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In the age of coronavirus lockdown restrictions, bored residents are turning to video games for entertainment - and company, in a way that's never been seen before

Pandemic players: how Covid-19 changed gaming forever

Gaming companies operating in the Gulf region have seen a spike in sales as a result of Covid-19 restrictions

It’s Friday night, and – like the rest of us – 24-year-old Abhinav Kanungo is sitting at home. Just a few months ago, he’d have been out on the town. But in the age of Covid-19, Kanungo’s favourite restaurants are operating at minimal capacity, his choice bars silent, his potential Tinder dates quarantined safely at home.

His limited options, he tells us through the grainy screen of a Zoom call, don’t mean that he’s bored.  Like millions around the region and the world, he’s turned to video games for entertainment – and company.

“A lot more people are gaming now. Lots of games have picked up in terms of the number of people playing since the quarantine began,” he says, the booming sounds of a ferocious digital gun battle audible in the background. “Games also kind of fill the void of that social life that we’re not getting. It’s a way to overcome that social distance.”

Sony Interactive Entertainment, the makers of the popular PlayStation game console, is among leading companies in the gaming industry

Statistics show that Kanungo is far from alone. PC gaming service Steam, for example, has seen users skyrocket to record levels amid the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, with 23.5 million gamers on the platform simultaneously on March 30. In the US alone, according to telecom giant Verizon, gaming usage has gone up a whopping 75 percent during peak hours. Similarly, esports has seen a dramatic spike in viewers, with Amazon’s Twitch streaming platform seeing a 60 percent jump in viewership in March compared to the previous year.

“Gaming has proved to be a non-pandemic industry. It can’t be affected. It was already online,” explains Habib Chams, head of digital games conference at ITP Gaming [ITP is Arabian Business’ parent company]. “We were already playing games with one person in Brazil and another in Tunisia. It’s not only not been affected – it’s done very well.”

A golden opportunity

A spike in gaming has in turn created a surge in demand for gaming-related products, ranging from consoles and laptops to headsets and controllers. In North America alone, video game sales were up 34 percent in March compared to the same month in 2019, while hardware sales were up 63 percent, according to American research firm NPD Group.

“A lot more people are gaming now. Lots of games have picked up in terms of the number of people playing since the quarantine began”

Although figures for the Gulf and Middle East markets are not readily available, firms operating in the region have reported seeing similarly profitable increases in demand since lockdown restrictions were first introduced.

A prime example is Taiwan-headquartered Acer, a technology firm that specialises in PCs and laptops favoured by gamers. According to Paul Collins, the firm’s Middle East general manager, the firm has seen a sizeable increase in orders since the Covid-19 crisis erupted.

“As people battle to fill their time, gaming has become a very valid and quite important pastime. We’ve definitely seen an upsurge in gaming monitors, and we’ve seen a move in product demand for more entry level line products for gaming,” he tells Arabian Business. “We’ve seen as much as 20 percent [rises] in some key territories in terms of short-term demand. That implies that people are either improving their set-ups, or maybe even getting into new gaming.”

Paul Collins serves as Acer’s general manager for the Middle East

Like many firms in the gaming sphere, Collins says he’s “cautiously optimistic” that demand for gaming products will remain elevated for the next 12 to 18 months.

“A lot of it is because of the suddenness of this, and lack of preparation,” he adds. “People thought they had the right equipment [for gaming] but now realise that they don’t, now that they’ve been stress tested. There are a lot of new entrants, as well as exiting players that are upgrading. I anticipate that this will be sustained.”

Matthew Pickering, the managing director of Power League Gaming, said that some titles are seeing engagement spikes of as high as 100 to 150 percent as a result of the pandemic.

“There will be a crossover of people who enjoy watching the sport in real life actually starting to pick up on those sports in a gaming environment”

“[That] is quite incredible when you look at those titles even pre-Covid,” he adds. “The bottom line is that we are all at home, now more than ever. The demand for entertainment and collaboration is high and the ability to compete with one another in traditional sports or physical formats is at an all-time low.”

A turning point for esports?

It’s not just regular members of the public that have been stuck and unable to compete physically. Around the world, arenas and stadiums have been dormant, the stands empty of crowds and the playing fields and courts devoid of action. In response, large parts of the professional sports world have taken their competition online.

In March, for example, Formula 1 announced an ‘Esports Virtual Grand Prix’ featuring a number of current F1 drivers.

Top flight football leagues quickly followed suit. The trend was highlighted on April 10, when arch rivals Inter Milan and AC Milan held an ‘e-Milan derby’ on the game Pro Evolution Soccer 2020. The match – which in ‘normal’ times would have been played in front of 80,000 fans at the shared San Siro Stadium – was instead broadcast globally on YouTube and on AC Milan’s subscription TV channel. The British Premier League, for its part, held a similar week-long digital tournament on FIFA, with the ‘matches’ streamed on NBC Sports, Sky Sports Twitch and Youtube.

