Video gaming

Brian Dianga at his home in Kibera on March 12, 2021.

| Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

Mistrust, empty promises plague Sh13 billion gaming industry

For an industry that is raking in more than Sh13 billion in revenue annually, it is only sensible that e-sports in Kenya is regulated. Under the current setup, gaming falls under the Department of Sports in the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage.

The Commissioner of Sports and Sports registrar is in charge of registering, licensing and regulating professional sports and bodies.

In 2018, the E-sports Federation of Kenya (ESFK) was formed to regulate e-sports in the country by developing and enforcing rules and regulations.

The agency was licensed by the government and mandated with forming a network of e-sports players and clubs, to organise e-sport events, viewings, leagues and tournaments and to maintain affiliations with international e-sports federations. 

While it got off to a vibrant start, promising to disrupt the fast-evolving industry, opinion is divided on whether ESFK has lived up to its billing three years later.

Federation CEO Bavong Ojwang believes the agency has done a decent job in its three years of existence.

“We’ve helped to bring the game to the public to an extent that corporates are now willing to partner with us, to invest in and sponsor e-sport activities in Kenya.”

Additionally, Ojwang says, ESFK has supported legislation on gaming by making “contributions to the Gaming Act through the Parliamentary Sports Committee”.

“Through our intervention, there is less police harassment on gaming arcades,” he says of the frequent countrywide raids of gaming dens and confiscation of gaming equipment that the government has been conducting for three years now.

Do players in the industry concur? Hardly.

Award-winning gamer and investor Brian “Beast” Dianga says the e-sports environment in Kenya is prohibitive, noting that acquisition of gaming equipment, for instance, is a costly investment.

“The kit is subject to very high taxation. This makes it very expensive and only few people can afford. This locks out many people who would like to play,” Beast laments.

Queen Arrow agrees. “My team sent me a gaming package from abroad recently. Everything had been paid for. When it got into the country, I was shocked when the authorities demanded nearly Sh10,000 for customs.”

On the lack of reliable gaming infrastructure, the CEO dismisses this as an e-sports-specific concern, saying that e-platforms in Kenya are generally underdeveloped.

But how easy is it to set up a gaming business in Kenya?

Ojwang says ESFK is working with the National Bank of Kenya “to develop and unveil a platform that will facilitate this”. This is being done through collaboration with other relevant government institutions, he adds.

For the e-sports athletes, the misconception that gaming is gambling is still rife, owing to lack of proper public education in Kenya.

Beast says: “To be a pro player, it takes time to learn the skill. You must clock in the hours of practice to be perfect. You are an athlete, only it’s virtual.”

Ojwang, however, defends ESFK, saying the lobby has done a lot of public sensitisation to end the myths about gaming.

“We’re even in partnership with the Ministry of Education to introduce e-league for schools and learning games. We hope this initiative will help parents to appreciate, understand and support gaming among their children.”

Curiously, the federation has been promising since 2019 to negotiate for the inclusion of e-sports in the school curriculum (as a component of e-learning) with little, if any, action so far.

In 2018, Ojwang had even loftier ambitions for the industry. “We are discussing with different institutions to introduce scholarships and bursaries for e-sports athletes as a way of giving meaning to parents who allow their children to participate in e-sports.”

In 2019, ESFK announced plans to establish a 16-team national league to promote the sport in Kenya. None of this has been done.

For a young industry that has yet to attain stability, Beast says it’s still not possible to live exclusively off gaming as is the case elsewhere in the world.

“As a gamer, you have to make sacrifices and try to balance between gaming and working to survive. Sometimes it’s upon you to finance your entry into competitions.”

This lack of gaming support ecosystem is what ESFK was created to address. But according to the CEO, players are sometimes to blame for their woes.

“Participants in the industry need to register with the federation for us to be able to help them,” Ojwang says, noting that the successful execution of ESFK’s mandate depends on cooperation from industry players.

He argues: “When no Kenyan competitions are recognised globally, for instance, it’s because these competitions and tournaments haven’t been recommended by the federation.”

The federation is in charge of facilitating local players and clubs for national, regional and international competitions and tournaments.

For an industry that’s just crawling out of obscurity, funding challenges are dominant.

Since its establishment in 2018, Ojwang says, ESFK has never received any funding from the government and that he has been running its activities with his own resources.

“We’ve had numerous meetings with government institutions for this purpose. We hope to see progress in this area in the near future,” the CEO says.

Even with the myriad of setbacks, there’s a lot to hope for in Kenya’s e-sports industry. Already, some institutions, notably banks, are now extending loans to gaming businesses. Kingdom Bank, a subsidiary of Cooperative Bank of Kenya, is providing asset financing to gaming shops in Kenya to help them expand through a partnership with Virtual Games Headquarters.

To athletes such as Beast and Queen Arrow and potential e-sports investors in Kenya, this means more opportunities and better fortunes.

“Businesses have taken notice of the passion among the youth. Offering support to gamers and hosting regular tournaments with prizes as Pro Series Gaming does means that gaming in this country has a great future,” says Dianga.

“We want e-sports to be a game for everybody and not just one for children in the bedroom,” Ojwang promised in 2018.

But until proper regulation is enacted to inspire the right kind of investment, gaming in the country will remain simply a recreational activity rather than a serious economic venture.

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