A high-stakes game: How to ensure esports sponsorships hit home in the Middle East

Jack Blog

September 8th, 2023 By Dan Lord

A black man stands inside an adidas retail experience dressed head to toe in adidas's new line of merchandise for esport athletes.

Across the Middle East this summer, esports activity buzzed. The region is filled with gaming enthusiasts. In fact, 60% of the population are fueling the rapid rise of the esports market – a movement which stemmed from the Sakhr console in the 80s, sparking a culture of gaming in the Middle East, unique to other parts of the world.

With this year’s Gamers8, the world’s largest gaming and esports event and destination for gaming enthusiasts, we’ve seen another leap forward in the industry’s rapid growth, following the formation of the Saudi Esports Federation. In line with the nations esports strategy, Gamers8 festival aimed to be ‘bigger in every way,’ offering a $45m prize pool – the biggest in esports history. The destination saw the announcement of further expansion with the unveiling of the Afro-Arab Esports League, a new esports competition for Africa and the Middle East with 25 member nations.

Globally, this is an industry that’s expected to hit $200 billion in 2023, and the number of esports sponsorships multiplied five times in the past five years. With a growing youth demographic and intrinsic links with the growth of the tech sector, it’s not just a high-growth area; it feels like it represents the future, and as a result, it’s an appealing playing field for brands. But in this fast-moving gaming universe, how do brands ensure their esports sponsorships are ahead of the game?

The risk and reward

While opportunity is abundant, it comes with high stakes. Gaming has its micro-cultures and communities; from PC and console gamers to mobile, brands need to be clear about who they’re trying to connect with and what matters to them. For example, mobile gamers tend to be more casual gamers and may not identify themselves like PC and console users. Despite this, they account for significant growth in the gaming market. As smartphones evolve, they can increasingly offer more sophisticated gameplay, so a shift in advanced mobile gamers can be expected in the not-too-distant future. At the same time, regional nuances should be understood. Women in the Middle East have been gaming for far longer than women in the western world, as social behaviors made gaming a more important part of the social scene than in other cultures.

Authenticity is also important, particularly among younger generations. But given the ownership felt by many within the gaming community – born from a genuine passion amongst its members – any perceived lack of authenticity amongst brands in their sponsorship choices or the way they activate them is felt deeply with severe consequences for those shown to transgress. Brands that leap into this space without a credible reason to be there are routinely challenged by gaming communities and publicly taken down if there is a perceived lack of understanding of the community and what matters to it – and on quite a granular level. Mis-stepping on gameplay, regional culture and in-jokes can result in being exposed as a game-washing outsider.

How to ensure authenticity? It starts with self-awareness – brands must understand what they can genuinely offer that’s valuable to the community. To do this, the community – their interests, lifestyle, ambitions, and behaviors specific to Arabic culture – must be fully understood.

Amazon’s sponsorship of MENAtech to form Amazon University Esports in the UAE and Saudi Arabia has tapped into this understanding, placing the brand at the heart of the esports community in the region and helping to fund its ecosystem and develop the next generation of esports athletes.

Check your game

Applying this level of understanding to inform the most effective activation of sponsorships is critical. This will be specific to each opportunity, but there are four broad rules to follow to ensure an activation hits home:

  1. Get close – it’s no longer enough to broadcast to fans. Democratization through social has fueled fan desire for better access to the leading esports influencers, players and each other. Enable two-way conversation between your talent and the fans.
  2. Get personal – this closeness to talent generates a desire to be part of it and for fans to create their own content – to which the explosion of Discord pays testament. Create activations that help fans find and share their own voice.
  3. Get ahead – content is no longer linear but multi-layered, and esports fans have many ways to engage simultaneously – so help them do so. The crossover of streaming, esports platforms, and live experiences promise many more exciting possibilities ahead.
  4. Get in touch – gamers in the region appreciate inclusion and understanding of their culture, such as when game developers create landscapes from the Arab world Vs solely western environments. With Gen Z more broadly; younger generations want brands to be tuned into the communities in which they operate and the wider planet– so both sensitivity to and, more importantly, action within diversity, equity, inclusion, and sustainability are highly important; and will start to work their way in to the gaming conversation in the future.

In the ever-evolving landscape of esports sponsorships, brands must navigate a high-stakes game in the Middle East’s thriving esports scene, enticing its tech-savvy, culturally proud youth. Succeeding in this rapidly expanding gaming universe relies on personalized interactions, authenticity, understanding, and a commitment to meaningful connections with a passionate audience. Brands that master these principles secure their place in the industry’s dynamic future.