With Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 project rapidly approaching reality, a number of sectors have received a huge boost, not least gaming.
If you need an idea as to the popularity of gaming in the country you only need to look as far as the appearance by Saudi esports star Mosaad Aldossary at the event. Given this is a typically taciturn business crowd, the gales of spontaneous applause he received demonstrates the growing popularity of esports in the region.
However, in addition to the stars on the frontline it’s the people behind the scenes that are a vital ingredient to the growth of esports in Saudi Arabia. One such power player is Faisal Bin Homran, chief esports officer at the Saudi Esports Federation. A gamer himself, Faisal has witnessed gaming moving from “kids stuff” to being one of the most prominent sectors in the surging Saudi entertainment sector.
With major esports events such as Gamers8 taking place in the region, fuelling both local and international attention, we asked Bin Homran about mobile’s place in SEF’s plans.
PocketGamer.biz: How did you first get into esports and gaming?
Faisal Bin Homran: So, I’m a gamer that started playing since I was a kid. I competed while I was in high-school in a couple of games such as FIFA, and won a couple of national tournaments when I was in university studying for my bachelor's degree.
I’d wanted to do something with gaming and esports but there were no open opportunities. I used to watch a lot of the - I’d say - Saudi icons like Mosaad Aldossary who played FIFA, before then, ten years ago. Then when I went to do my masters in London. One day Mosaad came in and played the FIFAe finals, and when I saw him winning I was like, ‘I know what to do next, I’m going to go back to my passion.’
And I went back and I worked a lot with different companies and organizers as an advisor in esports and then joined the federation after the first successful Gamers Without Borders event in 2020 during the pandemic. After that, I was officially an SEF employee.
What part does mobile play in the Saudi Esports Federation’s plans?
So, it’s a moving industry, it’s a fast paced industry that changes with regards to technology and everything else. I think when it comes to platforms, PC and mobile are the most focused ones. We have a lot of games that are popular within the community. I think the main thing that we do is to check with the community. We always hear and listen to them and we have a really close relationship and open communication with them. Whatever’s there, we’re always open to more requests and recommendations. We do our due diligence and research.
Currently, I think that mobile games are rising really up high there, big time. I think next year we’re going to add a lot of games on mobile that’ll be in Gamers8, and in our local and regional tournament as well.
When they heard there was a national gaming and esports strategy they were thinking ‘It’s not a joke, it’s a real sport now!’Faisal Bin Homran
That’s great to hear. To talk more about Gamers8, at this year’s event PUBG Mobile had a cash pool of $3,000,000. Do you think these big cash prizes are a major draw for those joining the tournaments, or is it for the love of the game as well?
So, I think of Gamers8 as a platform for the top performers around the world. But they’re not the only players we focus on. During the other ten months of the year we have a lot of grassroots events and a lot of qualifiers, and local tournaments that focus on PUBG Mobile and other mobile games - which we’re going to announce soon.
I think that Gamers8 is that final prestigious event that everybody wants to win, and we noticed a lot of attraction since last year. Gamers8 this year, like last year, was a case study for us to prove that we can do these kinds of tournaments in Riyadh and Saudi.
But, what I noticed is how quickly it was legitimized by the community this year. And we saw a lot of positive feedback that I expected to come maybe next year. But I was just watching the feedback from the international community, not even the local ones. They're happy with the IPs, they’re happy with the mobile games and how it’s going in Saudi, and they’re looking forward to the evolution of Gamers8 and the scaling up.
This year we have 12 titles, I think next year we’re going to have… more than that. I can’t specify how many, but it’s going to be more than that! In total, with more than 14 titles in total, we’ll also have more mobile presence.
We’re excited to see what’s coming next. How do you think the credibility and validity of esports is changing? I think many people are fascinated by the gaming culture in Saudi Arabia but in other countries it still might not be taken seriously.
I think in the past three years we’ve found a lot of challenges conveying this message and what we believe about these players being real athletes. But with the progress we’ve had in Saudi, the community has changed - and I don’t mean themselves - we’ve noticed a lot of parents supporting their kids right now. Because, I think they saw some - in their opinion - defining proof. For example, when they heard there was a national gaming and esports strategy they were thinking ‘It’s not a joke, it’s a real sport now!’
So the parents - they’re not going to hear Twitter or publishers or gamers - they need this kind of proof, this kind of evidence that says ‘Hey, this is the future!’
We’ve seen more parents and families asking us ‘Our children were always telling us we want to play, but now, tell us what we can do to help them?’. And that’s why we have the Saudi Esports Academy, that’s why we have the grassroots events, that’s why we have the campaigns going on so we can have the support from the player’s families.
Because, myself, I used to play since 2011, 12 and 13 when I was traveling. And I was telling my dad ‘I’m not going to compete in games, I’m going to conferences!’ But now, my dad is telling me ‘You’re doing something legitimate, esports is real now’. So, back to your question, I think it’s happening right now, with more presence on international platforms and support from the federation, as well as from these kinds of entities that are looked on as ‘the’ sports entities.
And that’s going to take time, but I think in three to five years, everyone’s going to know that they’re the real athletes.
What’s coming up next for the Saudi Esports Federation?
So, I would say that when it comes to the SEF and the love and the passion for this industry, it’s just the beginning. I think what’s coming is in two messages. The first one is ‘There is no focus on one group’, so more grassroots, more leagues, more tournaments and I promised one thing earlier back when I joined the federation, ‘If you play any game, you will find a monthly opportunity to prove yourself in an official league.’
The second message is ‘It’s just the beginning’. I think with the approach that we’re doing right now with this industry and with the love that we have around, we will have more focus on - not only the locals, regional and international, and not only on that professional level - we will be there on all of the different layers that gaming and esports is on.
And one last thing… more mobile games!