Africa hasn’t participated in the global game economy much, but some entrepreneurs in Nigeria want to change that by diving into esports. Amaete Umanah and his cofounders have launched the African Gaming League, which held is first tournament in four cities across Nigeria in August.
Umanah said in an interview that it is a long-held dream of his to create a game company in Africa that takes advantage of the fact that there are lots of players on the continent, which has largely been ignored by the big game companies. But the company hopes to ride the global enthusiasm for esports, which is on pace to generate $493 million in 2016, according to a report from intelligence firm Newzoo. That’s up more than 51.7 percent from 2015, and it is also a 7 percent increase from the projection that Newzoo made to kick off 2016.
The timing is interesting, as a competitor of sorts also surfaced this week, as South Africa’s Kwesé Sports and ESL partnered to take esports to African gamers. But the leagues face a lot of hurdles, as Africa is still weaker than the rest of the world when it comes to fostering startups and game companies.
Umanah worked in San Francisco for a time on a previous startup, nKanika, a software company, and another one called Pontaba, which focused on HTML5 mobile game development. He went to a GamesBeat conference in 2011 and met the founders of the game startup accelerator YetiZen. That was about the time that I met Umanah. He spent three months at YetiZen. But ultimately, the startup didn’t take off, as Umanah didn’t have luck raising money. And then Umanah returned to Nigeria a few years ago when his father passed away.
Umanah stayed longer in Nigeria than he expected, and he worked on other startups as well. Now he has teamed up with cofounders Chiekezi Dozie and Samuel Uduma to create the African Gaming League in Lagos, Nigeria. It is one of a number of startups — most of them small — that are growing up in the region with a focus on games or tech.
These friends grew up with games like StarCraft and other titles, as did Umanah. Now Umanah lives in both Los Angeles and Port Harcourt, Nigeria. His colleagues are also entrepreneurs. Uduma is cofounder of SuperGeeks Services and Solutions, a leading provider of after-sales technical support to customers in the Lagos area.
“We grew up in Nigeria playing a card game called Whot, which was similar to Uno,” Umanah said. “We wanted to create it as an app. We did that and launched it in 2011. It was my introduction to technology.”
Nigeria is a good location to create the startup, as it’s one of Africa’s largest markets and it has the beginnings of a gaming culture. Umanah brainstormed with Uduma, another entrepreneur that he met through Silicon Africa.
The per capita income in Nigeria is not huge, at about $3,000 a month. But the income varies widely among people, and sports betting is actually a large market in Africa. (That’s not a market that the African Gaming League is going after).
Newzoo combines the Middle East and Africa as a single region with $3.2 billion in revenues related to gaming. Nigeria had a $172 million slice of that in 2015, and it is expected to be $182 million in 2016.
“We saw there was no structured way to do gaming and esports in Africa, so Sam and I teamed up to make that happen,” Umanah said. “I was inspired by GamesBeat, and we tried to do our own Africa GamesBeat. We’ve grown a community of about 8,000 people. And then we came up with African Gaming League.”
“We want to build a cohesive community” Uduma said. “We hope to capture a lot of brands as sponsors as they want to target the gamer demographic. We do realize there is a disconnect, and they want the brands to get some traction.
The event drew a lot of people, and it had a sponsor in the form of an Internet service provider, Smile Communications, a 4G mobile data provider. The players competed in a tournament with EA’s FIFA 16 soccer game.
“There are gamers in Nigeria,” he said. “This soft-launch proved that there are gamers and the potential for a vibrant gaming culture in Nigeria, but the scene is also unstructured. The African Gaming League hopes to unify all the disparate communities, and bring a structure that makes it more appealing to foreign investment.”
The events spanned cities including Lagos, Abuja, Uyo, and Port Harcourt. The team pulled the tournament off on a shoe-string budget. The prizes amounted to about $1,500.
“We want to get the attention of some of the biggest companies like Activision and EA Sports,” Umanah said. “One of the most popular games here is EA’s FIFA soccer game. Sony’s PlayStation is very popular. If we can take these games and grow this community of gamers in Africa, they will be able to compete with others in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.”
“Being associated with the AGL has been an awesome experience from conception to implementation and this bodes extremely well for the future of esports in Nigeria which is playing catch up with the rest of the world” said cofounder, Chiekezi Dozie.
The company hopes to launch its next tournament in December. It’s a lot of work for a team of four, with some temporary workers as well. Eventually, the company hopes to participate in esports events around the rest of the world.
“The key thing is there are players here,” Umanah said. “With the right amount of resources, we can get a big spectator group.”
As for the competition, Uduma said, “The esports phenomenon is gaining momentum all over the world, Africa is renowned for her passion for competitive sports; for years, gaming in Africa had been a vibrant avenue for competition albeit in informal circles. Gradually, the appetite for esports is growing in Africa, predominantly in South Africa, but we are continually seeing an expansion towards other parts of Sub Saharan Africa. AGL was created to bring together the already established gaming community with a view to establishing a strong esports brand. We are enhancing the appeal through collaboration with established consumer brands and developing rich content for a willing captive audience. Our aim is to grow a new vertical for esports within the rapidly growing gaming space in 12 months.”