Navigating the Landscape of Esports and Gaming in Saudi Arabia

There is little doubt that Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 national development plan is a landmark initiative that will propel the Kingdom to a new era of socioeconomic development. Not only does this ambitious strategy seek to reduce the state’s dependence on oil revenues and create more jobs. Policy and decision makers in Riyadh are focusing on the potential of a creative economy that stimulates innovation and entrepreneurship that will drive economic growth in non-oil sectors. To this end, Vision 2030 emphasizes the importance of cultivating a vibrant and diverse cultural landscape that involves breaking down traditional barriers and fostering a more inclusive environment that will attract global talent, investments, and tourists, and enhance the quality of the life of its citizens. Therefore, by investing in the entertainment sector, such as encouraging concerts, film festivals, and other events, Saudi Arabia aims to grow a thriving cultural scene that resonates with both domestic and international audiences.

Saudi Arabia as a Regional and Global Esports Hub

Vision 2030’s emphasis on entertainment and cultural development also intersects with the growth of esports. Esports is not only viewed as a recreational activity, but as a viable avenue for cultural expression and economic growth. Saudi Arabia’s forays into the gaming world reflect an understanding of the global impact of esports, and the potential for the Kingdom to become a regional hub for gaming and esports innovation. HRH Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud said of the gaming industry: “We are harnessing the untapped potential across the esports and games sector to diversify our economy, drive innovation in the sector, and further scale the entertainment and esports competition offerings across the Kingdom.”

One of the goals of esports and gaming is to create career pathways to thousands of Saudi Arabian youth who are enthusiastic about gaming and would aspire to find a career path that matches their passion. According to the Chairman of the Federation of Esports and Gaming HRH Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, the Kingdom’s aim to become a leading global hub for gaming and esports by 2030 will create over 35,000 jobs and contribute $13.3bn to the nation’s economy. Not surprisingly, the growth of the gaming industry has led to job creation, especially in areas such as game development, esports event management, and streaming.

A drawing of a large multicolored arena
Design mock up of a Gaming and Esports District in Qiddiya City in Saudi Arabia. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

A notable initiative is the establishment of the Saudi Esports Federation and the hosting of major gaming events, showcasing a commitment to nurturing local talent and creating a competitive gaming ecosystem. Additionally, the rise of esports has attracted global sponsorships and partnerships, hence enhancing the country’s international visibility and potentially boosting tourism. These partnerships not only infuse capital into the gaming sector but also foster an environment conducive to further growth.

Multi-Dollar Infrastructure Investments

The development of esports and gaming in Saudi Arabia is a multifaceted endeavor, combining infrastructure investments, educational initiatives, and a strategic alignment with Vision 2030’s broader goals. Investments in gaming infrastructure have played a pivotal role in the industry’s growth, which is expected to have a notable impact on the Kingdom’s economy. These investments in gaming infrastructure, such as the establishment of esports arenas and gaming hubs, can stimulate job creation and contribute to the diversification of the economy. For instance, the ambitious planning and development of a gaming and esports facilities in Qiddiya City, with a 5,155-seat multifunctional venue and six tapering volumes, hopes to eventually host large year-round events and to attract 10 million visitors. Additionally, Saudi’s $45 million investment with UAE-based esports network True Gamers to establish 150 centers aims to make the Kingdom the global epicenter of the fast growing esports and gaming industry.

an audience sits in tiered auditorium seating looking down on large video screens above a stage
Design mock up of a Gaming and Esports District, with an arena featuring the world’s largest video screens and 4D haptic seat, in Qiddiya City in Saudi Arabia. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

To achieve this goal, HRH Prince Faisal bin Bandar stated in December 2022 that Saudi Arabia aims to have 250 gaming companies by 2030 and to create more than 30 game titles that are among the top 300 globally by 2031. Further, the establishment of the Savvy Games Group (SGG) with a value of SAR375bn played a pivotal role in the developing of high-tech infrastructure, including venues for Saudi Arabian gamers to socialize and compete on both local and global scales. The development of esports arenas, gaming lounges, and dedicated spaces for gaming enthusiasts have become prevalent across the country. These venues not only serve as hubs for competitive gaming, but also as social spaces where the gaming community can connect, share experiences, and participate in tournaments.

Educational Programs

Esports has become a medium to teach many young and old values that are essential to success in many facets of life—from teamwork and collaboration to problem-solving, persistence, and all-around professionalism. To promote career pathways in esports, the Saudi Esports Academy offers extensive courses on strategies and tactics of different titles.

a group of men in thobes displaying diplomas
The first graduates of the Saudi Esports Academy master’s and diploma programs. Photo: Saudi Esports Federation.

To align with the demands of a rapidly evolving job market, where expertise in gaming and esports-related fields is becoming increasingly valuable, Saudi Arabia promoted the University Esports competition, a national video game race that aims to foster a new generation of gamers, developers, and professionals within the industry. These programs are supported by the government’s sponsorship of esports competitions that are organized in three categories of tournaments: the Professional International, the Professional National Saudi Esports League competition, and the University eLeagues Amateur category that motivates universities across the Kingdom to develop esports teams to compete in the tournament.

Esports and Artificial Intelligence (AI)

As Saudi Arabia continues to invest in technology and innovation, incorporating AI in esports and gaming aligns with the broader goals of Vision 2030, fostering technological advancements, economic growth, and the development of a vibrant digital ecosystem. AI development plays a crucial role in shaping the future of esports and gaming in Saudi Arabia, contributing to various aspects of the industry to enhance the overall gaming experience. With this understanding, the Saudi Esports Federation’s partnership with Smartifai spearheaded the integration of ChatGPT with contextual technology and generated unprecedented attention for the Gamers8 event in Riyadh in 2023. This was achieved by delivering fast and succinct content summaries in English and Arabic, and the integration of visual communications with the ChatGPT format. Not only did this approach enhance users’ reading experience, but it also fostered deeper partnerships with gaming, sports, music, and entertainment publishers.

Looking Ahead

The landscape of esports and gaming in Saudi Arabia has undergone a remarkable transformation, evolving from a niche interest to a vibrant and influential cultural phenomenon. As the nation embraces the digital gaming wave, the social and economic impact becomes increasingly evident. Esports not only offers a platform for entertainment and skill development, but also presents opportunities for entrepreneurship and technological advancement. With the support of the government and a growing community of enthusiasts, Saudi Arabia is poised to continue to establish itself as a significant player in the global esports arena. As the nation continues to navigate the intersection of tradition and modernity, the world watches as esports and gaming contribute to shaping a dynamic and progressive future for Saudi Arabian society.

Author: Fadi Hilani

Dr. Fadi Hilani is a Senior Academic and Research Fellow-in-Residence at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. Born in Aleppo, Syria, Dr. Hilani was raised in the United Kingdom and Syria. In Syria, he served as a Professor of Linguistics at Aleppo University and as the Acting Director of the Languages and Translation Department at the Higher Military Academy in Damascus. He also served as a Professor of Linguistics at Isra University in Jordan before accepting a faculty position at Montclair State University in New Jersey. He completed his Bachelor’s Degree in English Language and Literature at Aleppo University in Syria and earned a Master’s Degree and Ph.D. in Linguistics from Essex University in the United Kingdom. Dr. Hilani also earned a Master’s Degree in Near Eastern Studies from New York University, with focus on Middle East foreign policy and U.S. relations.