Mobile games and esports: the new frontiers of Africa’s videogame industry

Videogames and competitive “esports” play are booming in Africa, even though few international games target the continent’s audience.


Image : Craig Kolesky / Red Bull Content Pool

Africa’s videogame market has been growing at a blistering pace in recent years.

The number of gamers in sub-Saharan Africa rose almost threefold from 77m in 2015 to 186m in 2021, according to a report commissioned by games analytics company Newzoo and Carry1st, a South African gaming platform. The study shows that this growth has largely been driven by the rapid adoption of mobile gaming, with 95% of gamers in the region playing on a smartphone or tablet, as opposed to consoles and personal computers.

“Africa is the future of gaming. Thanks to the massive influx of people coming online and a young and dynamic population, gaming in Africa is exploding,” says Carry1st CEO and co-founder, Cordel RobbinCoker.

“Crucially, this applies not only to people playing games, but also those willing to pay as well”

Nigeria edges out South Africa

Revenues from games sold in Africa have been on a strong uptrend, reaching $862.8m in 2022, up 8.7% from 2021, according to Newzoo. The majority of the revenue came from mobile games, which accounted for 90% of the region’s total videogame sales in 2022. Newzoo’s projections indicate that gaming revenue in Africa will surpass $1bn for the first time ever in 2024, underscoring Robbin-Coker’s observation that willingness to pay for games is steadily improving across the continent.

In terms of the leading videogame markets on the continent, the study shows that Nigeria became the top videogaming market in Africa in 2022, overtaking South Africa by a small margin. Nigeria raked in $249m from gaming activities, while South Africa earned $236m. The other top performers in Africa were Kenya ($46m), Ethiopia ($42m), and Ghana ($34m). Ethiopia had the fastest growth rate of 13%. The combined revenue of Nigeria and South Africa was twice as much as that of the other eight leading countries together, highlighting the relative maturity of these markets when compared with the rest of the continent.

The gaming industry in Africa has promising growth prospects. According to GSMA, the global trade association for mobile operators, smartphone ownership in sub-Saharan Africa will rise from 51% in 2022 to 88% in 2030, giving more people access to online gaming platforms. Additionally, rapid urbanisation and rising incomes of African consumers will likely boost the market for consoles, which are currently scarce and expensive in many African countries.

Sony making inroads

Sony Innovation Fund, the venture capital arm of consumer electronics giant Sony Corporation, is capitalising on the African videogame sector’s long-term growth prospects. In January the Fund announced that it was making a strategic investment of an undisclosed amount in Carry1st. This will be the inaugural investment out of Sony Innovation Fund: Africa, which was established by Sony as an initiative to support the growth of entertainment businesses on the continent. The partnership between Carry1st and Sony Ventures Corporation could open new doors for PlayStation in Africa. Antonio Avitabile, managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Sony Ventures Corporation, says that Sony’s investment will support Carry1st to “explore potential business opportunities with Sony Group companies”.

According to Robbin-Coker, Africa has a growing appetite for console gaming, especially in countries such as Nigeria, Morocco, and Algeria. The formal console market in Africa, which includes PlayStation and its rivals like Xbox, is, however, still underdeveloped. Most gamers in the region rely on local resellers who import devices from abroad. Videogame companies and their potential customers also face many challenges in Africa, particularly in regions outside cities and urban areas. These include low internet penetration, high data costs, unreliable power and issues around affordability and availability of gaming software and hardware.

Africa embraces esports

Esports, or competitive videogaming, is a rapidly evolving and expanding field that has attracted global participation from gamers and investors alike. The continent has a vibrant and passionate community of gamers who are eager to showcase their skills and compete for prizes in regional and international tournaments. Esports in Africa has grown rapidly due to improved access to high-speed internet and gaming technology that enables gamers to interact and compete online, as well as broadcast their gameplay to a larger audience. Another driver of esport growth in Africa is the rising number of local and international tournaments hosted on the continent, particularly in South Africa. These events not only offer a chance for gamers to demonstrate their abilities and compete for prizes, but also help to create a sense of community and bring together players from different regions of the continent.

Sylvia Gathoni, a Kenyan esports player and content creator who goes by the moniker “Queen Arrow”, has been competing in the international esports scene since 2017. Specialising in fighting games, she is best known for playing the “Tekken” series, the combat saga developed by Japanese game publisher Bandai Namco Entertainment. Her skill and success in multiple esports tournaments in Africa and on the global stage have seen her earn the sponsorship of international energy drinks company Red Bull.

Gathoni tells African Business that there is a need for a consistent tournament culture in Africa’s esports scene, emphasising that this is key to building strong gaming communities that can attract investments from gaming companies and sponsors.

“If we are to properly cement Africa’s position as an esports powerhouse, we need to create a consistent tournament culture from a grassroots perspective.”

She further notes that a consistent tournament culture will help African esports players improve their skill and compete on a more equal footing with experienced peers in traditional markets for gaming such as the US, Japan and Europe.

“My experience participating in international events – such as Red Bull Hit The Streets, Occitanie Montpellier Showmatch, EVO Las Vegas and others – has been an eye-opening experience. It shows that there is a definite need for a consistent tournament culture on this continent that keeps us practising and on equal skill with our counterparts in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.”

She is optimistic about the future of esports and gaming in Africa, noting that Sony’s recent investment in Carry1st is an encouraging display of the console maker’s commitment to Africa.

“The investment means that Sony does see that there is a sorely untapped market here in the African region.” Creating region-specific pricing Gathoni concedes, however, that price points for popular consoles such as PlayStation and Xbox are still out of reach for many Africans, despite their strong appeal to many young tech-savvy gamers.

“I think that videogame companies can better cater to African gamers by actually creating region-specific pricing for their games and servers that keeps us in mind. That way, they can have more African gamers willing to buy their products, and thus create brand loyalty and goodwill that will go a long way in cementing their foothold in this region.”

Like many industry insiders, Gathoni sees smartphones leading the way.

“The future of the videogame industry in Africa is bright, and I think that smartphones will be huge in paving the way for the gaming and esports industry in this region due to how affordable it is compared to other platforms like consoles and PC.”

In Gathoni’s view, the major hurdle to the growth of the videogame industry in Africa is the unaffordability of high-speed internet.

“If internet service providers were to borrow a leaf from countries like India with the reduction of data costs, the industry would definitely see a huge boom,” she states. Addressing misconceptions A major obstacle to the development of esports in Africa is the lack of recognition of gaming as a serious sport. Many Africans still view gaming as a hobby or a pastime, not as a competitive and lucrative career. This attitude can limit the opportunities for esports players and teams, and deter potential partners and sponsors from investing in the industry. Raising awareness about the economic and social value of esports is therefore crucial for the industry’s growth.

The lack of financial support is also another major challenge facing esports in Africa. To grow the industry and compete at the global level, esports players and teams need access to resources to buy gaming equipment, participate in training, and travel to tournaments. However, attracting investors who are willing to pay for sponsorships, broadcasting rights, and merchandise sales has been an uphill task. Many international videogames that are played in Africa also lack local relevance in terms of how the characters and plot fit into local cultures and languages. This can limit adoption.

David Haber and Jonathan Lai, general partners at California based venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, which led a $20m investment in Carry1st in 2022, note that “today, few international games target an African audience at launch, and even fewer localise and design for the continent – taking into account regional taste and languages.”

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