gamers

Kenyan gamers Sylvia Gathoni and Brian Dianga. 

| Nation Media Group

Young gamers putting Kenya on global spotlight

What you need to know:

  • Currently worth an estimated Sh13.9 billion, Kenya’s video gaming industry is expected to grow to about Sh16.8bn by 2023. 
  • There is at least one e-sports studio in every neighbourhood in Kenya today, as the number gamers, mostly teenagers and young adults, bulges. 
  • But just how did gaming’s fortunes hit these mouthwatering levels?

Once Loyce Ngeta starts to play Candy Crush on her smartphone, everything else takes a backseat. Ngeta, 24, immerses herself in the game, sometimes for up to three hours, forgetting other tasks and her immediate circumstances. Even hunger. 

Watching the candies burst enthralls her. The volunteer at an NGO in Migori County plays Solitaire and Sudoku too, for recreation while travelling, when bored and when she can’t read. 

‘‘Sometimes I’m forced to delete the games so that I can focus on other things,’’ she confesses, adding that she soon downloads them again as the cycle continues. ‘‘I just can’t stop playing.’’ 

Sylvia Gathoni queen arrow gaming

Sylvia Gathoni, a professional gamer who goes by 'Queen Arrow' in the gaming world. 

Then there’s Sylvia Gathoni, a professional gamer and the first Kenyan to be signed by a major e-sport company. Known as Queen Arrow in the gaming world, Gathoni, 22, is a final year law student at the University of Nairobi. She plays Tekken 7, sponsored by UYU, a North American team.

Gathoni bust into the pro gaming scene in 2017, then 18. But it’s her triumph at the Safaricom Blaze E-sport Tour’s Tekken tournament in 2019 that catapulted her to fame. She’s now ranked 13th nationally in Tekken 254 –the only woman in the list of more than 30 professional gamers in Kenya. 

The rigour demanded by her law degree notwithstanding, Gathoni just can’t let go gaming. So far, she has invested hundreds of thousands in gaming, mostly to buy state-of-the-art equipment such as controllers and headphones.  

It’s a huge expense for a student, but for someone with sponsorship deals and brand endorsements to her name, and occasional cash prizes from tournaments, Gathoni is ever happy to spend on anything that boosts her craft. 

The duo’s experiences mirror the glamour that is e-sports in Kenya. Virtually obscure only 10 years ago, today, Kenya’s e-sports space has evolved to become a global case study. 

Sh13.9 billion industry

Currently worth an estimated Sh13.9 billion, Kenya’s video gaming industry is expected to grow to about Sh16.8bn in value by 2023, based on projections by global consumer data platform Statista. 

There is at least one e-sports studio in every neighbourhood in Kenya today, as the number gamers, mostly teenagers and young adults, bulges. 

Every time you use mobile data to download a game to play on your phone, every minute spent online playing and every coin spent to purchase an e-sport or gaming merchandise pushes the industry’s revenue up. 

How video gaming in Kenya grew into a Sh13b industry

But just how did gaming’s fortunes hit these mouthwatering levels? What factors are propelling the growth?

A fairly well developed e-sports infrastructure, strong internet penetration across the country and multi-million investments by local and international entrepreneurs to thank, gaming in Kenya enjoys all the necessary propellers for growth.  

There’s also a growing number of gaming companies in Kenya. Pro Series Gaming (PSG) is one of the largest in the country. PSG hosts weekly gaming tournaments for mobile, PC and console where hundreds of gaming enthusiasts participate. 

On any given day, its online site hums with activity, as players register, make tournament bookings and play. It’s also marketplace where various gaming merchandise such as sweatshirts and t-shirts are sold. 

Clash of Clans, 8 Ball Pool, FIFA 21, PUBG (player unknown’s battleground) and Mortal Kombat are some of the popular games on the PSG site. It costs only Sh100 to register for a game here. 

The fee may appear negligible, but when you’re talking about hundreds of keyboard-wielding teenagers playing every week, it translates into a fortune for the gaming company. 

