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In 2022, Kenya made its epic debut in the Global Esports Games held in Istanbul, Turkey. Eight of Kenya’s finest gamers battled it out with other African nations including Ghana, Nigeria, Tunisia, Djibouti, Libya, Somalia and Namibia, and the world’s best. This was no small feat, but a shining example of the incredible potential of electronic sports — or esports as they are most commonly known — and gaming on the African continent.

The world of esports is exploding in Kenya, with an increasing number of young people achieving success in competitive gaming. Although it may not be as popular as traditional sports, esports is gaining momentum — from diverse gaming models, innovative content development and dynamic relationships with the creative economy.

At the core of Esports is competitive gaming — whether video or online. Players face off against each other in a range of games, with various tournaments and leagues offering massive prize money. Popular games in Kenya include FIFATM, FortniteTM, and League of LegendsTM, with dedicated communities of players and fans.

The growth of esports in Kenya has been fuelled by factors such as high-speed internet availability, affordable gaming hardware and opportunities to connect and compete with gamers from all over the world. This is closely linked to the creative economy, which combines art, technology and storytelling to create an entertaining experience. To succeed in esports, players must develop complex strategies, adapt to changing game environments and work together as a team. This makes esports a natural fit for the creative economy.

Step into any bustling urban centre and you’ll find a plethora of young gamers playing their hearts out on game consoles, with the highly popular football game FIFATM or the fighter game TekkenTM at the top of the list. Gaming centres open early and stay open into the wee hours of the morning, with some operating extended hours on weekends. Game arcades and college campuses are also popular spots for gaming enthusiasts.

Despite concerns about the potential risks of excessive gaming, with COVID-19 came a phenomenal surge in gaming in Kenya and throughout the world. With increased internet connectivity and mobile phone access, communal centres sprung up, providing an outlet for gamers with restricted movement and access to gaming consoles. Government authorities occasionally cracked down on these centres but did not succeed in shutting them down completely.

So, how did we get here? When did this gaming generation rise to such prominence? How have esports and gaming impacted the creative economy in Kenya?

Esports: the history

It all started back in 1952 when computer scientist Alexander Shafto Douglas was working on his doctoral thesis at Cambridge University. While studying human and computer interaction, he came up with the idea of developing the XOX computer game also known as Tic-Tac-Toe or “Three Wins”. Six years later, in 1958, physicist William Higginbotham built the first multi-player video game — Tennis for Two — that quickly became a hit.

In 1972 Atari released Pong, an arcade table-tennis game that proved to be a sensation, selling over a million units by the time the company launched the home console in 1977. This paved the way for the gaming industry that we know and love today.

Gaming in Kenya really took off in the mid-1980s when video and arcade games became available. With the opening of Sarit Centre, the first mall in Nairobi, the gaming scene really started to take shape. With the evolution of technology — computers, mobile telephony, and eventually the internet —  gaming flourished.

The development and rise of esports dates back to the 2000s in South Korea. Facing a severe financial crisis, and seeking to provide an entrepreneurial environment for its population, the state focussed on developing internet and telecoms infrastructure. This resulted in the creation of social spaces known as PC bangs that were strategically placed in restaurants and bars, as well as in gaming centres and clubs. These social spaces fostered competition and free-access live streaming services, bringing together highly skilled players and pushing esports to the fore in South Korea and the rest of the world. The Korean Esports Association (KeSPA) was formed to cater for games and was instrumental in growing esports in the world; KeSPA is now a member of the International Esports Federation.

Gaming In Kenya really took off in the mid-1980s when video and arcade games became available.

In Kenya, esports also emerged in the early 2000s as computer gaming cafés started to appear across the country. But it was with the rise of online gaming platforms like Steam and Twitch that esports truly began to take off in Kenya.

In 2007, Adventures of Nyangi, the first-ever locally developed video game, hit the Kenyan market. This was a huge milestone for the gaming industry in Kenya and marked the beginning of a new era. Gaming companies began to form and grow, with Ludique Works (formerly NexGen) and Planet Rackus leading the way, developing mobile games and video games, and working with global partners including Warner Bros. and Nokia Ovi Store.

Black Division Games released Nairobi X in 2015, the first 3D video game in Africa, and Gaming for Kenya (G4K) developed gaming events and promoted the gaming culture. With the advent of fibre optic cable and affordable internet availability, gaming has become more accessible than ever before, transforming a serious hobby into a career for many gaming enthusiasts.

