Game On: The Steady Rise of Gaming in Kenya

A few years ago, gaming was barely considered a conventional professional to venture into it. At best, it was a casual way to pass time. Now, with live streaming becoming commonplace alongside improved technological infrastructure and earning potential for gamers, gaming in Kenya is increasingly in popularity.

01 Feb 2021 . 6,042 Views

He is a beast! Nay, he is The Beast. In form, his body is well built.

But that is not why he is called The Beast. The name is a moniker Brian Diang’a, 29, acquired seven years ago.

Brian is referred to as The Beast because he plays like one. Or better said, he fights like one in the video games where he has carved out his niche as being an indomitable professional gamer. His go-to game is Mortal Kombat , a hand-to-hand virtual battle where you fight to survive.

Professional gamer Brian Diang’a. In the gaming world, he goes by the moniker The Beast.

His passion for gaming began in 2012 while living in Kibera, where he honed his skills at a gaming parlor called ‘After Homework’. It was appropriately named as gaming is all he did after school every day, sometimes even before school. His first ever gaming character was Jax Briggs, a masculine, skillful and dexterous character that Brian believes is him personified.

In 2014 – the year that he became known as The Beast – Brian took it a level higher when he started participating in local gaming tournaments, and he was so good that today, he is a mentor at Safaricom’s Blaze, the youth network.

At the network, he is the voice behind the growing gaming ecosystem in Kenya.

“I got into gaming to escape my immediate reality: poverty. Things were so bad at home that I needed a place I could run to forget even just for some time. After Homework was that place. It offered company and solace to so many of us that would have turned into crime or drugs,” he says.

He adds: “When I played and won, it stirred something in me. I kept playing because I wanted to win. I still play to win.”

For Sylvia Gathoni, 22, her entry into competitive gaming started off when she participated in The East Africa Gaming Convention, 2017. While at the competition at the Two Rivers mall in Nairobi, that brought together players in the industry, Sylvia saw an opportunity to go pro.

Once she completes her legal studies, Sylvia hopes to use her skills in improving the legal framework in the ever-changing gaming sector.

The final year Law student at Catholic University of East Africa is known as The Queen Arrow among her gaming peers. She relishes playing Tekken 7 and her favorite characters are Lars Alexanderson, Ling Xiaoyu and Leo Kliesen.

“I love their dexterity and creativity which I think is what describes me. I love speed especially when encountered with a challenge. I love their tenacious nature and their relentless resolve to conquer. Plus, they are defenders of justice which is an extension of what I would like to practice as a lawyer in the future,” she says.

The Queen Arrow was among the Safaricom eSports Tour 2019 winners.

“It affirmed my desire to take it to the next level. When you know that someone is willing to spend their money to pay you for something you can do, you know that it is not all in vain,” Sylvia says.

She is now a freelance gamer but had previously been signed by two eSports teams:  XiT Gaming (US) and Brutal Democracy (UK).

She is quick to point out that gaming is not just a preserve of men and some of her fiercest competitors have been her fellow women.

“Almost all tournaments I have been part of, I have competed with other female gamers. We may not be many though. I think there is need to incentivize ladies to play more and even go pro. I look forward to exclusive lady tournaments in Kenya like we have in other sports,” she says.

Like in many other industries, gaming has its fair share of sexism.

“There are times I have had to prove my worth to my male peers after such snide comments as; ‘I can’t play or be beaten in a game by a woman.’ And in most cases I play and win just to drive the point home that gaming is never about gender.”

Sylvia hopes that once she completes her legal studies, she will use her skills in improving the legal framework in the ever-changing gaming sector.

Sylvia Gathoni, or as she is known to her gaming peers, The Queen Arrow is among the Safaricom eSports Tour 2019 winners.

She welcomes the move by Safaricom to enhance gaming in Kenya such as the recent Safaricom MobiPlay Challenge, an annual mobile phone gaming platform where gamers compete and accumulate points for daily or grand prizes. Elizabeth Mbugua, from Ruiru, was crowned the winner of the 8-weeks challenge in September 2020. Her closest competitors were Victor Kimiyu and Kevin Ocharo.

Speaking on the launch of the MobiPlay Challenge, Safaricom’s CEO Peter Ndegwa said: “As entertainment choices become redefined by the changes brought about by social distancing, online gaming will continue to grow tremendously. It is on the back of this insight, as well as growing demand for relevant digital content, that we are working to augment our games lounge service to enable our customers remain entertained on the go.”

A few years ago, both Brian and Sylvia say gaming was not considered a conventional profession to venture into.

“You would come across as unambitious, foolhardy and without direction or purpose,” says Brian.

In part because it was thought of as childish ambition to sit behind a screen, hours on end, moving toggles on a game console. Secondly, there was very little knowledge about gaming and most people thought of gaming as an addiction or at best, gambling.

He adds there was also the misconception given that gamers spend their time in a virtual world with limited ‘real’ human interaction, and they are bound to be lonely.

