Like most teenagers in Qatar, 17-year-old Ahmed al-Tawaari, plays video games pretty much nonstop in his free time. He’s been a gamer ever since his father, an IT technician, gave him an Xbox 360 for his 10th birthday. Al-Tawaari now mostly plays on a PlayStation 4 or his custom-built gaming PC. His favorite games are online battle-royale titles like Fortnite and Apex Legends, which allow him to play with people from all over the world, with the aim of making himself or his team the last people standing. These types of games dominate e-sports, an industry that’s now worth billions of dollars, and where professional gaming teams like FaZe Clan, Detona and Valiant earn millions in prize money and sponsorships.
Al-Tawaari dreams of moving to L.A. and living with one of these teams in the Hollywood Hills, an ambition he’s cultivated thanks to watching endless YouTube videos of life in such gamer houses. “America is the place to go to if you want to make it in gaming,” he explains to me over Skype (I’d met him on Discord). “The contacts, the networks and the technology is there. I wouldn’t be able to get that living in the Middle East.”
Still, since 2014, the Middle East has hosted a number of high-profile gaming tournaments, including, in 2018, the PLG Grand Slam, among the biggest tournaments in the world. Across the region, Arab leaders are investing heavily into gaming technology, providing lucrative tax incentives for companies to set up there, and even launching their own cloud gaming services to signal their seriousness. In fact, earlier this year Saeed Sharaf, an advisory board member of the World e-Sports Consortium and the man responsible for heading up e-sports in Dubai, told the Khaleej Times that the kingdom was investing billions into “X-Stadium,” with the aim of becoming the region’s leader in competitive gaming. Meanwhile, the Saudi Arabian Federation for Electronic and Intellectual Sports has given gamers official government backing as a reward for their victory at the 2018 IESF eSports World Championship in Taiwan.
All the while, Middle-Eastern gamers joining teams in the West is becoming more common. For example, two of Team Liquid’s star gamers are Amer al-Barkawi, known as “Miracle” and “GH” (from Jordan), and Maroun Merhej (from Lebanon).
What then al-Tawaari is referring to as a disadvantage for him and his fellow Midle Eastern gamers is “lag,” which they believe are causing them to fall down in the rankings and to lose games entirely.
“Lag,” of course, refers to the delays a player experiences in an online game due to a high ping, or how a computer or console sends and receives data from a server. A ping rate is determined by a number of factors, ranging from how many people are playing at one time on the same server, to how close a console’s internet connection is to a server. Because the most popular games can have more than 200 million people playing at one time, numerous sophisticated servers are required to keep the game running smoothly, and for the most part, these servers are built and powered by Amazon Web Services, a subsidiary of Amazon. In other words, your experience of a popular video game is generally linked to how much of a presence Amazon has in your country.
Almost everyone in the world will experience some kind of lag, but in battle-royale games, where wins or losses can be decided within a matter of seconds, ping rates have become a highly contentious topic — especially among aspiring pros in the Middle East, many of who, like al-Tawaari, believe that the lack of dedicated gaming servers there place them at a disadvantage. Late last year, the issues around lag even led to gamers in the Middle East and North Africa to use the hashtag #fortnitemiddleeastservers to express their frustrations.
“It was a last straw,” al-Tawaari explains. “It wasn’t just people who wanted to be pro gamers talking about lag, it was ordinary people who play videogames, saying that they were tired of giving money to these gaming companies and not getting [as good] quality as people living in America or in Europe.” (Gamers in Russia, East Africa and Pakistan used the hashtag, too.) As the hashtag trended on Twitter, Epic Games, the company that produces Fortnite, was forced to respond, promising that new servers would be placed in the Middle East, as well as in other regions where players were experiencing lag.
But it’s now been a year, and Middle Eastern gamers are still waiting for the new servers. Not to mention, that’s only one part of the problem. “If you add more servers, sure, gamers at the very top level will be able to train and compete on a more level playing field, but that’s a very small number. The real issue is the lack of a gaming infrastructure across the region,” says Luciano Rahal, a communications director at Riot Games, and an e-sports consultant in Dubai. “The investment into gaming long-term is really just beginning [in the Middle East], and it’s still behind compared to other global markets. Some Arab leaders see investing in gaming as a short-term win, either to increase popularity or to make quick money. But most countries lack the infrastructure, the development [programs], lobbyists, academies and training facilities to create an environment for top gamers.”
He adds that without such an infrastructure, gaming companies have less of an incentive to invest in these countries. “When you set up a server, it’s not just building a machine and placing it wherever you want. Businesses are factoring in other difficulties in terms of logistics, maintenance and the relationship between their business and the government when it comes to the flow of data.” Basically, it’s less likely that gaming companies will want to spend extra time and money in places with high levels of state control, especially if the number of gamers is relatively small compared to more populated countries.
For now, al-Tawaari either settles for the servers he has, accepting his disadvantages, or like other players, he connects to a server in Europe — usually Paris — through a Virtual Private Network. Before playing, he checks the list of servers to see which ones are more occupied than others; sometimes, he’ll even switch servers between games if he suspects he’s experiencing lag. It’s not the most convenient way to play, he tells me, but it’s simply something he must do if he wants to fulfill his dream of going pro.
On that count, he’s hoping to visit L.A. for the first time later this year and finally live the gamer life he’s fascinated by on YouTube. “I want to play some games when I’m there,” he tells me, laughing. “And if I lose, I’ll just say that I’m used to playing on Middle East time!”