'Go-it-alone' operators stifle eSports growth in SA

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The South African eSports community is eagerly waiting high-speed internet connectivity for the industry to score more participants.

The fractious nature of the local eSports community is also stifling growth and the local eSports community believes Eskom’s load-shedding from time to time is another impediment.

The global eSports market has exploded in recent years, with more and more viewers tuning in to watch the best gamers in the world do battle.

The 2021 Free Fire World Series, a Garena Free Fire tournament hosted by Singapore, became the most watched eSports event of all time, with a recorded 5.41 million peak viewers. The second most viewed tournament was the 2019 League of Legends World Championship, with almost 3.99 million peak viewers.

Colin Webster, general secretary of Mind Sports South Africa (MSSA), a non-profit association and affiliate of the International eSports Federation, says eSports has been recognised as a mainstream sport since the late 1990s.

However, Webster points out the eSports community remains fractious in SA, with many mavericks operating and not going through the official structures.

“Whereas MSSA is deeply committed to development and creating upward ladders for eSports athletes, many, if not most, of the maverick organisations, which are profit-making ventures, pay no heed to the importance of development programmes and seem to only be concerned with making a profit.

“It must be emphasised that eSports, like any other sport, needs to have firm development programmes if it, as a sport, is to continue to grow. I feel it is important to emphasise that not all gamers are athletes, and that only the official events can be seen as true sporting events.”

Seeking a sporting chance

According to Webster, South Africa, in some eSports respects, is ahead of other countries, and yet in others is trailing woefully behind.

“South Africa’s infrastructure and high data costs create a huge burden, which impedes the entry of the vast majority of people into this exciting sport.

“The fractious nature of the ‘go-it-alone’ operators makes an unstable environment and causes unnecessary tensions between those athletes that wish to go through official structures and those that do not.”

Nevertheless, he says, SA can boast of having the first national federation for eSports in the world that is transparent and run on the best democratic principles.

Webster points out that one of the biggest challenges facing eSports in SA is still to get most South Africans to see gaming on mobiles, consoles and personal computers as a viable option to other older, existing sports.

“Already, more and more schools are entering the eSports arena in order to cater to the needs and wants of their learners. It should be noted that all games and sports are merely a reflection of society, and all sports adapt on a year-on-year basis to meet the needs of a changing society.”

Another huge challenge is to enable every South African to participate in eSports. “eSports in comparison to many other competitive sports remains relatively cheap, and it is MSSA’s desire to see a club in every suburb throughout SA in order to unlock SA’s vast potential. However, it must be noted that SA's socio-economic issues still disadvantage many South Africans.”

Colin Webster, general secretary of Mind Sports South Africa.
Colin Webster, general secretary of Mind Sports South Africa.

Courting attention

Sally Jukes, partner, and Carl Bosma, director at BDO South Africa, say: “No longer the simple video gaming and entertainment we once knew and loved, eSports is currently the fastest growing sport globally, with a recent tournament hosted in Singapore recording 5.41 million peak viewers.”

According to Jukes and Bosma, as eSports’ popularity rises, global investors, brands, media outlets and consumers are suddenly paying much more attention to this disruptive industry that is currently worth $1 billion – with projections that this number will almost double by the end of 2022.

In SA, they note, rapid adoption of smart devices and an increasingly savvy youth market have experts predicting eSports’ audience size will increase across Africa from approximately 30 million in 2020, to 53 million in 2023 – with SA being the stage post for this expansion.

While these numbers pale in comparison to the rest of the world, Jukes and Bosma point out they are still extremely promising.

SA currently has the largest eSports community on the continent, with sponsorship from international companies and international funding for local tournaments, they note.

“We also have the skill to rival international challengers, as more and more schools begin to offer eSports as a subject.”

However, they say slow broadband, the high cost of consoles and games, connectivity between a player’s computer or mobile device and the game server, plus load-shedding are all real challenges hindering local growth of the industry.

“Some of these challenges are also putting the industry into a catch-22 situation. Take for example the necessity of massive, dedicated gaming servers to host the games.

“Global game publishers are loathe to commit to building on-shore servers until they see a larger player base, but the player base cannot increase when high data costs and connectivity issues are still such tangible pain points.”

Jukes and Bosma believe the Facebook-backed 2Africa undersea cable project, set for completion between 2023 and 2024, could be the ping South African players are looking for to substantially lower their lag times and data costs.

The 37 000km undersea cable around Africa will provide better internet access, which will revolutionise the playing field, they say.

“Elon Musk’s SpaceX satellite internet services should be available, subject to regulatory approval, in South Africa in 2022, and will also change the face of internet access and the cost thereof for millions of people as it brings high-speed broadband internet to rural areas left out of the fibre rollout. Both of these initiatives hold the promise of bringing a newly connected segment of the population into the arena.”

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