Exclusive Saudi Arabia on mission to become global gaming hub: Savvy Games Group CEO

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Saudi Arabia is on a mission to become a global hub for games and esports with the development of a gaming ecosystem in the Kingdom that has seen unprecedented growth in recent years, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Savvy Games Group Brian Ward said in an exclusive interview with Al Arabiya English.

The Middle East and North Africa is a key growth region for the global gaming industry, with Saudi Arabia taking center stage.

For more news on Saudi Arabia, visit our dedicated page.

The Kingdom is home to over 24 million gamers – roughly 67 percent of the population, according to the chairman of Saudi Esports Federation Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan.

The widespread interest in games and esports, paired with favorable demographics in the country, was part of the strategic reason the Public Investment Fund (PIF) founded Savvy Games Group, Ward told Al Arabiya English.

Brian Ward, CEO of Savvy Games Group. (Supplied)
Brian Ward, CEO of Savvy Games Group. (Supplied)

Fully owned by PIF and with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as its chairman, Savvy’s strategy has been to drive growth by investing in the gaming and esports industry, creating more opportunities for participation, strengthening partnerships within the sector, as well as improving the user experience.

“Our role as the national champion of games and esports is to harness this potential and help build a games and esports ecosystem in Saudi Arabia that matches the talent and passion of its population,” the CEO said.

A force to be reckoned with

When Savvy was founded, the domestic gaming sector was in its infancy. But since its establishment, it has become one of the fastest-growing gaming companies in the world and has witnessed rapid progress.

Moreover, while the esports ecosystem in Saudi Arabia was slowly growing following the establishment of the Saudi Esports Federation in 2017, the industry lacked a concentrated vision, according to Ward.

In 2022, the Crown Prince unveiled the National Gaming and eSports Strategy that marked the beginning of a new era for the sector.

“The National Strategy provides a shared mission for our sector: to make Saudi Arabia a global hub for games and esports. This ensures that all organizations working in games and esports in the Kingdom are collaborative and unified in their work,” Ward said.

“In games terms, we are all playing on the same team.”

Gamers from different countries play during an esports and gaming festival Gamers8 at Boulevard Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, July 9, 2023. (File photo: Reuters)
Gamers from different countries play during an esports and gaming festival Gamers8 at Boulevard Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, July 9, 2023. (File photo: Reuters)

A collective of 20 government and private entities are leading the comprehensive plan which outlines a roadmap to achieving success. This includes launching business incubators, hosting major gaming and esports events, establishing educational academies, and developing clear regulations for the industry.

The ultimate goal is to transform the gaming and esports sector into a significant contributor to the Kingdom’s economy – placing Saudi Arabia closer to its goal of becoming less dependent on oil.

“By revenue, the games industry surpasses worldwide box office earnings, music streaming and album sales, and the top five wealthiest sports leagues – all combined. That represents a fantastic economic opportunity, particularly for Saudi Arabia,” Ward said.

Gaming has evolved from merely an entertainment industry to becoming a significant source of economic growth.

Spectators watch video games as gamers from different countries play during an esports and gaming festival Gamers8 at Boulevard Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, July 9, 2023. (Reuters)
Spectators watch video games as gamers from different countries play during an esports and gaming festival Gamers8 at Boulevard Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, July 9, 2023. (Reuters)

In Saudi Arabia, the gaming sector has seen a significant revenue impact on trade and consumption.

In 2023, the Kingdom’s gaming market was valued at $999 million and is projected to hit more than $2.6 billion by 2026.

With a growing number of public and private initiatives that promote talent and business development in the country, Saudi Arabia is well on its way to becoming a force to be reckoned with in the world of gaming and esports.

Inclusivity and job creation take center stage

With an estimated 48 percent of gamers in Saudi Arabia being women, Ward said Women are a “fundamental” part of the sector’s success.

