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Covid-19 stirs gaming and esports craze to new level


Children learning to channel their energy and creativity into a new computer game in the Digikids Programme at Strathmore University in Nairobi on April 11, 2019. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Elizabeth Mbugua is a hobby gamer. During her breaks and free time, she grabs her device, usually her phone and gets into her favourite game.

Victor Ndambuki graduated in December with a degree in engineering but two months into his job hunt, Covid-19 struck and hopes of securing a job seemed to fade.

As an avid amateur gamer, he began polishing his craft following the economic slump that followed the movement restrictions put in place by the government.

The two are just some of the millions globally who turned to gaming to keep themselves entertained as governments imposed lockdowns and social distancing rules.

In fact, their interest in gaming saw them take part in a two month long mobile gaming competition, emerging winners in multiple categories.

Elizabeth’s friends tipped her off on the MobiPlay Challenge by telco Safaricom.

“My friends knew I enjoyed playing games on my phone and they told me to try out,” she says.

The eight-week competition had six hours of play daily starting at 6am and the final round at midnight with four others staggered within the day.

“My first two days playing, I won airtime, then I won a phone which motivated me to play even more and that’s how I ended up being the overall winner,” she says.

The digital marketing practitioner has taken a keen interest at polishing her skills in gaming, and eventually, become a professional.

She admits the time commitment is taxing, especially given the fact that she has a job to attend to and can only spare a few minutes at a go to polish her skills.

“I would wake up at 5:50am to catch the 6am game and made sure I played the one at midnight to ensure my lead in the competition stayed strong,” she explains.

She managed to clinch devices and airtime almost daily. This, she says, shows the potential gaming has in Kenya if well-funded and supported.

Victor and Elizabeth have joined the million globally who have turned to gaming, whether playing or watching, to pass time and keep themselves entertained.

This has seen video game sales smash records across the world. Nintendo saw its Switch console demand double since March while Microsoft’s X-Box One and Sony’s PlayStation 4 had a 25 percent sales increase.

The demand has been so high that it’s reported that Nintendo planned on increasing its production of consoles by 20 percent.

Data from Nielsen showed that 82 percent of global consumers played video games and watched video game content during the height of the Covid-19 lockdowns.

“Consumers are looking for ways to pass the time and help distract themselves from what is going on in the real world. Video gaming and esports have helped create a much-needed distraction,” said Jon Stainer, Managing Director of Sports at Nielsen in an article published by the firm.

Newzoo, an analytics firm, indicated that more than $150 billion will be spent of games this year, and will surpass $200 billion within the next three years. eSports revenues are estimated to be over $1 billion dollars.

Newzoo further indicated that mobile gaming will generate over $77 billion, with growth coming from emerging markets.

In Kenya, the value of telecommunications gadget imports, including computers, laptops and smartphones, surged by more than half to Sh8.01 billion in four months of Covid-19 lockdown.

This was an increase from the Sh5.18 billion that Kenyans splashed on tech items in the four months to July last year, according the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), reflecting a 56.29 percent growth.

Locally, there has been an increase in the number of gaming parlours set up in various residential areas.

The single rooms with multiple screens, faux leather seats and gaming consoles, usually Sony’s Playstation, are constantly packed with youth at the edge of their seats, eyes trained on the screen.

Brian ‘Beast’ Diang’a, a professional gamer says that the gaming ecosystem is massive with multiple inroads beyond being a player.

“There are parlours, gaming content creators, organising events and even streaming,” he says.

Brian has been playing video games since he was six years old. His first tournament was in 2015 which only made his interest grow.

“There is more to gaming than just smashing buttons. You have to learn how to play the game. They teach you to be fast in your decision making,” he says.

Sylvia Gathoni, popularly known by her moniker QueenArrow has been gaming for as long as she can remember. In fact, she recalls following her elder brother and cousin to play video games when she was still a preschooler.

She is Kenya’s first gamer to be signed to a major eSport company, making her the face of the segment in Kenya.

She was slated for a Tekken tour—a popular video game—before the borders were closed in March. Unable to travel and showcase her skill in the sport, she has been creating content on her art and sharing it on her social platforms.

“Tournaments don’t always earn you money, but you can create content on the side, use social media or get corporate sponsorship to earn more income from gaming,” she says.

In a day, she practices for up to eight hours—not in a single block—staggered across the day.

According to Brian—who earned his nickname Beast from the skills he displays when backed to a corner in a game—a good gamer must put in long hours of practice to make it to the top of their game.

Currently working with a gaming firm known as Proseries, he states that before a tournament, he can spend as many as 17 hours in a day practicing.

Since the restrictions in Kenya were imposed, Brian states that there has been a rise in the purchase of consoles and games locally.

“Gaming has grown so big locally, you can even have your console repaired in Nakuru,” he says. Before, people had to ship the devices to Nairobi in search of experts.

He adds that online pages that have sprouted on popular social media sites dealing purely in the sale of gaming equipment.

The Financial Times stated that Nintendo sold almost half of its games digitally in the first quarter of 2020.

Makers of popular game Call of Duty (CoD) said that average 407 million people played its game in the first quarter of the year. EA on the other hand had more that 25 million players on its Fifa game, with the firm stating that its net income had doubled.

As restrictions persist, the numbers locally and internationally are expected to continue rising as people seek to stay occupied and reduce stress during this period.