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Video games industry to bring ‘millions of new jobs to Africa’

SIA KAMBOU, AFP | Participants in the PES tournament, a football game, during the second Festival of Electronics and Video Games of Abidjan at The Palace of Culture in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on November 24, 2018.

Africa’s gaming sector is on course for a huge expansion, which could provide millions of new jobs across the continent, according to participants at the second FEJA gaming event that's just been held in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

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At $140 billion, the global video games industry is already a cool $100 billion larger than the film industry, and African games companies are hoping to become major players.

According to Serge Thiam, digital strategy director at Stay Connect, in 2014, Africa had 23 million video games players, and that reached 500 million in 2018, largely due to the rapid penetration of smartphones.

The games market itself has grown from $105 million to $570million in the same four-year period. Combine that with hardware sales and gaming is already a billion-dollar business in Africa.

African games developers face a range of issues. Internet connections are slow, unreliable and, at up to $150 a month for broadband, prohibitively expensive.

Hardware lags behind what is available in other regions and programming talent is scarce. Further issues hamper game development and monetisation on the continent, such as a lack of both an integrated payments system for enabling in-game purchases and advertising exchanges that could serve in-game ads that allow developers to offer games for free. But the sector is growing at over eight percent annually, and overall economic development is easing some of the industry’s ills.

In terms of kick-starting the industry on the continent, a lack of awareness around its potential has also been a major setback.

“We didn’t ever have a [school] class where someone said ‘make a video game’,” said Wilfried Ouonouan, game designer at Abidjan-based Work’d gaming studio. “We’ve learned game developing thanks to YouTube and the Internet. We started a company thanks to YouTube,” but, he said, the company is struggling to grow as it cannot find enough skilled staff.

Largest Video Game Event in Africa

FEJA, which took place in Abidjan from 23-25 November, is the largest, most representative video game event in Africa, in terms of the number of countries represented and the almost 40 pro gamers flying in from across the continent.

The eSports tournaments are crowd-pullers with 13 million francs CFA in prize money ($22,500) for tournaments for FIFA, Street Fighter, Fortnite and Candy Crush, but despite the prize fund, the second FEJA has a purely business aim: job creation for the video games industry.

As games become bigger and more complex, they require expanding teams of project managers, marketers, sound designers and testers. “We can easily see one million people hired in the games industry in West Africa by 2025 – or more. Throughout Africa as a whole that could reach five million,” Sidick Bakayoko, founder and CEO of Paradise Game, told FRANCE 24.

FEJA’s organisers, Abidjan-based Paradise Game, see the three-day event as both an international showcase for Africa’s gaming industry, and an opportunity to raise awareness at home of the potential of the games sector.

“If we want game developers to start joining us, we need to make sure that they see there are examples of African companies that develop games,” said Bakayoko. “We really want to help push [the developers] so they can grow, and that will impact the entire market.”

Paradise Game has already managed to reach large audiences in Ivory Coast ahead of the event with Paradise Game Show, a weekly gaming TV show. Although the showhas been commissioned by the government-owned RTI station, there is still no central funding to develop the gaming industry. “It’s a chicken and egg kind of situation,” said Bakayoko, “They want to see first that [the sector] is working… For now we have to do a lot of things on our own.”

Building new skills

The easier sell at the moment is the eSports element. The global eSports market is estimated to reach $906 million in 2018 and $1.65 billion by 2021. They are a key part of the video games industry and are on the way to being recognised by traditional sporting bodies -- but Paradise Game’s founder is cautious.

“If you’re driving just the eSport component, that means you’re leaving on the side all these guys who could develop games, which tomorrow could become the eSport games that people locally play – instead of EA Sports and all those games,” said Bakayoko whose Paradise Game is also promoting e-learning in gaming centres to provide the technicalskills the sector will need.

“We need to create our own games and to do that we need to have our own developers and studios. And how do you get studios? You need schools,” Bakayoko said.

eSports players themselves are aware of the development issuesthat the games industry in Africa faces. Awareness of the sector's potential is still critically low.“Generally parents don’t want their kids playing computer games as they’ve no understanding that they can go on to earn so much,” Boka Yao Gilchrist told FRANCE 24. The winner of the Street Fighter tournament at the first FEJA in 2017, the 25-year-old has been earning money from gaming for the past eight years and has seen prize totals rising rapidly. “In the first seven years I made around 300,000 CFA [$500] in total, then in the last year and a bit I’ve made 3 million CFA.”

“The industry here isn’t developed enough for me to become a [full-time] pro gamer,” said Gilchrist, “It’s not like in Europe where if you train and if you’re good then you can get somewhere. Here there aren’t any sponsors, or clubs so it’s still just a dream for us.”

Game designer and FEJA participant Wilfried Ouonouan, game designer at Work'd, summed up the long-term task: “Parents need to know that [working in games] is a possibility, that these are the companies that can hire you. Work’d and the other African gaming companies – we have a big responsibility here. We have no right to fail. We have to be the companies where these guys will work.”

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