If you have watched plenty of TV throughout lockdown 3.0, you may have noticed one reappearing advert. It opens with a stunning forest with a couple of cuts to golden sandy blooms and transparent coasts. You are then shown western families adoring the environment and culture. The city’s large doors open like a gate-away to a kingdom of paradise. The charming 30-second voice-over begins to reach its climax. “Welcome to a journey you never imagined,” the narrator says. “Welcome to Arabia.”
The narration is manipulating, the music is soft, the visuals are stunning, the environment is innocent. Anyone who treasures mystery or a refreshing welcome in an unknown land, they would be grabbed by the advert’s lure. Adverts are maybe designed in this way, though this specific advert is much more intertwined to a larger set of events.
The ad is connected to Saudi Vision 2030. Introduced in April 2016, the programme is a modernisation initiative to transform its public image and society and to diversify the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s (KSA) economy away from oil. The vision aims to allow transport, healthcare, culture, entertainment and other sectors, such as tourism, to flourish in the new Saudi Arabia. In 2019, tourism made up 3% of KSA’s GDP. By 2030, they want it to be 10%.
To do this, Saudi Arabia wants to grow the Public Investment Funds’ (PIF) assets – the Kingdoms personal sovereign wealth fund. Currently, the PIF has a diversifying portfolio. The likes of Uber, Live Nation and various resource-based companies – such as NovaGold, a gold and silver mining corporation – make the cut.
Yet, something seemed to be missing for some time. Perhaps a business that can single-handedly connect the interests of hundreds of millions at once. It would undoubtedly contribute greatly to Saudi Arabia’s tourism, reputation, publicity and status as a legitimate player.
This was true until it was reported last month the PIF had bought a combined worth of $3.3 billion of shares in the video game publishers Take-Two Interactive, Activision Blizzard and Electronic Arts (EA). Suddenly, the Kingdom had made its next move in sport and welcoming the world to Arabia
The rise of Fifa as an esport
You may have guessed Saudi Arabian summers are intense. Between June and August, the average temperature is estimated to be 45°C, though it is never irregular to watch the temperatures rise to a staggering 54°C. When the United Kingdom gets in a frenzy over a one-week 30°C heatwave, you can say the Saudi summer weather could be overwhelming. While the temperatures are soaring outside, it gives Saudi Arabian’s a chance inside their homes to explore electronically.
Gaming is an optimum hobby for the youthful audience worldwide. In the KSA, where two-thirds of a total population of around 34.27 million are under 35 years old, 5.8 million are spending time simply gaming. Prince Faisal bin Bandar, president of the Saudi Arabian Federation for Electronic and Intellectual Sports (SAFEIS) and the Arab Esports Federation, claims this number is closer to half the country. If correct, the Saudi’s have truly switched on their console, placed their headset over their ears and immersed themselves.
One of the most popular portals for the Saudi’s to escape to is, of course, Electronic Arts’ Fifa series. The more-often-than-not emotionally charged football game acts as an addictive ritual to young football fans.
From its inception in 1993, to its rise in the 2000s and becoming a blockbuster in the 2010s, the franchise has detached itself from being just an entertainment-driven concept. EA’s billion-dollar product has instead contributed to catapulting esports into the mainstream arena of sport gaming.
The 2004 FIFA eWorld Cup was the inaugural event to the future crowning moment for the game. Nine-years later after its inception, 2.5 million players signed up to participate. In 2018, it was over 20 million.
As demand to play increased, so did the demand to watch. The 2019 edition received 47 million views from over 75 countries over the event’s three days (a rise of 60% on the previous year). Additionally, EA Sports FIFA 19 Global Series for 2018/19 had more than 140 million views.
Despite this, FIFA is regarded a third tier esport in a three-tier system. “In comparison to other major esports, like League of Legends, Dota 2 and Counter Strike: Global Offensive, the FIFA Esports audience trails behind, but it’s growing quickly,” esports and gaming journalist Nathan Bliss explains to The Football Pink.
“In the FIFA 21 Challenge esports event, which was broadcast in October 2020, the tournament had an average viewership of over 260,000, with a peak viewership of over 328,000 at one stage, enough to fill Wembley Stadium three times over and have 58,000 people left outside.”
“The same tournament had a total watch time of 1.09 million hours. To put that figure into context, that’s the equivalent of 11,327 90-minute football matches.”