Winners of PUBG on PSG take home Sh2,500 while runners-up make a tidy Sh2,000. Still, those who place third get Sh1,000.

For most players, the adrenaline rush of taking on an opponent in a virtual duel is enough reward. But when there’s the lure of money, gaming becomes irresistible –especially for young adults. 

Yet perhaps nothing captures the industry’s transformation better than growing interest from expatriates such as Jay Shapiro. The Canadian is the CEO of gaming company Usiku Games and founder of Nairobi Game Development Centre (Nairobi GDC), a co-working space for game developers. 

Jay Shapiro is the founder and CEO of Usiku Games, the parent company that built Gumzo.

Photo credit: Courtesy

He has invested in the gaming world for more than two decades, working in the US and Singapore before coming to Kenya three years ago. 

A multi-million investment of a kind, the Nairobi GDC is home to creators, indie developers and studio owners alike. Here, they sit to research on games, to code and to network. 

On what’s pulling gaming entrepreneurs to Kenya, Shapiro says: ‘‘There’s a huge level of optimism here. Video gaming in Kenya is at a cottage level and it can only grow bigger. It’s an amazing time to be here.’’

Convert gaming into a business 

He notes that the country has several attractive factors that will spur and sustain its growth. Foremost, it’s Kenya’s predominantly young population and secondly, its wide pool of creative talent. Then there are increasing business opportunities, thanks to a growing consumer market. 

To convert e-sports into business, however, Shapiro argues that the country needs more than just game developers.

“Building a gaming business is different from building a game. Kenya needs investors who can mobilise different components such as funding and to educate the market,’’ he says, adding that mentorship and apprenticeship are required to take the industry to the next level, and so is skills training. 

To underscore the growing popularity of e-sports in Kenya, some academic institutions such as Strathmore Business School at Strathmore University are now offering courses on gaming elements. 

A strong internet connection and speed are to e-sports what gasoline is to a combustion engine. It’s on this front that Kenya is not only winning but outdoing itself as well. 

With an average connection speed of 15.8 Mbps (megabytes per second), Kenya enjoys one of the fastest internet speed on the continent. Between 2016 and 2017, the country’s total available bandwidth increased by 43 per cent from 2028 Gbps to 2906, with 3G and 4G network now available in virtually all parts of the country. 

By 2019, the maximum data capacity had crossed the 4,000 Gbps mark to 4,623, Gbps, a 458 per cent increase from 2014, according to Nendo, a Nairobi-based digitial growth firm.  

Where 17 of the countries with the slowest internet speed are in Africa, Kenya is, many calibrations ahead of its peers.  

Kenyans’ appetite to crunch data on the web is growing sharper by the day. In 2019, Nendo projected that the total internet market revenue would cross the $2 billion (Sh210 billion) mark by next year. 

But e-commerce and socialising isn’t all Kenyans are doing on the web. Video gaming makes up a significant proportion of the time spent online and, therefore, part of these revenues. 

Globally, gaming revenues hit $120 billion (Sh13.2 trillion) in 2020. This is more than what music and entertainment combined raked in. Now all eyes are now on Africa, where growth is expected to be steeper in the next five years. For a good reason. 

There are 412 million smartphone users in Africa, various surveys show. In Kenya, 97 per cent of all internet users access the internet from their mobile devices. The emergence of cheaper varieties of smartphones has helped to push distribution. With as little as Sh3,000, one can acquire a new gadget with access to the internet and other progressive features. 

But why are smartphones necessary in the e-sports conversation?  

PCs and consoles may be a gamer’s favourite tools, but these devices are too pricey to the average Kenyan. A PlayStation5 (PS5) console, for instance, sells at between Sh45,000 and Sh70,000. Teenagers from well-off families can afford to buy these gadgets. But to most people, this kind of expense is inconceivable. 

Which is where mobile phones come in. Smartphones are cheaper and their penetration is wider. It’s for this reason that gaming companies are changing tact: moving e-sports to mobile phones. 

