Wearing headphones and anti-sweat finger sleeves, gamers from eight countries guided gun-toting avatars through a battle royale in the Saudi capital, as cheering onlookers watched the action on a big screen.
The PUBG Mobile tournament was part of Gamers8, a summer festival spotlighting Saudi Arabia’s emergence as a global eSports dynamo — one that officials hope can compete with powerhouses like China and South Korea.
Much like with Formula One and professional golf, the world’s biggest oil exporter has in recent years leveraged its immense wealth to assert itself on the eSports stage, hosting glitzy conferences and snapping up established tournament organizers.
Saudi gamers are reveling in their country’s newfound status and the eye-watering prize pools it brings.
“In the past, there was no support,” said 22-year-old Faisal Ghafiri, who competed in the PUBG tournament, which featured $3 million in prize money.”
“Thank God, now is the best time for me to play eSports and participate in tournaments,” he added, noting that what was once a hobby had transformed into a lucrative “job.”
Saudi Arabia’s eSports federation was created in 2017, and the number of eSports teams in the kingdom has since blossomed from two to more than 100.
Survey findings indicate 21 million people -– nearly two-thirds the national population –- consider themselves gamers.
In January, the Kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund launched the Savvy Gaming Group, which acquired top eSports firms ESL Gaming and FACEIT in deals reportedly worth a total of $1.5 billion.
Last week, Crown Prince Mohammed released a national eSports strategy that calls for the Kingdom to create some 39,000 eSports-related jobs by 2030 while producing more than 30 games in domestic studios.
Next year Riyadh will host the Global Esports Games, billed as the world’s “flagship” competitive eSports event.
“I think what’s incredible is that the government has put eSports front and center, whereas a lot of countries are still trying to work out a positioning,” said Chester King, CEO of British Esports.
“The investment, I would say, is probably top of the world.”
Gaming is also expected to be a major component of headline-grabbing development projects like the Red Sea megacity NEOM, with its planned 170-kilometer-long (105 miles) twin skyscrapers known as The Line.
Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan, chairman of the Saudi Esports Federation, told AFP his vision is for the kingdom to become a natural choice for all eSports programming.
“One of the most amazing things for me is at our recent event, at Gamers8, the amount of young Saudi players who came up to me and said, ‘We always loved watching these things, but we never thought we would have it here,’” he recalled.
“And that’s the emotion, and that’s the image that I want to keep.”