There are several hundred million gamers in the Middle East and Africa – around 15 per cent of the global total, according to the research company Newzoo – but when it comes to developing the mobile and console games they love to play, the region is badly under-represented. Abu Dhabi’s twofour54 media zone is trying to ensure that doesn’t remain the case for much longer.
In 2020 twofour54 and AD Gaming worked together to develop the region’s nascent gaming industry, signing a partnership with the software developer Unity Technologies and setting up the Centre of Excellence at the AD Gaming Hub, which has opened at twofour54’s Yas Creative Hub.
“At twofour54 we are building up a community and providing the facilities which will enable the gaming and esports industry to grow and flourish in Abu Dhabi,” says Yara Awad, twofour54’s head of commercial projects and strategic partners.
Sultan Al Riyami, head of gaming and esports at AD Gaming, adds: “Abu Dhabi has been prolific and successful in the film and TV space. We see gaming and esports as the next frontier. That’s where we’re heading next.”
AD Gaming’s ten-year partnership with Unity Technologies is multi-faceted. One of the key elements is setting up the Centre of Excellence – the first of its kind in the Middle East. This will be a state-of-the-art site where students, professionals and small businesses can learn the skills needed to succeed in the industry. Gaming companies at twofour54 and AD Gaming partners will benefit from free support from Unity, including strategic and technical coaching and other training, as well as professional licenses on the Unity learning platform and optimisation and performance testing of their games.
For Unity, twofour54 offers access to a high-growth market with a diverse pool of talent and cross-industry links from games to entertainment and film and into other sectors including retail and manufacturing. “Abu Dhabi represents a great hub to base our operations to service the whole Middle East and North Africa region,” says Raphael Ruland, global vice-president of Unity Technologies. “It’s an easy entry point into the region and the shared vision shown by twofour54 and AD Gaming to drive investment into the community is unique and creative and aligns with Unity’s global goals.”
A further important aspect of the partnership is a “train the trainer” initiative, under which Unity will work with institutions such as Abu Dhabi University, NYU Abu Dhabi and the University of Sharjah to train professors and others to teach artificial intelligence, virtual reality, game development and coding skills.
In the short time Unity has been involved on the ground in Abu Dhabi it says it has already seen some significant developments in the local gaming ecosystem. “The innovation and investment have accelerated,” says Ruland.
One particularly notable development has been the surge in activity in esports, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Promoting this area is an important element of the AD Gaming strategy, given how quickly it is growing around the world.
The esports sector is expected to generate revenues of almost $1.4bn globally this year, according to Newzoo, and almost $1.9bn by 2025. The audience for esports is more than 500 million people, 261 million of them classed as enthusiasts rather than occasional viewers.
A key player in Abu Dhabi’s esports scene is Team Nigma Galaxy, which was set up in September 2021 through the merger of the esports and lifestyle company Galaxy Racer and Team Nigma, the Middle East’s biggest competitive esports team. It will join more than 15 other gaming and esports businesses at the Yas Creative Hub.
Among them will also be Robocom VR, a virtual reality gaming company that has developed its own VR headsets. “VR is growing at such a rapid pace right now,” says Al Riyami. “The number of VR devices is doubling around the world every year and we expect to see enormous growth in the amount of content that will be needed.”
It is not just about creating captivating games and other content though. Abu Dhabi’s regional first-mover advantage in this space means it has already created some exciting companies too. One local success story is the mobile gaming studio Jawaker, which twofour54 first supported in 2011. Last year the game’s developer was acquired by Sweden’s Stillfront for $205m.
Another success has been Boss Bunny Games. It was set up in Abu Dhabi in early 2020 with support from twofour54 and AD Gaming and in November 2021 was bought by the US-based gaming company Waysun. “The acquisition is a powerful boost to the gaming sector in the region, as it will enable us to capitalise on the advanced and integrated business systems of Waysun,” said Aziza Alahmadi, co-founder and chief executive of Boss Bunny Games.
The aim of AD Gaming is to encourage the growth of the estimated $288m gaming industry in the UAE. With the assistance of Unity’s training and expertise and the potential for partnership and collaboration that is baked into the design of twofour54’s Yas Creative Hub, many talented individuals and companies should do just that.