A gamer plays during an esports and gaming festival, 'Gamers8' at Boulevard Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, July 9, 2023. (File photo: Reuters)
A gamer plays during an esports and gaming festival, 'Gamers8' at Boulevard Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, July 9, 2023. (File photo: Reuters)

“Women are fundamental to the success of Savvy and the wider games and esports sector in the Kingdom,” the Savvy Games Group CEO said.

“After all, approximately 48 percent of gamers in Saudi Arabia are women – that’s a vast pool of potential talent, as well as being a core consumer audience.”

Savvy Group’s headquarters in Riyadh currently has approximately 25 percent female employees, according to Ward.

The games development studio, Steer, also has approximately 25 percent female staff and have even received the Best Workplaces for Women Award in 2023.

“This is a strong start, but it’s clear we have more to do,” Ward noted.

This challenge is not unique to Savvy – attracting and retaining female employees, as well as promoting diversity and inclusion, is a key focus of games businesses around the world.

Savvy is contributing to this global effort through several partnerships and initiatives, such as GGFORALL – ESL FACEIT Group’s program to tackle discrimination, promote mental well-being, and progress environmental sustainability in esports.

Savvy employs around 200 people in Saudi Arabia in roles that span across the whole spectrum of the games and esports value chain at every level.

The rapid growth of Steer Studios, the company’s games development business, to over 80 people in its headquarters in Riyadh, with games in advanced stages of development is a key component of this, Ward said.

As well as growing Savvy’s direct employee base, its other priority is encouraging international businesses to invest in and set up in the Kingdom, he added.

Savvy is currently advancing conversations with over 20 international games companies with an interest in expanding into Saudi Arabia.

“In the first half of 2024, I accompanied Savvy’s Vice Chairman, Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, on visits to the USA, China, Japan, and South Korea to strengthen Savvy’s network in leading international markets and tell people about the massive potential for games here in MENA generally, and the Kingdom specifically,” he explained.

Esports World Cup and Saudi Arabia convening power

The Esports World Cup is a clear demonstration of the Kingdom’s convening power as it welcomes the world’s best and most exciting players and teams to Riyadh, the CEO told Al Arabiya English.

“The competition is taking esports to the next level in its development and strengthening the Kingdom’s position at the center of the sector’s evolution,” he said.

The competition, held in Riyadh from July 3 to August 25, will offer the largest prize pool in esports and feature the most popular esports titles across all major gaming genres.

Saudi Arabia is gearing up to host its debut Esports World Cup (EWC) in Riyadh. (Ghinwa Obeid, Al Arabiya English)
Saudi Arabia is gearing up to host its debut Esports World Cup (EWC) in Riyadh. (Ghinwa Obeid, Al Arabiya English)

The prize pool of over $60 million is divided into four categories: game championships ($33 million), player bounties ($1 million), qualifiers ($7 million), and a cross-game competitive format club championship ($20 million).

“The unprecedented total prize pool [of] $60 million reflects the organizer’s efforts to grow the global esports sector while providing sustainable career options for competitive players and clubs. It’s also a clear signal of the commercial value of esports,” the CEO said.

The tournament, operated by Savvy’s esports business ESL FACEIT Group (EFG), plays a major role in developing a world-leading esports infrastructure in Riyadh. It is also expected to help transfer knowledge and nurture skills to fuel the continued growth of the Kingdom’s esports ecosystem, according to Ward.

“The event is a demonstration of the ambition and growth of the Kingdom’s games and esports ecosystem as set out in the National Gaming and Esports Strategy. We look forward to supporting the event organizers over the years to make the event the highlight of the global games and esports calendar,” the CEO said.

“Saudi Arabia is already the largest market by games revenue in the MENA-3 region (KSA, UAE, Egypt), generating more than half the regional revenue in 2023, and is considered by industry analysts to be the games powerhouse of the region. As the National Champion of Games and Esports in the Kingdom, Savvy is committed to sustaining the sector’s growth.”

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