The Sultanate’s penchant as a nation of young gamers continues to earn it its stripes on the region’s professional Esports circuit. This week, we’re exploring the roots of the community that’s grown up around gaming in Oman, its future and impact – good or bad – as a lifestyle of choice among a new generation.
“Gaming is life in a virtual world that gives my reality a sense of purpose.”
It’s a strong proclamation of life revolving around games expressed by Victor ‘Viki’ Gomez, a 21-year-old Spanish expat student and gamer in Oman – one that sheds light on the culture of gaming here in the Sultanate.
His eyes gleam as he talks about his games, and no detail is spared as he runs us through the contents of his PlayStation 4 console and his gaming rig – one that’s lit in red and blue lights with liquids cooling the machine’s internals.
“A strong machine indeed,” we proclaim out of ignorance on the topic. But we’re corrected by Viki, who says: “Strong isn’t the word. It doesn’t get any more powerful than this.”
He then chatters about the guts of the computer, throwing in words such as ‘cores’, ‘threads’, and ‘RAM’ – all important factors to the makings of a gaming PC, but only tools in the hands of the unqualified.
Viki, on the other hand, is qualified…perhaps more so than he knows – and he has fans in Oman that follow him through his game streaming account on YouTube.
He’s just taken home top spot in a Dota (a multi-player online battle game) championship in Dubai and came runner-up in a FIFA tournament held in Ruwi in 2018. The latter doesn’t astonish us, given his Spanish roots.
But what amazes us is the support he receives from his parents and peers.
Hanging on the wall are pictures of him gaming as his family cheers him on; his father even hands him water while he plays. The dark game-themed background in the photo doesn’t do much to conceal its contents.
Several gamers are seen lined-up and playing together while who we assume to be their friends and family cheer on.
Gaming – an act that was once deemed for pleasure – has now evolved to become a full-fledged sport with fans and cheerleaders.
Gone are the 8-bit games and those taking place through local-area networks (LAN) – and replacing them are those connected to the online world; a space where a staggering 1.2 billion players – as per data compiled by gaming company Spil Games – partake to complete what seems like a sacred act.
And, in less than two decades, the video game industry has undergone a dramatic change both culturally and technologically – and what’s more fascinating is that the pace is only growing worldwide.
While the aforementioned stats of online gamers are overwhelming by itself, keep in mind that there are roughly 2.2 billion gamers – of the casual and competitive kind – in the world today.
That amounts to 29 per cent of the world’s population.
This number, however, jumps much higher than the world average in Oman, says Aisha al Barwani – a child psychologist running her own practice in Shatti al Qurum.
“On average, I have nearly eight patients that are children every day, and seven out of those eight are gamers of some kind. This can be through smartphones or even computers.
“And, while there was a time when we used to look down on gaming itself as a means to corrupt a child’s mind, the outlooks have changed; people have begun using games as a means more than just leisure.
“In Oman, for instance, games such as Fortnite and PUBG (PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds) have taken over. And while they are violent in nature, it does give you swift decision-making abilities and a general increase in brain activity for longer periods when you’re gaming.
“This is why gamers tend to get exhausted after long hours of gaming. I would never suggest anyone to take up gaming as a sport and go for 10-hour-long marathons, but anything in moderation is good for your body.
“An hour of gaming is what I would consider apt for replenishing one’s mind after a long day at school or at work,” she says, before asserting that several working adults – including her husband – are gamers.
It’s also something the salesman from the Game World shop in Azaiba confirms. He tells us: “A lot of the people who buy from us are actually between the ages of 24 and 35. They’re not parents of children like it used to be.
“These are all working professionals who just want to beat stress by playing games. Although, I don’t particularly approve of their choices of games – they’re mostly of the violent kind – but each to their own.
“Of course, we hear a lot of bad incidents in other parts of the world of aggravated assaults and shootouts, and we worry about it.
“But here, the people don’t usually carry aggression into their work or school environments.”
He’s right. Countries such as the USA and Netherlands have witnessed bloody shootouts linked to games (and gamers). A report published by the American Psychologists Association (APA), showed a consistent relation between violent video games and raised aggression levels.
Over a 15-year period, recorded incidents such as the Columbine massacre (1999), the Colorado theatre shootings (2012), Sandy Hook massacre (2012) and Washington Navy Yard massacre (2013) have been attributed to violent video game usage.
However, the GCC – including Oman – remains largely free from any recorded incident.
In fact, Mahroof Khatri, who has represented Oman in competitions organised by Red Bull and other first-person shooter games such as Counter Strike, says: “Gaming is considered to be one of the greatest revolutions of the 21st-century.
“It’s not an aggressor, it’s a teacher. It teaches you to be humble in defeat over time and shows you that there’s a lot you can learn from each other.
“This has always been the case in Oman. Here, we have tournaments that are organised – perhaps not as frequently as we’d like – that involve players from the country. Here, both Omanis and expats play together and battle it out like real warriors.