On an overall scale, esports is growing fast. A fresh esports report suggest the combined audience of enthusiasts and occasional viewers is anticipated to rise by 8.7% this year to 474 million. Meanwhile the audience for live-streaming esports could grow to 728.8 million, an increase of more than 10%. Industrial worth is making seismic inroads too. The industry has already hit the $1 billion landmark and could hit somewhere near $1.5 billion by 2023. The industry is rising and, with it, interested investors searching to find their own belonging within the community.
Saudi Arabia’s esports vision
Last year, Prince Faisal bin Bandar said, “The two main aspects of Vision 2030 are youth and growing industries outside oil production. So we want to take that interest in gaming and make it a revenue generator for the country, rather than just entertainment.”
At the forefront of Prince Faisal’s vision are the two major stars of Fifa gaming. In the men’s corner, you have 2018 eWorld Cup champion, 2019 eWorld Cup runner-up and Roc Nation cliental Mosaad Al-Dossary. For the women, FISU eSports Challenge winner Najd Fahd leads the line. Prince Faisal wants to “showcase” both of them as inspiring figures for their youthful population.
From an economic standpoint, it was predicted the gaming market could be worth up to $821 million in Saudi Arabia at some point this year. In the large scheme of things, this is a very narrow income in comparison to the $2 trillion oil industry the Saudi’s have.
Though the KSA’s esports vision isn’t about just creating a money-printing industry. Professor Simon Chadwick, director of Eurasian sport at the Emlyon Business School, suggests their investment is a part of a wider long-term vision.
“Firstly it is about positioning the country as an event destination,” he tells The Football Pink. “You could imagine in the future Esports competitions and tournaments will be based there.”
“Secondly it is about Saudi Arabia trying to establish a distinctive position in the global market. To successfully compete with, for example, European football, it would be very difficult. This is a newly emerging area where the country can establish some early-mover competitive advantage.”
This almost mimics Saaed Sharaf, founder of eSports Middle East and head of the Syrian eSports Association, prediction in 2019. He declared Saudi Arabia “can be on the global map as [a] powerhouse in five to 10 years if they continue their progress [with esports] on the same level.”
It is a bold statement but possible when esports has a major role to play on more than one level. “If we look at some of the statements been made about Neom, and these megacities, the emphasis is upon technological advancements,” professor Chadwick says. “I think Saudi Arabia’s investment into esports is part of this technological advancement.”
“It is about locating Saudi Arabia and its association with esports and minds of young consumers. You will get generations of young people engaged with esports, console games, and maybe even technology in due course that has been created, controlled or owned by Saudi Arabia. It confers a legitimacy on Saudi Arabia that currently, it doesn’t have.”
And a legitimacy it desperately needs.
Searching for legitimacy
The debate over whether gaming should be considered a sport is long and withered. Once upon a time ESPN’s then-president John Skipper branded it as “not a sport” and compared it to chess and checkers. Of course, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognises both esports and chess as sports, though neither are accepted as ‘Olympic’ sports. As a result, it has even divided academics. Jim Parry of Charles University in Prague uses the ‘Olympic’ sport definition as his basis to argue against. Daniel Kane of the United States Sports Academy meanwhile used different definitions to say it is a sport.
“Of course”, Bliss notes, “professional FIFA players aren’t running around a football pitch and physically exerting themselves in that way, but research done by the German Sports University in 2016 found that professional esports players are exposed to physical strains similar to those of traditional sports athletes.”
The conclusion was that esports was a sport. With it being as such, esports joins other sports in being conscious of its direction. Sport has always been an industrial outlier for morals and values. People sometimes view sport as a pure institution. ‘Keep politics out of sport’ is a favourite brigade to fall behind.
Though, when there is potential for outside forces to use sport as a political power, the lines are blurred. This is what esports must be wary of down the road, especially considering what a close relationship with Saudi Arabia could bring and its impact on their soft power.
“Soft power is attractive power,” Chadwick tells The Football Pink. “It is trying to persuade the world that you share the same values as they do.”
The technique is no stranger to football. China used it when their football revolution was lifting-off (which now has crash-landed and requires repairs). When Neymar’s transfer to Paris Saint-Germain rocked football, Chadwick argued it was in part fuelled by Qatar’s desire for soft power. In the same context, you can argue the same for the many manoeuvrings the UAE have done since taking over Manchester City.
The point being, in modern sport, and especially football, soft power is all around us. All you have to do is see past the charade. This impacts esports, and Fifa particularly, because as esports grows, so will the likelihood of countries using it as a soft power entity.
