By: Jolene Latimer, Editor
You don’t need to be a professional gamer to make money through esports, something leading esports experts in Africa are banking on when it comes to developing the industry across the continent. While esports athletes can certainly be well-compensated, the same can be true for developers, marketers, coaches and other support staff that keep the esports ecosystem alive.
Where that gets exciting for the African esports community is when you consider the simple fact that the region needs jobs. Lots of them. Esports, they think, could be the answer.
“You have over 377 million people in Africa who are playing games,” said Alex Tsado, co-founder and board member at Alliance4ai. “The projection for 2020 is that industry will bring in $5 billion — and many will argue that’s even small,” he said.
Africa’s working age population is growing— fast. By 2035 it’s expected to grow by 450 million people who will be looking for jobs that not only pay a livable wage but that offer career opportunities and potential for growth. Yet projections show that without major, immediate changes, there will only be about 100 million jobs available for this group of workers. As Africa looks to develop industries across the continent, African esports leaders want the gaming community to be part of the solution.
While a team and support staff could create about 10 to 15 jobs simply supporting the functions of the team and their branding, leaders like Sayo Owolabi, founder and CEO of the Lagos Esports Forum, say the potential to even more jobs rests with organizations like his that host esports events and create partnership opportunities in their communities.
“We’re just doing makeshift or maybe freelance services to augment those of us who are fully involved,” he said, of his current citation. “If the esports community is more aggregated it means we can show potential for investment so we could set up a proper organization, composed of people with expertise — HR, administration, marketing, sales, gamer relations.”
He estimates an organization like his could potentially hire 25 to 30 people as the esports industry grows. “Imagine if there are 20 more operating in Nigeria like that,” he said.
He knows it’s ambitious but he believes he can grow his own organization within five years, although he’s hoping to make extensive progress within one year.
“It might sound over ambitious but we see it happening next year, based on the work we’re putting in,” he said. “We’re showing people the potential and the market and what we can achieve. We’re not just waiting for investment, we’re looking to put beyond the ordinary in it.”
Owolabi and his team have already taken the lead on organization esports activations in Lagos. In August they initiated a mobile game tournament, with a second edition of the tournament running in October. They secured sponsorships from large corporations such as KFC and Alat, a Nigerian digital bank.
Owolabi believes the secret to success is showing people the potential for engagement that’s inherent in the gaming community when sponsorships are approached thoughtfully. One of the activations at the tournament involved downloading the bank app, so the sponsor walked away with tangible results. They also got the bank to pay tournament winners through a digital account at the bank.
“Most of the time, people want to approach sponsors and say, ‘Give us money,’ but we showed them we can get people to engage,” he said.
While the tournament is just one step forward in one African nation, it’s success many feel can be duplicated across the continent.
“I see endless possibilities,” said Ife Akintaju, who runs The Afro Gamer and hosts a podcast on esports in Africa. “I’ve said it over and over again. It’s the new tool for social and economic change for Africans. There’s high unemployment rates, many people don’t have a career path. So, introducing the African youth particularly into a culture they already have is the next step.”
Akintaju believes once brands grasp the potential of content creation in Africa, the monetary opportunities will begin to materialize. “Africa as a continent is huge on content creation,” he said. “The younger generation, you see them doing short comedic skits and brands are jumping in to sponsor. Esports is the same thing and it’s going to be a new tool for marketing.”
Despite all the optimism, there are some roadblocks. Chiefly, many brands mistakenly think Africans won’t spend money on video games.
“They don’t believe in the African consumer. They don’t think the African consumer will pay for games because they think the person is too poor and wants to pay for food,” said Tsado.
In response, he recalls his own growing years in Benin City, Nigeria. His mom, a doctor, would give him lunch money, which he would promptly take to his local gaming center to play. He met hundreds of other children who were doing the same. His habit of skipping lunch, coupled with an active lifestyle, prevented him from gaining weight as he grew, something his parents at one time had a doctor examine.
Little did they know it was just his video gaming obsession, which he continued into college in Nigeria and university in the United States where he earned a degree in electrical engineering and computer science from Columbia University.
“It’s a wrong assumption that Africans won’t pay to play games,” he said. “I hope a few investors will become aware of that.”
To help scale, Africans say they need stronger organization and investors who care about developing the continent.
“There’s really no convergence point for so many organizations, people or games who are doing different things,” said Owolabi. “Without an aggregation there is no industry. Everyone is doing their thing without a convergence point.”
For Owolabi, part of the answer is hosting regional events that bring together athletes and teams from different African countries. “That’s the beauty of the #worldconnected Series,” he said. “Before now, most tournaments that have been tagged as global usually exclude sub-Saharan Africa.” The #wcs20 is a community initiative inspired by the Global Esports Federation’s values of equality, fair play, diversity, inclusion and innovation, running from 17 to 19 December 2020.
“Africa needs partners in progress, not just investment,” he said. “You can bring the money and not open us up to networks.”
With all the optimism surrounding the esports industry in Africa, Owolabi feels #wcs20 is a model example of how he hopes the future will look. “It’s fully sponsored by the Global Esports Federation, and they’re still giving us the liberty of marketing our event,” he said. “Africa needs partners. If you’re coming to invest you should also think beyond the money you’re bringing along to open us to global opportunities.”