Ahmad Al Nasheet is a well-known gaming influencer and commentator

Ahmed Al Nasheet – a wildly popular Dubai-based gaming influencer and commentator who goes by the name DVLZGame – says that the fact that professional athletes endorsed esports during the pandemic will have a lasting impact on the sector.

“This will create a whole movement. People interested in watching football, for example, will also get interested in watching esports. It’s all related,” he explains. “If professional football players are playing a game and taking it seriously, the fans will take it seriously. It breaks the boundaries.”

Al Nasheet’s views are echoed by Acer’s Collins, who says he believes the Covid-19 pandemic will one day be seen as a turning point for esports when it moved from niche – but large – audiences of young people to a wider demographic of ‘traditional’ sports fans, many of whom will be older and more mature.

“We’re going to get a lot more of this, and we’re going to see quite a large spike in gaming, to almost replace traditional sports. There will be a crossover of people who enjoy watching the sport in real life actually starting to pick up on those sports in a gaming environment,” he explains. “This is going to be a huge accelerator.”

Beyond business

In the short-term, however, many gamers and industry insiders are more focussed on the benefits that gaming has during the pandemic: namely, that it is an activity that manages to simultaneously keep people apart physically and bring them together emotionally at a time when physical gatherings outside of the home are all but impossible.

“The solution [to the pandemic] is gaming. Stay home, and play games,” remarks Karim Ibrahim, the chief executive of Robocom VR, a Dubai-based tech firm that specialises in virtual, augmented and mixed reality gaming and entertainment.

“Connectivity is the key. Covid made us realise, even on an off-level, that we’re all connected,” Ibrahim adds. “One way or another, the world functions as one single entity. Gaming allowed us to realise that.”

Notably, both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and gaming companies themselves have pitched this connectivity as a major selling point during the crisis. In late March, the WHO and a number of gaming companies came together to launch the #PlayApartTogether initiative, aimed at keeping people indoors, playing games, and having a conversation – through gaming platforms – while following safety guidelines during the pandemic.

“It’s never been more critical to ensure people stay safely connected to one another,” Activision’s chief executive, Bobby Kotick, said at the time. “Games are the perfect platform because they connect people through the lens of joy, purpose and meaning.”

For the WHO, the encouragement of gaming comes as something of a reversal. Just last year, the organisation officially labelled gaming addiction a modern disease, despite the fact that it is  far from accepted as one by mental health practitioners around the world. Citing ‘reviews of available evidence’, the WHO warned of ‘impaired control’ and that many young people may prioritise games over school work and social responsibilities.

“This proves them wrong,” Kanungo tells us angrily. “They took extreme examples and warned of a modern illness. Covid-19 is a real, actual illness, and now they want us at home gaming to fight it. This is important now, and a kind of social interaction on its own. The pandemic helped everyone realise it.”

Dr Sarah Rasmi, managing director of Thrive Wellbeing Centre

The potential benefits of gaming haven’t been lost on parents and mental health professionals here in Dubai. Among them is Dr Sarah Rasmi, managing director of the Dubai-based Thrive Wellbeing Centre and mother of a 16-year-old.

“As much as we try to minimise the amount of time they [young people] are spending on video games and these other sorts of things, if that’s their social outlet, and the way they are able to connect with their friends, then we need to be a little more flexible about it,” she says. “It’s a lifeline. They used to go hang out or go outside together. Now they can’t, but what they can do is continue to play and connect through their PlayStation or Xbox.”

No end in sight

Currently, it remains unclear how long restrictions will last, and what social life and entertainment in the UAE and elsewhere in the region will look like in the post coronavirus era.

For the foreseeable future, however, most of us will largely be confined to our homes most of the time – a trend that many gamers say will likely mean elevated interest in the sector, even after ‘official’ restrictions are lifted.

“Everybody is bored at home,” Al Nasheet sighs. “For the first time ever, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you do for work. Everybody is at home. People are hungry for new games and will be bored of what they had before. People just want to play video games. It’s the right time.”

Kanungo puts his forecast more bluntly.

“Restrictions may be lifted a bit, but this isn’t going to end all that soon. I doubt I’ll be headed out to eat or to a bar this year even,” he says, his eyes still locked on his game rather than on the Zoom call. “I’ll need to buy more games.”

Gaming for good

In late April, the Saudi Arabian Federation for Electronic and Intellectual Sports (SAFEIS) announced the ‘Gamers without Borders’ esports championship. The event – which is supported by UNICEF and other charitable organisations – has a total prize of $10m. All proceeds will go to UNICEF and other similar organisations. The event began on April 24 and will run through June 7.

Big business

Activision and Electronics Arts – two of the biggest players in the gaming industry – reported soaring profits in the first quarter, largely as a result of the pandemic. Activision’s quarterly profit reached $505m on revenue of $1.8bn, while EA’s income doubled to $418m, with revenues of $1.4bn. Electronic Arts’ popular FIFA game also reached 25 million players, a franchise record.

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