Spotlight beams cut through the hot air and shoot into the Dubai night sky, and the Meydan arena stage lights up as the League of Legends Champion selection screen appears on the jumbo screen. At the start of a jam-packed weekend of games, booths, cosplay contests, and more, the audience watches in anticipation as the first match of the GIRLGAMER 2020 Esports Festival in Dubai begins. On opposing ends of the stage sit Out of The Blue, a team from Madrid, and Galaxy Racer, competing at their first ever competition as a team.
GIRLGAMER is an international esports festival dedicated to celebrating women in competitive gaming. The festival launched in 2017, and has since hosted League of Legends and Counter Strike: Global Offensive competitions all over the world in South Korea, Spain, Australia, Singapore and, in 2020, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. As the hosting country, the United Arab Emirates was entitled to enter a team, but didn't have any female esports teams of their own; in fact, there had never been a female esports team from any country in the Middle East up to this point.
Esports in the Middle East
The Middle East itself is a region severely under-represented in the world of competitive esports. This is not to say that those in the Middle East lack an interest in gaming — according to a worldwide study conducted in 2021, 90% of those with internet access in the UAE play some sort of video game, and this number goes up to 91% in Saudi Arabia, placing the two as the 10th and 8th highest countries on the list, respectively. Despite this, recent studies showing the leading countries in esports based on their number of active esports competition players don’t feature any Middle Eastern countries within their dataset, making it the only one of the world’s major regions to go unrepresented.
The reason for this may be due to technical obstacles rather than a lack of interest. Several big competitive games like League of Legends, PUBG, and Overwatch don’t have any servers in the Middle East. Players often have to pick between East Asian or European servers, giving them a higher ping (the latency between a player’s computer and the game’s server) and putting them at an immediate disadvantage. For games that do have Middle Eastern servers, other issues may arise. DOTA 2, for example, doesn’t allow players on their Dubai servers to play ranked games. Additional region-based difficulties seem to continuously plague Middle Eastern players. Earlier this year, Twitch blocked all payments going out to Middle Eastern-based streamers because of “certain tax information” discrepancies.
Despite these difficulties, thousands of gamers in the Middle East still attempt to pursue the career professionally. While male teams had been popping up in the region for several years, female teams were non-existent, despite females making up 44% of gamers in the Middle East-North African market.
Six months before GIRLGAMER Dubai, that changed with the creation of “Galaxy Racer”: a group of five women aged 17 to 24, all from various countries in the Middle East, put together by local organizing group Galaxy Racer Esports alongside the UAE government. One of the main reasons the creation of this team was possible was thanks to Madiha Naz.
The Creation of Galaxy Racer
Madiha “Madi XO” Naz is a Pakistani League of Legends player born in the United Arab Emirates. A member of the original Galaxy Racer team that competed at GIRLGAMER, Madiha is the first female esports player from the Middle East, and one of the primary advocates for the creation of Galaxy Racer.
“I used to go to these internet cafes here in the UAE to kill time and fulfill my passion for gaming,” said Madiha in an interview. “I never knew there was a competitive scene in the Middle East, let alone a female competitive scene or an amateur scene. I didn’t even know streaming was a real thing; I was so into the game I didn’t know a whole community existed around it”.
Madiha majored in Journalism and PR in university, ending up with a job in the environmental sector after graduating. She quickly realized it wasn’t the career for her, and quit to pursue streaming, self-admittedly without realizing how competitive the scene was. Madiha worked freelance promotion and hostess jobs to make a living, when one day her sister sent her the press conference for the GIRLGAMER League of Legends World’s Dubai event. “She forwarded it to me like it was nothing! I took an emergency break from work to read the press conference. I was shook. I couldn’t believe there was a major event for the game I play, only for girls.”
After her initial excitement, Madiha realized the qualifiers for the tournament had already been completed, but there weren’t any Middle Eastern countries competing. “I got in touch with the owners of the organization, and talked to them about how important it was to have Middle Eastern representation at this huge female tournament happening in this part of the world. And that’s kind of how it started.” From there, Madiha worked alongside Galaxy Racer Esports to form the Galaxy Racer team in preparation for GIRLGAMER.
Arwa Hameed, an Iraqi professional League of Legends player also born in the United Arab Emirates, was introduced to video games at age five by watching her older sister play. When she was 14, her sister introduced her to League of Legends and the game became an instant favorite. “At some point, I started playing competitively and entered a local tournament in Dubai. It was a 1v1 tournament and I managed to get second place, while Madiha Naz got first place. She came up to me, introduced herself, and invited me to try out for a team she had created called Galaxy Racer. The rest was history!”
After the team’s scouting and tryouts had concluded, Galaxy Racer ended up with a full team of five. The team consisted of Bot Laner Madiha, Support Reem “sins” Faisal, Mid Laner Fatima “Rose” Saif, Top Laner Amna “Moki” Raad Alameri, and Jungler Arwa “Sylvari Flames” Hameed.