On this likelihood, Chadwick says, “Saudi Arabia does not necessarily invest into an area or activity first and foremost for reasons of soft power. I think soft power is essentially incidental, but I know I do nevertheless believe there is a soft power effect by investing into esports.”
“Perceptions of the country are often negative. Even when impressions of the country are somehow positive, it is framed in a very traditionalist stereotypical terms, almost as if the people of Saudi Arabia are not like us.”
“Whereas, if there is a focus on console games, young people and delivering and engaging content, that not only raises profile and projects soft power, but it also confers legitimacy. Particularly when young people engage with it.”
The great conflict
On 1st February 2018, Prince Faisal’s SAFEIS and Global Esports Resources (GER), a planning and strategy company, partnered to build a domestic and international Saudi Esports industry together.
Tom Smith, GER’s manager director, displayed his euphoria to making inroads with the Arab state. “Working with a visionary like Prince Faisal and his team to make their dream of esports as an instrument of social and cultural change makes this project extraordinary,” he said.
“Beyond the economic opportunities that developing a Saudi eSports industry represents, and they are significant, we are committed through our investment to being an equity partner in achieving the goals of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan. Participating in the Crown Prince’s vision for the future of Saudi Arabia is a historic opportunity and we are very proud and excited to help make this vision a reality.”
Now, it is difficult to directly interpret to what extent Prince Faisal’s wants to use esports as an “instrument” to change Arabian society and culture. He has indicated a passion for ensuring a gaming career is stable, that they are prepared for a new career if they choose to retire and for combating issues surrounding gender discrimination.
There is some reason to be hopeful about the latter claim. SAFEIS authorised for the 2018 esports cup in Riyadh to have males and females to compete in the same tournament whilst Najd Fahd is one of the faces of Saudi Arabian gaming. After becoming a FIFA champion, Fahd hoped her “achievement will motivate more girls to try FIFA 20 and will encourage both the community and the authorities in charge of electronic games to give more support to girls who want to play them.”
This doesn’t mean the esports community has totally welcomed Saudi Arabia with open arms. Last year, Riot Games, maker of League of Legends, cancelled their sponsorship agreement with the megacity Neom soon after they announced it because of social media criticism.
Saudi Arabia has historical human rights abuses which include anti-LGBT+ laws, imprisoning political opponents, the Yemen war and Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. In Germany, a criminal complaint has been lodged against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other Saudi officials allegedly involved for crimes against humanity.
This raises the same conflicting choice other sports has tackled for so long. “It is acid territory for westerners because very often there is a conflict between money and morals,” Professor Chadwick explains to The Football Pink.
“For Western organisations, it is insufficient to just take the money, yet not raise awareness of some of the issues Saudi Arabia faces. It is a moral issue as well. For the Saudi Arabians themselves, they can’t just expect to spend and for people to not ask questions or shine a spotlight. In that respect, legitimacy can’t be bought automatically. There is a little more to it than that. It is more complex.”
“If Saudi Arabia are genuinely serious and wants to be part of that world, then it has to accept when racing drivers, or footballers or golfers or whoever else visit the country, they are going to make statements about engaging actions or behaviours that are consistent with their own personal values and morals.”
Saudi Arabia experienced something along these lines when golfer Rory McIlroy refused to attend the 2020 Saudi International European Tour event. The Northern Irishman cited “morality” amongst his reasons not to attend.
Athletes’ are now comfortable to display social activism messages, so how this will transfer to Saudi Arabia is yet to be tested. For example, we do not know how much Fahd can use Fifa to promote gender equality and women rights. The Saudi leadership has the final say on these matters. They will not accept their showcased professionals adjusting from the agenda they set. This raises one of the most important questions facing esports: can you trust Saudi Arabia to change?
“If we genuinely believe sport can be a force for good, then we have to support what Saudi Arabia is doing,” Chadwick says. “And we have to believe this is one of the ways some of those prevailing socio-cultural and political problems [will be sorted]. Somehow sport will contribute to addressing to those problems.”
“Saudi Arabia must open up and make themselves open to scrutiny and adhere to certain government standards that are maybe different to the ones they already have. There needs to be tangible evidence sport is delivering upon this change of gender. [That] women are getting involved in decision-making and political prisoners are not being detained and suppressed: that there is a genuine open willingness to engage with the world to change.”
And this willingness is what may define Saudi Arabia’s relationship with not only esports but sport altogether.