He clarifies: “Gaming is not lonely. It does not eat away from one’s social life. As a matter of fact, it expands it. I have friends from as far as Europe that I meet virtually almost daily. We play and talk about things, the kind of stuff you do with friends when you meet them in person.”

These sentiments are shared by a study by the University of Jyvaeskelae Finland, which found that gaming provides a new platform to socialize, network and build long-lasting bonds.

The lockdown and isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic saw a sharp increase in the purchase, viewership and participation in online games to stay in touch, shows Forbes.

While research is still out there on the effects of video games due to excessive use and addiction, there are concerns that video gaming has similar characteristics of other addiction disorders.

Gaming is also big business.

In 2019, the sport generated about $150 billion, according to Newzoo, which tracks the games market and provides insights and analytics for investors. In 2018, a report by Goldman Sachs forecast viewers of gaming, also known as esports, would reach 300 million by 2022. According to the report, there is an estimated 14% annual growth rate in eSports viewership across the gaming ecosystem. This increased attractiveness of gaming has caught the eye of social media giant Facebook, who in October 2020 introduced Facebook Gaming. Gaming is a top revenue earner, beating box office and recorded music by close to $100 billion in 2019  alone. It is also a major entertainment source. 2.4 billion people played mobile games in that same year.

Goldman Sachs attributed the increased popularity of eSports to the rise of livestreaming and improved infrastructure.

Google Stadia, launched in 2019 by Google, is a cloud gaming service with capabilities of streaming games for up to 4K resolution. Mobile gaming apps are the third most popular apps closely following Social Media and shopping apps.

In Kenya, the faster and more affordable internet  that came with the connection of the country to the rest of the world via fibre optic cable has certainly played a part. Brian accesses the internet via Safaricom home Fibre Internet, allowing him to compete with other gamers across the globe. Great and reliable internet is a vital lifeblood for gamers.

Locally, gaming parlors have become commonplace, with at least an outlet in most malls in cities.

Ezekiel Njuguna, a gaming parlor owner at Imenti House in Nairobi’s CBD, has been running the arcade for six years now. Initially, his patrons were teenagers, most of whom were secondary school students, but now he is seeing people well above 18 years old visiting his gaming parlors. In addition, nearly all his clients are men.

“FIFA is the most popular. I think it is because it has a touch of reality to it. People can create their teams with names of professional players they see on major leagues of the world, they can take part in tournaments and win with those teams they create. The thrill of having your football star answering to your whims may just be the reason for FIFA’s popularity,” he says.

His gaming arcade can sit 20 players at a go. He has fitted the room with 10 LED screens, 5 PS4s and leather couches. At the beginning of every year, he ensures he renews his trading license to the Nairobi City County alongside permits by Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK) and Performers Rights Society of Kenya (PRISK) in order to play local music at his shop.

He has also started hosting online and streaming gaming services and organizing prized tournaments to meet a new demand.

Jackline Mukami runs Fortitude Gaming Arena in Thika and that has provided her an income since 2016 and enabled her to expand the business to another town.

She says: “We started with two television screens and three to four clients a day and there were days we wanted to close down. With time, we began to receive more clients and in 2017 we had to look for a bigger space that accommodated more people and more gaming equipment. We recently acquired two PS5s to better our user experience. In June 2019, we opened another gaming shop in Meru town where I come from.”

That gamers can gain an income from playing and winning games is an incentive that sees many of the players glued on screens with consoles in hand.

Pritraj Semi, 21, a second year Computer Science student at Kabarak University in Nakuru, understands this all too well.

He started gaming while in his last year of high school in 2017. Soon he discovered through social media about streaming sites and teams from across the world.

He says: “I depend on gaming to pay for my university fees. I recently bought a ninth-generation computer mostly used by pro gamers. I’m setting up a gaming console in my room and I look forward to becoming one of Kenya’s most prolific gamers.”

He reckons he has what it takes, but his parents are reluctant to accept this chosen path.

For Brian The Beast, gaming has provided his bread and butter for years now. As a pro-gamer, he wakes up to go and play and gets paid. He lives off playing online and consults for team. While he doesn’t go into the specifics, he says it “pays him handsomely.”

Brian The Beast, is now a mentor at Safaricom’s Blaze, the youth network.

Brian says Kenya is behind in making strides in key policies to guide the gaming industry. The Gaming Authority of Kenya established under the The Gaming Act, 2017 is responsible for licensing, control and overseeing policy that govern gaming, lotteries and betting.

“There are countries in Africa that have recognized gaming both online and offline as a sport. They have formulated regulatory policies to govern gaming and to ensure that it is done within the framework of the law. What this has done to those countries is to ensure that gamers are protected by law, and that they are not exploited by law enforcers who may want to collect bribes at gaming premises,” he says.

The Act mandates the Authority to define standards, procedures and principles of operations, premises, equipment, personnel, supplies of services and enforce compliance within the gaming field.

 


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