From there, training began in preparation for the GIRLGAMER tournament. The players had a boot camp where they trained with solo drills, team practice, and faced evaluations from their coach until the event began. For both Madiha and Arwa, GIRLGAMER 2020 was a significant highlight in their careers.
“That memory of the GIRLGAMER tournament is amazing. At the time I didn’t know what to feel. I just knew something amazing was happening,” Madiha reminisced. Arwa echoed similar fond thoughts: “As a gamer, seeing videos of your favorite pro players competing in pro level leagues and tournaments makes you always dream of doing the same. Getting to do something similar has made it an unforgettable memory of mine.”
Navigating Female Esports
Despite the adoration the Galaxy Racer team members have for their time competing, it wasn’t without its difficulties. As the first female esports team from the Middle East, the members of the team were going in blind; with no precedent for a team like themselves in the region, there was uncertainty as to what reactions would be. “Being a female does impact being a gamer in general, mostly negatively,” said Arwa. “If a male recognizes that I’m a female during a game, he will start to insult me because of my gender. I can’t count how many times I’ve been told to ‘go to the kitchen’ because of [my gender].” Even during tournaments themselves, Arwa confessed her most challenging moments since beginning her gaming career have been reading hateful comments made during tournaments, primarily from men.
While female esports players globally face similar misogyny, the rarity of female esports players in the Middle East is no doubt a contributing factor to the harsh reactions the Galaxy Racer team, and players like them, have faced in their careers. While women make up 30% of esports players internationally, this number drops to a mere 8% in the Middle East. “We have very few females pursuing gaming as a career in the Middle East because of the little exposure it used to have here. Most popular esports events are held in other regions. Moreover, the culture in this region may play a part in this as well,” Arwa suggested.
“Galaxy Racer took a big step, not only by onboarding a female team, but because it was the first professional team they had,” noted Madiha. “The effort was there. But you can’t just have one team or one organization doing something and then expect a massive change to happen. Everybody kind of needs to get involved.” Galaxy Racer later signed two more all-female teams.
Beyond Galaxy Racer
Despite these difficulties, the Galaxy Racer team members emphasize how positive their time was on the team. “Me and my old teammates still talk about how fun of an experience it was,” said Madiha. “Even if we weren’t number one, the memories are still so pleasant because we worked so hard for everything.”
The Galaxy Racer team, and GIRLGAMER event as a whole, was proof that women could exist and flourish in the competitive gaming space if given the opportunity. “[Training for GIRLGAMER] was terrific and fun; having a bunch of females sitting under one roof and sharing the same dream and goals made it an inspiring and amazing environment. We all wanted to improve and learn every time we met to train. I was looking forward to waking up every day and going to our boot camp to practice with the team.”
While the players reminisce on fun times they had during training, perhaps what made the memories even more special was the history they made together. “I am incredibly proud of what we were able to create,” Arwa remarked. “We all had one common goal: to inspire other girls to pursue gaming as a career and feel safer in this industry.”
Once GIRLGAMER 2020 in Dubai concluded, the team went through new evaluations, and lineup changes. The original Galaxy Racer lineup saw management transfers and rebrands, while more female esports teams have sprung up for various games throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
“If I could give advice to girls from the Middle East that want to pursue gaming,” suggested Arwa, “it would be to never let others cruel words and treatment get to you. No one knows how hard you work and how much you try besides yourself. Be yourself and give your best.”
For girls who want to pursue a career in gaming, especially in regions where it's more uncommon, that first step can be intimidating. Uncertainty on where to start or how to progress can leave many players stuck at the starting gate. “A lot of females are coming out and trying to pursue gaming as a career, but I think my advice would be to just focus on getting good at the game individually. Really see where your career can take you,” advised Madiha.
Following GIRLGAMER, Arwa completed her time with Galaxy Racer. Her next esports venture took her to Team Norse Thunder, a U.K based team dedicated to fighting social isolation with community building through esports. Throughout her time on both teams, Arwa pursued a degree in Bachelor’s Computer Science and Cyber Security & Forensics, which she achieved earlier this year.
Madiha went on to continue playing for Galaxy Racer, which later became known as ‘Nigma Galaxy MENA’, up until February of this year. After working as both a player and Marketing Executive for the Galaxy Racer team, she is currently working as a Gamer Relationship Agent for a Dubai-based esports network named Division. On the side, Madiha is training with her own group of female players in preparation for the next GIRLGAMER tournament.
Throughout Madiha’s time as an esports player in the Middle East, she’s found that when there are no opportunities available, the space exists to create your own. With Division, Madiha is currently working to create and promote a platform dedicated to connecting gamers with professional opportunities in the Middle East and North African region, and is urging local female players to sign up. “When it comes to having more female players in gaming in the Middle East, I think it’s happening already. I know a lot of people who think an org wouldn’t want to sign them, or that there are no opportunities to be signed. But I think you just have to get so good at the game that you can’t be ignored.”