Could Saudi Arabia’s trailblazing female gamers be future esport stars?
Of the almost six million people playing video games in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, nearly 40% – some 2.23 million – are female. “We have no doubts about the talent currently available among Saudi women in gaming,” says Mohammad Al Humood, owner of esports business Phoenix, which is based in Khobar in east Saudi Arabia. “They are cosmonauts,” he says of the Kingdom’s vast and mostly anonymous female gaming community. These console warriors play behind closed doors, but each day travel to virtual realities. “They are fighting an uphill battle in a male-dominated field, and a male-centric society,” Al Humood continues. “Some players we’ve come across could be legitimate world- beaters, but cannot make the choice to go professional due to cultural norms and the lack of support and understanding from families.”
Part of the attraction of gaming is escapism. Gaming can transport a player to another world. “There is no place I’m allowed to go in my city to play,” says female Saudi gamer Jeena, who loves online tactical shooter games like Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege. “I see gaming as my hideout,” she adds. “It helps release my stress and negative energy; it fills me with positivity.” Joumana Al Modawi is a Saudi gamer from Khobar, who has been playing video games for more than 25 years. She loves action-adventure games like the Uncharted or God of War series, and battle game PUBG Mobile. Al Modawi believes that Saudi’s talented female gamers are a byproduct of the nation’s traditions. “They’ve emerged, somehow, as a result of our older, more closed-off culture. Gaming is the only outlet, so the only choice is to get really good at it,” she says. “There is a massive group of female gamers, behind closed walls, playing at high levels, and people are just unaware of them.”
The anonymous nature of gaming means players can be completely unidentifiable and play anyone, anywhere on the planet. “There are many girls that play in Saudi Arabia, but they are hard to find,” says Fernando Pereira, co-founder and president of the Girlgamer Esports Festival. Thanks to this year’s festival in the UAE, the Middle East is now considered one of the most progressive regions in the world for women esports athletes. The tournament offered the largest prize-purse – US $100,000 – that has ever been awarded at a female tournament. While this figure pales in comparison to the male-dominated events offering millions, there’s a healthy appetite in the region for female esports, with many companies seeing the potential to capitalize on the fast-growing gaming industry, predicted to reach $1.6 billion by 2026.
While the final of this year’s event was held in the UAE, Pereira hopes to run a qualifying event in Saudi Arabia in 2021. One of the challenges he’s faced has been enrolling local esports athletes – and not due to a lack of talent. After creating a female esports team named Galaxy Racer in the region and putting out an announcement for Middle Eastern players to come forward, he was inundated with emails from Saudi Arabia. The girls and women asked many questions: “Do I need to show my face?” “Do I need to go on stage?” “Is it only online or do I have to travel?” recalls Pereira. “Most ended up not submitting the application because we needed full image rights and to take photos, videos, and do interviews. Many of the girls were not authorized by their families or they were scared to be put out there and show face.”
Experts estimate that although there are thousands of female gamers in Saudi Arabia playing at a level strong enough to compete in professional tournaments, the fact the industry is dominated by men puts many people off. This is why female-only events are needed, feels Pereira. “Most women don’t want to compete against men because of the negative connotations that come with that, and being the one female in a 100-male tournament,” says Pereira. “It’s so focused on gender that it’s a big pressure.” He’s adamant that female esports players are not only as good as men; they could be even better – “but they need the same environment to develop.”
Al Humood is another ally in the female gaming world, attempting to spread awareness in the region about what female gamers could achieve. “Females are perfect at multitasking and they have extremely fast reactions. If a girl puts in the time practicing, she could achieve more than the boys,” he says. Female Saudi gamer Alhashim agrees, “A female player could definitely do better than a male. In fact, it has nothing to do with gender at all.” Yet, the gaming world is riddled with prejudice. “There’s a lot of toxicity,” says Pereira. “When girls play games online they get harassed; there’s a lot of negativity.” Alhashim recalls instances of negativity while playing online. “As a female, other players always assume the worst of you,” she shares. “If you make a mistake, male players always make a big deal out of it, unlike if another male player makes the same mistake. It’s tiring. They undermine your skills, which makes many female players lose confidence.”
Video games have historically been marketed towards boys, and when there is gender representation in games, it’s often clichéd. In Nintendo’s Super Mario game series, for example, Mario is the hero and has to save the princess, who has been kidnapped. Action adventure game Tomb Raider was the first major game with a (highly sexualized) woman as the main character. “Girls in games were always needing to be saved or objectified,” explains Pereira, “This doesn’t contribute to an environment that girls can identify with. It’s a problem that’s starting to shift with more female empowerment characters in movies and video games with women as main characters.”
Many women prefer to remain anonymous to avoid harassment. “As a girl, I’ve heard stuff like, ‘What are you doing here?’ or ‘Go to the kitchen,’ or, ‘This game is for guys, get out,’” notes Jeena, a 22-year-old who has been playing video games for 17 years. She hopes to go pro one day, but is aware the opportunities are scarce. “Being a girl is the first challenge,” she says. Speaking of girl-only events in the Kingdom, she comments, “We need the chance to show off our skills.”
Originally published in the December 2020 Issue of Vogue Arabia