Possibilities 

The PWC Africa Media and Entertainment report for 2022 dropped some major news; revenues in media and entertainment in Sub-Saharan Africa bounced back strongly from the COVID-19 pandemic, with a boom in 2021 and 2022 and niche sectors like the creator economy and gaming taking the lead. Sectors like video, mobile gaming and over-the-top (OTT) video have been growing at a rate of double digits in countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa and the video games market in Kenya is now worth over US$137 million (about KSh16.8 billion shillings). This offers so many opportunities for the budding creator economy in Kenya and the rest of Africa.

Local gaming companies had already built a thriving network of events and partnerships before the pandemic hit in 2020 and gaming had become increasingly popular among the affluent, the middle-class, and even youths from marginalized areas. One such youth is Brian Diang’a, aka The Beast, for whom gaming was a means of escape from the harsh reality of poverty in a Nairobi slum. He became a skilled player and gained recognition as an esports ambassador through Safaricom’s Blaze Youth Network.

Safaricom, a mobile telephony company, saw the potential of reaching the youth by partnering with the gaming community and launching the BLAZE Esports tournament in 2019. This partnership has grown stronger as mobile telephony, gaming, and esports continue to attract new players and enthusiasts. Local companies have also jumped on board, ensuring continued visibility across the youth demographic. For instance, the Standard Group media house supported the Blaze Pro Series Gaming tournaments in 2019, broadcasting the games across the country through its different media outlets.

Local gaming companies in Kenya had already built a thriving network of events and partnerships before the pandemic hit in 2020.

Kenyan gamers also started making a name for themselves in international competitions such as the Fortnite World Cup, where Kenyan player K1nzell made it to the finals in 2019. Moreover, the emergence of esports teams in Kenya has created new opportunities for Kenyan artists, designers, and content creators, who provide creative services such as designing team logos, creating video content, and developing merchandise.

Although the pandemic may have put a damper on physical tournaments, it led to a surge in online fan engagement. Major IT infrastructure companies invested heavily in domestic and household internet availability, and the Kenyan government reviewed mobile data charges and asked mobile companies to offer discounted rates to the population, leading to a significant increase in Internet penetration.

Although the pandemic may have put a damper on physical tournaments, it led to a surge in online fan engagement.

What is more, organizations such as the Pan-African Gaming Union (PAGU), Pro Series Gaming (PSG), and the Tekken 254 Circuit have provided players and gaming enthusiasts with an abundance of tournaments, workshops, and online engagements. Ronny Lusigi, the CEO of Index G Esports has revealed that Kenya’s team at the 2022 Global Esports Games prepared by training virtually daily for three hours starting at 8 p.m. Another player used a local PlayStation lounge in Eastleigh where the IndexG Esports paid for his subscription.

Reopening economies 

When countries and economies around the world started reopening in 2021, everyone was hyped about gaming and esports and Kenya was no exception; even faced with challenges, gamers picked up right where they had left off.

The recession that followed in the wake of the pandemic made it really tough for gaming creators to grow their businesses. But esports has great potential to become a major money-maker in Kenya. Predictions in the gaming industry place Africa as the fastest growing market owing to the increased use of technology, the population bulge and the opportunities created by gaming with electronic, crypto and virtual currencies.

But while esports has been gaining traction around the world, crucial features and infrastructure like streaming platforms, broadcasting, and regulations are still missing. Esports is considered the fastest growing sport, with the global esports market projected to reach US$1.62 billion by 2024. And although the local gaming community is small, it is slowly but surely growing into a powerhouse that can support creators and content producers.

Take the recent Global Games in Istanbul, Turkey, for example, where Kenya was represented in three of the four categories on the table: Dota 2, e Football ™ 2023, PUBG Mobile, and Street Fighter V Champion Edition; a country known for its athletics and team sports is now venturing into the world of esports and challenging the best in the world.

In fact, Kenya is leading the charge in the growth of gaming in Eastern and Central Africa. According to a report by the Gaming Industry in Africa, the country raked in a whopping US$38 million in revenues from gaming in 2021, making it the fourth largest market in Africa after South Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana.

Elsewhere in Africa

Esports in South Africa has grown in popularity in recent years. It is considered a “mind sport”, in the same category as chess. The national governing body for esports in South Africa is Mind Sports South Africa (MSSA), which organizes national tournaments and sends teams to international competitions.

MSSA is recognized by the government as the official body for esports in the country. Several major esports events have taken place in South Africa, including the VS Gaming Festival, the rAge Expo, and the Comic Con Africa esports tournaments. These events attract thousands of participants and spectators from across the country and beyond. Popular games in the country include League of Legends, Dota 2, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, among others. There are also several South African esports organizations, including Energy Esports, Goliath Gaming, and Bravado Gaming, which compete in national and international esports tournaments.

Kenya is leading the charge in the growth of gaming in Eastern and Central Africa.