“Google Stadia, for instance, is now streaming triple-A games through mobile devices,” Shapiro says. 

‘‘I want to be here to witness and participate in this transformation.’’

Developers in Kenya aren’t just assembling games, but they are also attempting to make them as appealing to the local audience as possible. E-sports by Usiku Games, for instance, feature soundtracks of music by local artistes while characters speak Swahili. Their naming is also Kenyan to complete the local touch. 

Beat a boda boda and Maasai Mkali are some of the games on the platform. Others are Mama Mboga –a game where a woman slashes fruits with a knife –and Chukua Mbuzi, a maze where the player is supposed to locate a goat. 

Shapiro argues that by assembling video games here, Kenya will significantly plug the drain of approximately Sh4 trillion that leaves East Africa through gaming and sports betting. 

Even more importantly, he says, Kenya has an opportunity to establish gaming ethics. “Let’s not create games with guns and bikinis. We could start on a positive note by developing games that entertain and impact positively.’’

A new phenomenon has emerged in Kenya, in response to the growth of e-sports: gaming events. The Nairobi Comic Convention (Naiccon) is the largest gamers’ networking event in East and Central Africa, by size of investment and attendance. 

For three days, it’s merry, money and gaming mania as players lose themselves into different e-sports for prizes and recreation.  

Founded in 2014, Naiccon is ‘‘pushing the bounds in the creative space and giving artistes an opportunity to reach the world’’. 

And take artistes to the world they have, by hosting gaming tournaments with participants from all over the region. For the last six years, Naiccon has brought together hundreds of gamers, cosplayers, illustrators, animators and other digital artistes. 

Naiccon events have become so popular that top dignitaries, including diplomats, have graced them in the past. In 2017, then US ambassador to Kenya Robert Godec attended the first day of the three-day convention where he mingled freely with participants.  
There are also lucrative sponsorship deals for both players and gaming companies. 

Gathoni’s sponsorship is testament to the interest of gaming in the country by international brands. 

Closer home, PSG is sponsored by among other top brands MoSound, Naiccon and telecommunications company Liquid Telecom. 

Liquid Telecom provides high-speed internet to gamers during e-sport tournaments, notably at the Naiccon.

Who are the players? 

But just who are playing? Interestingly, women in their early to mid30s are some of the biggest gamers, Shapiro says. Those like Ngeta spend a few hours regularly, sometimes daily, playing the so-called ‘‘casual’’ gamers such as Angry Birds, Candy Crush and Sudoku. 

In Kenya, like elsewhere in the world, people aged between 18 and 35 are the heaviest gamers. 

Gaming expert James Karanu says the majority of competitive players are primary school, high school and university students. 

‘‘There’s also a small but growing proportion of adults, mostly the working class, who play for leisure regularly,’’ says the CEO and co-founder of Tribe Simba E-sports.  

Gamers are categorised in three clusters. Casual gamers play once in a while, often on their phone. Active gamers play regularly, usually on a smartphone or a PC at home. 

Girls and young women fall under this category. Gaming addicts play on the console, sometimes for three-quarters of a day. 

It’s not uncommon for some university students, mostly male students, to lock themselves up for an entire weekend with as little as snacks and water to play FIFA. 

In terms of popularity, different e-sports appeal to different types of players, based on age and experience. Fortnite, for instance, is more popular among teenagers.

To-date, the mock football game FIFA series remains the most popular among Kenyans, played by gamers at home and others in gaming lounges. Others include PUBG-Mobile, Apex Legends on both console and PC and Valorant. 

Karanu argues that as gaming in Kenya evolves, it has gone social and become more competitive in the past five years. 

‘‘Most communities have moved from typical social networking platforms to more gaming dedicated platforms such as Discord. Even within these communities, people are more interested in competing.’’

Consequently, games developed by Triple-A studios, for instance, and which are mostly competitive-based genres, have grown in popularity, while interest in single-player, campaign games continues to dip. 

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