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The growth of eSports in Africa

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A professional gamer playing Overwatch

May 25, 2020 (WASHINGTON) - It’s taken quite some time for the continent to catch up with both Asia and Europe, but it seems that we’re finally getting there. In fact, the next couple of years could prove to be the tipping point when the eSports industry at long last expands its reach beyond the borders of South Africa.

With this in mind, we decided to take a closer look at what the eSports industry looks like from a global and African perspective, and why games like online poker and Fortnite are growing in popularity.

A serious money game
Incredibly, eSports tournaments are now on a similar level to traditional sporting events in terms of both finances and spectatorship. Games such as League of Legends, Fortnite, and Dota 2 boast prize funds that put them on a par with the likes of golf and even tennis.

The League of Legends Worlds event had a prize fund of $8,948,000 and was the most viewed eSports tournament in the world with over 3.9 million viewers. Although it was the most-watched, when it comes to money, both Fortnite and Dota 2 are streets ahead. The Fortnite World Cup had an unbelievable prize pool of $64,338,000, while Dota 2 wasn’t far behind with $46,150,000.

A Dota 2 tournament held in Singapore

These enormous prize pools are in part a result of the huge numbers of gamers now playing online. And with gaming becoming a more mainstream pastime that is now accessible to a large percentage of the world’s population, investment in the industry is at an all-time high. Back in 2018, Deloitte estimated that global investment in the industry was $4.5 billion.

Global eSports brands such as ESL, FIFA, and Overwatch understand all too well that Africa is on the cusp of something big. They now regularly hold events in Africa with a view of raising the profile of their respective games and to perhaps identify the next big thing in eSports. As you can imagine, with so much money on the line, professional teams are always on the lookout for talent.

What about online poker?
While eSports teams generally tend to play games such as DOTA and Fortnite, perhaps the most popular of all eSports in terms of regular players is online poker. Since the online poker boom of the mid-2000s, the industry has grown exponentially, with major providers hosting regular poker tournaments with increasingly large prizes and player pools.

The rise in popularity of poker, in general, can also be attributed to high-profile celebrities getting involved in the game. You may even recall how stars Matt Damon, Don Cheadle and Ben Affleck held their own charity event back in 2007 in a bid to raise money for and bring the world’s attention to Sudan.

Poker’s cleaner image, accompanied by the endorsements of well-known celebrities, has led to a complete shift in attitude towards the game. And although the game isn’t played in every country in the region, its popularity has never been higher.

There are many professional online poker players based out of South Africa where, as we mentioned earlier, the eSports industry is currently thriving. Even so, we’re still waiting for the first fully-fledged African poker eSports team.

Can Africa match Asia?
The truth is that it will be a very long time before any other continent can match Asia with regards to eSports. Some of the world’s best professional teams play out of South Korea, Taiwan, China, and Japan. Players are often treated like celebrities and they make as much if not more money than professional athletes in their respective home countries.

It’s hard to imagine that anything could usurp soccer as the one sport that many African school kids want to play professionally. But with significant investment in communications networks ongoing throughout the continent, more people now have access to the internet than ever before. Of course, it takes a lot more than access to the internet to be a success at eSports but it’s a starting point nonetheless.

A better infrastructure, alongside investment from global brands, will no doubt give more African players better opportunities to impress at tournaments. However, if we are to truly compete with Asia and Europe, the one thing we’ll need above all else is dedicated gaming servers. The likes of Blizzard and Epic Games invest heavily in servers in Europe, Asia, and the US but have yet to do the same in Africa.

One publisher though has its finger on the pulse. Tencent Games announced last year that they were set to establish a dedicated server for their game PUBG Mobile in South Africa. It was a hugely popular move that put Tencent firmly in the lead in Africa in terms of customer relations.

If major publishers follow in Tencent’s footsteps, eSports could explode in the region in a very short space of time. The fact is that it’s not a lack of quality or desire that is stunting the growth of the industry here in Africa, but latency issues that hinder players’ progress.

With the nearest servers often located in Europe, it’s virtually impossible for players in certain African regions to remain competitive with their European counterparts. Yet there are still some incredible players on the continent. Just imagine how good they will be when the correct infrastructure is in place.

What next for eSports in Africa?
As we mentioned earlier, there are several major tournaments set to be held on African soil towards the end of the year and into 2021. These events, coupled with the growth in popularity of RPG games such as Fortnite and even the more traditional games like online poker, will no doubt see the industry grow. However, just how fast it does grow depends largely on investment in those dedicated servers.

Whatever happens, for the time being, eSports is looking healthy here in Africa. A few more years and we may even see the first fully professional eSports leagues on the continent. It’s a big dream but one that is certainly possible.

(ST)

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