Mahroof says that this trend of gaming tournaments is on the rise here in Oman, though the culture is only slowly being cultivated.
“There used to be a time when gaming was detested by the older generations. But, with the millennials slowly starting families, this has changed. Gaming isn’t a taboo anymore.
“This mindset is only being changed slowly, so we see that Oman lags when compared with the rest of the GCC. Mind you, we’re still not behind them by much. But, countries such as UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain are big on the gaming scene.
“UAE even has a comic convention – Comic Con – that incorporates gaming in it, while Saudi Arabia has fostered some amazing FIFA players. We need to have more tournaments held here on a monthly basis to give people a chance to compete and show their skills.”
A quick search reveals that Oman has seen a handful of prestigious gaming conventions since the first international gaming convention – IGN Convention – took place in December 2016.
Since then, the Sultanate has seen 968Gamez take over the baton with appearances by the Middle East College, which has been consistently organising its own gaming conventions – the last one held in March of this year.
As for gaming tournaments, Oman frequently sees events held by local gaming centres, , though some are discreet and known to be on an invite-only basis.
One that did catch national attention, however, was the 4th Annual PlayStation Tournament that was held at the Mall of Muscat. Organised by the Golden Joystick group and in association with several local elite companies, the tournament witnessed more than 640 participants take part in games such as FIFA 19, Pro Evolution Soccer 2019, and Fortnite.
In an interview with Y, Muktam al Adawi, a representative of the Golden Joystick group, said: “Oman’s gaming scene is growing quickly and a lot more quality players are coming onto the scene.
“This means that more people are looking to be represented and given a chance to game professionally. With this event, we’re giving the youth a chance to showcase their skill and come on top of some of the best players from Oman and also worldwide.
“It’s only then that they’ll be motivated to keep playing and do what they do for the nation.
“Who knows, maybe someday, one of these guys here will take the Sultanate’s name high in the gaming scene,” he added.
Another change that’s taken place in the country is of the cultural kind. While gaming is part and parcel of modern homes, this wasn’t the case just five years ago.
As Aisha says, “There was a time when I remember my mother chasing my brothers when they would binge on computer games. Today, things have changed, and I would say that it has somehow become abnormal to not have a game of some sorts in the house.
“Gaming can also be important within families and can help the members bond with each other. If done right with the correct type of games, then families can spend more time together.”
However, from a cultural stance, games have progressed from mere tools to pass time, to catalysts used to make friends and, even sometimes, as a match-maker.
While we aren’t aware of local couples who have met while gaming, we ran into one Asian expat (name withheld upon request) in Oman who met the ‘love of his life’ in India while playing an online multi-player game, League of Legends.
He says: “Today, we’re engaged, and we will soon be getting married. Our families must never know of how we met, as it’s still a taboo in India. But, the story of our marriage will always start with that game.
“We’ve since stopped playing that game and have moved on to PUBG,” he laughs.
Aside from playing Cupid, games are also important in forging new friendships, says Mahroof.
He explains: “There was a time when gaming was intended for people who were shy in their skin or those who were deemed geeks.
“But things have changed. As more money was being pumped into gaming, more people kept realising its potential in the market. Today, you have everything from gaming conventions (GameCons) to tournaments that help people socialise and interact.
“This helps people come out of their skin and learn to interact with others from outside Oman. It can help them in the future – whether it’s in their family or even professional lives.”
Mahroof says that he too learned the art of making conversation when he picked up the keyboard to game for the first time in 2004 as a teenager. Today, he’s the procurement manager of a leading construction company in Oman and still makes time to play Dota 2 and League of Legends.
A reason for this, he says, is the grip games have had on him since he began.
“Games have helped me grow into the person that I am today. I can smoothly converse and even play with people from any part of the globe today. That’s what I have learned over the last decade or so.
“And as Oman continues to accept gaming as a part of its community, this will increase among the local population as well.
“In many ways, games will help groom a clan of youth into international sportsmen and women even before they set foot outside the nation.
“I imagine that it will still take two to three years for this mindset to completely set in. Imagine the positives of hosting an international gaming tournament.
“Not only would it improve the skills of Omani youth, it will also open up the Sultanate to large groups of people and create what is known as ‘gaming tourism’. It’s something that will help the country achieve its tourism numbers – and at the same time give an added boost to the local gaming scene.
Whether this will arrive at fruition in the coming years is yet to be seen. But, it’s Muktam who gave us his word on the future of gaming in Oman: “Gaming is far from mere pleasure and leisure; it’s a passion and a sport in itself that has tailored an industry.
“Several nations have adopted that and created some truly spectacular tournaments in the last few years. And that’s also our intention here. As youth, we want to create a space where Omanis and expats can game together, become great friends and, above all, talented gamers.
“That’s the goal, and Oman is getting there very fast.”