Competitive video gaming, otherwise known as e-sports, is taking off worldwide, with the global market set to grow at 24.4% annually until 2027. The power of gaming goes beyond simple enjoyment: it is a chance to tell stories, to experience culture and to develop highly technical virtual reality (VR), augmented reality and extended reality skills and software. As the number of gamers around the world soars, this is an industry to be taken seriously.

The Middle East is currently under-represented on the global e-sports stage, meaning the market expansion opportunity here is huge. Today, the UAE has one of the highest spends per capita on gaming in the world, and the country is rapidly emerging onto the scene.

One of the most exciting things about this industry is its openness. “Nobody has a monopoly on creative talent,” says Sultan Al Riyami, head of e-sports and gaming at Abu Dhabi Gaming (AD Gaming), a government initiative pioneered by Abu Dhabi’s media free zone, twofour54. “What matters is for us to create the foundation that will support the people that create the next amazing piece of content.”

In Abu Dhabi, organisations like AD Gaming are laying that foundation, backed by strong government support that recognises the value of the gaming industry. “We are creating long-term, future-proof jobs on the ground in Abu Dhabi,” says James Hartt, director of strategy and business development for AD Gaming. “These are skilled, technical jobs that will play an increasingly significant role in the future of Abu Dhabi’s economy.

“If gaming companies want to be in the heart of the industry in the region, Abu Dhabi is the place to be,” says Hartt.

The foundation

As swathes of e-sports production companies, including the Emirates Esports Association, Boss Bunny and Kashkool Games, bring their operations to Abu Dhabi, the market is rapidly maturing, and the environment is designed to expedite growth. “Whatever you could achieve anywhere else in two years, we want to help you do it in one,” says Al Riyami.

In 2021, AD Gaming was established as a collaborative government initiative to develop a self-sustaining gaming and e-sports ecosystem in the emirate. “It is a government support programme to boost the private sector gaming and e-sports industries,” says Hartt. “The AD Gaming platform gives companies visibility, which will flow through to investment and sponsorship opportunities.”

Since the initiative’s inception, one of the world’s most successful e-sports teams, Team Nigma Galaxy, has moved its headquarters to Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island. Through its partnership with AD Gaming, it has become the first major e-sports team to be partnered with a major airline, Etihad Airways.

“That is ground-breaking,” says Al Riyami. “It is indicative of the sort of holistic support that you can get when you are trying to grow in this space in the UAE.” Large corporates are increasingly recognising the sponsorship opportunity and huge audience access that e-sports can offer.

AD Gaming has also partnered with world-class gaming software developer Unity Technologies, headquartered in Abu Dhabi, to provide game development expertise within MENA. “This sets us apart from a game development perspective,” says Al Riyami. “We bring in stakeholders who understand the market and the resources that will incentivise people to set up businesses here and expedite growth.”

A supportive regulatory environment

“Abu Dhabi offers a stable business environment regulated by the Media Zone Authority, which really understands the needs of the media industry,” says Hartt.

“Setting up your media business in Abu Dhabi with twofour54 is a straightforward step-by-step process. We have an incredibly active business development department who will hold your hand through the process to get your business up and running in the fastest possible time.”

In the region, you won’t find a more empowering environment for doing business. Packages and support programmes are designed to help studios during all phases of game development to mitigate risks and accelerate development. Importantly, businesses can depend on the government’s long-term commitment to the industry.

The future of gaming in Abu Dhabi

In the coming years, Abu Dhabi promises to be a hotbed of activity in the gaming industry. “It will be a vibrant place to be if you are a gamer or in the game development industry,” says Hartt.

Specialist talent will be a key accelerator for the industry. “We have a range of talent development projects launched with the university system,” Hartt adds. “We are bridging the education system with the industry on the ground here in Abu Dhabi, generating skilled jobs and feeding in a world-class pipeline of talent.”

Significant infrastructure projects are also already under way. “We already have 16 game development studios set up in Abu Dhabi and that number is growing rapidly,” says Hartt. The new media technology on Yas Island will host 10,000 creative professionals and over 600 companies from gaming and the wider media industry. “The demand for companies to join the creative community at Yas is huge – they see what Abu Dhabi is building and they want to be part of it,” Hartt adds.

Another world-class addition to the entertainment space in Abu Dhabi will be the launch of PIXEL, the largest e-sports arena and VR gaming complex in the region, at Al Qana later this year, a truly awesome development.

“Abu Dhabi is open for business, and we are very passionate about e-sports,” says Al Riyami. “We have full support from the leadership down.

“Whether you are a start-up from the UAE or already an established business trying to go global, we have the best launchpad for you to do that.”

To find out more about investing in gaming and e-sports in Abu Dhabi, download the Abu Dhabi Prospectus today.