Stadium, which will establish Dubai as a regional and global hub for esports.
“It would make perfect sense. Dubai is a city that can host so many events and would change the entire outlook for the city and region,” said Guerreiro.
“At the end of the day, esports fans want to be with a lot of like-minded people. It’s what makes it different from being at home playing online. That’s what makes it special and hopefully it can continue to grow as time goes on.”
The popularity of esports is certainly increasing. Developing necessary infrastructure, including a dedicated esports arena, could help put the UAE on a more even footing with current powerhouses like the United States and South Korea.