Gamers in the UAE and across the region are now looking at Abu Dhabi as the place to be when it comes to esports, thanks to a government-led initiative that focuses on developing the industry.
From honing talent, creating career opportunities, and hosting the prestigious Blast Premier World Final last year with a $1-million prize pool, the AD Gaming initiative has been accelerating the growth of the industry since its launch in 2021.
Ahead of the 2023 Blast final next month at the Etihad Arena, top officials told Khaleej Times how Abu Dhabi is transforming into a global gaming hub.
“Since the pulse-raising Blast Premier World Finals in Abu Dhabi in 2022, the esports industry in the region has flourished. As the first stadium-filling esports event for the region, it set the tone across Mena, highlighting the immense excitement and energy in live competitive gaming,” James Hartt, director for AD Gaming, said, referring to the largest and most high-profile Counter Strike esports tournament to be held in the Middle East, which attracted thousands of fans to Yas Island’s Etihad Arena.
A string of successes
As the industry grows, local talent flourishes — with the UAE’s gamers now making a name for themselves at tournaments around the world.
Abu Dhabi-headquartered Team Nigma Galaxy’s female Counter-Strike: Global Offensive team won the world championship and every other major tournament within the scene.
Its PUBG mobile team was named champion in the Arabian League and the first team to qualify for the World Cup.
Also, Abu Dhabi-based Nasr eSports’ Amjad ‘AngryBird’ Alshalabi became the first-ever Arab Street Fighter champion at the EVO World Championship.
In terms of new partnerships, gaming giant My.Games – a leading publisher and developer of mobile, PC, and console games — established a regional headquarters in Abu Dhabi.
“My.Games demonstrated their confidence in Abu Dhabi’s potential, which has been further galvanised given that they plan to relocate over a thousand employees to the emirate. All of this marks a step change for the local industry, setting the stage for a promising esports future in Abu Dhabi,” Hartt said.
He underlined that the esports landscape across the UAE has seen a surge in tournament platforms, in turn creating more of an opportunity for local talent.
“An example of this is e&’s Arena Challenge, which offers access to mobile gaming tournaments on a range of games. Looking globally, we have seen a major push for ‘Route to Pro’ programmes, with more slots opening in qualifying competitions including the Blast WildCard Qualifier. Collaborations with regional esports organisers of this nature will further expand avenues for gamers to climb divisions on global leaderboards, so we are continually looking for ways that AD Gaming can accomplish this from Abu Dhabi.”
Next month, the return of the Blast final will see some of the best Counter Strike teams in the world compete for a $1-million prize pool.
“The Blast Premier Counter Strike World Final is a prime example of our strategy to bring top-tier esports to the UAE’s capital,” Hartt underlined.
Last year’s Blast Premier World Final was the first time an esports event of this scale was held in the Middle East, with more than 6,000 fans attending the event at the Etihad Arena. In an all-European battle, Germany-headquartered G2 Esports defeated the Netherlands’ Team Liquid to become the champions.
Andrew Haworth, programme director for Blast Premier, hopes to push the bar even higher with this year’s event and provide fans with next-level entertainment.
“We hope to achieve this by elevating the in-arena viewing experience, through industry-leading lighting, staging, and sound techniques to ensure fans are wowed from start to finish. Adding to the esports action on the main stage, there will be a gaming festival in the concourse of the arena, which will provide fans with a wider gaming experience and a deeper understanding of its benefits along with giving fans the chance to meet local esports and gaming heroes. This gaming space will be a one-stop-shop for everything a gamer or esports fan could ever want.”
Haworth underlined that the successful hosting of the Blast final was an “important step” in the UAE’s esports journey.
“We were able to maximise the legacy of this event by engaging with thousands of local esports fans and organisations: 20 local Mena-based gaming and esports grassroots organisations, including Nasr Esports, Nigma Galaxy, Team Falcons, Yalla Esports, and Geekay Gaming, welcomed students from the biggest education institutions in the Middle East while engaging with local companies, technology institutions, and esports organisations to ensure we are helping grow esports, gaming, and the wider entertainment industry.”
Haworth pointed out that the feedback received from fans and stakeholders was the need for more esports events, organisations and general opportunities to be made available in the UAE and the Middle East.
“AD Gaming’s work in Abu Dhabi is providing an important framework to achieve this and we are proud to be able to support them by bringing back the region’s largest esports event to the Etihad Arena in December for a second year running,” Haworth said.
Hartt highlighted that the 2022 Blast year’s event was a “resounding success” that left attendees asking for more.
“This spectacular event is a must-see for all gamers. This year will build upon these successes considerably, and anticipation is building for this jam-packed gaming festival at the Etihad Arena. We can’t wait for the excitement to begin, so mark your calendars for December 16 and 17,” Hartt added.