Gaming has been an important part of the creative economy in South Africa, which includes industries that generate income through the creation, production, and distribution of cultural and artistic products and services. The creative economy is an important source of employment and economic growth in South Africa, and gaming is one of the fastest-growing sectors within this industry.

There are several game development studios in South Africa, such as Nyamakop, QCF Design, and Free Lives, that have gained international recognition for their work. These studios create games for various platforms, including PCs, consoles, and mobile devices, and often incorporate themes and elements that reflect South African culture and history.

With an estimated GDP of US$442 billion Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa. The country enjoys a robust gaming economy, with earnings of US$3 million in 2022. Gaming entrepreneurs established the African Gaming League in 2016 that runs esports competitions in different regions of the country to raise the quality of the game and the calibre of players. It also gives the community a chance to share in the spoils of esports prize money.

The creative economy is an important source of employment and economic growth in South Africa, and gaming is one of the fastest-growing sectors within this industry.

Mobile phones and devices have provided the general population with access to gaming which has also become a market for software engineers and innovators to build platforms, float gaming competitions and provide appropriate sponsorships and investment. Generally, there are two types of developers in this market: hands-off developers—those who design games and allow a community/body or association to organize competitions and tournaments, examples being Microsoft and Nintendo; hands-on developers—those who design the games and organize their events, competitions, and tournaments; examples include Activision Blizzard and Riot Games. The latter have proved to be more popular and are growing faster due to the fact that they retain sole ownership of the intellectual property rights to their games.

The influx of international investment has brought about a surge in gaming revenues, but it is time for African countries to take ownership of their gaming industry. With the rise of local gaming companies, there is a growing sense of African pride and ownership in the gaming scene. From Nairobi to Lagos, African youth are showing their love for gaming, and local companies are stepping up to provide them with the infrastructure they need to take their skills to the next level. More and more locally-based companies are rising to prominence, offering exciting opportunities for African gamers to shine on the world stage.

Gaming: the downside

While esports have become a popular pastime in Kenya and in Africa, it is important to be aware of the potential health hazards associated with excessive gaming. Prolonged periods of sitting and staring at screens can lead to eye strain, headaches, and back pain. Additionally, poor posture while gaming can lead to long-term musculoskeletal problems. Mental health is also a concern, as gaming addiction can lead to isolation and lack of social interaction. It is important for gamers to take breaks, maintain good posture, and engage in physical activity to mitigate these health risks.

Gambling and gaming have a complex relationship that cannot be ignored. There is a need to understand the risks of gambling and the potential for addiction that come with it. Many games now include features that mimic gambling, such as loot boxes, which can be bought with real money, and offer random rewards. This can create a dangerous cycle where players feel the need to keep spending money to get the desired reward, leading to financial loss and emotional distress.

While esports have become a popular pastime in Kenya and in Africa, it is important to be aware of the potential health hazards associated with excessive gaming.

In Kenya, young people have been known to engage in betting and gambling, often with negative consequences. In some cases, they have lost large amounts of money, leading to debt, depression, and even suicide. On the gaming side, there have been reports of addiction and health problems associated with long hours spent playing video games. Additionally, concerns have been raised about the impact of violent and aggressive games on the behaviour of young players. Overall, it is clear that both gambling and gaming can have significant effects on individuals and society, and it is important to promote responsible behaviour and education around these issues.

It is essential for both gamers and game developers to recognize the potential harm that gambling can cause and take steps to avoid it. By promoting responsible gaming and creating games that are fun and fair, we can help ensure that gaming remains a positive and enjoyable experience for everyone involved.

Future of gaming in Kenya and the rest of Africa

The future of gaming in Kenya looks incredibly bright and promising. With the rise of mobile gaming and the growth of the creator economy, there will be an increased demand for local content and home-grown talent. This will create new opportunities for aspiring gamers, content creators, and game developers to display their skills and talents.

In 2023 alone, the international competitions lined up include, the Olympic Esports Week in Singapore in June 2023, World Esports Championships in late August 2023 and Global Esports Games in November 2023.

The tournaments will provide prize money for gamers and tournament organizers. Sports tourism will grow, with global visitors and gamers promoting their countries as ambassadors of the game. In the longer term, curriculum in higher and technical institutions will be introduced to offer courses for game developers, as noted by Ronny of Index G Esports.

As for Kenya, it is poised to become a major player in the global gaming scene, with more international tournaments and events. As technology continues to advance and access to the internet and gaming devices become more affordable, we can expect to see even more innovation and growth in the Kenyan gaming industry. The future of gaming in Kenya is indeed promising, and it will be interesting to see what the next few years will bring.