The Pro Series Gaming (PSG), local gaming organising company, tournament held in Nairobi on April 7 had the highest cash prize in the region yet, with Sh1 million up for grabs.
Zambian Justin Banda won the tournament that brought together 39 gamers from East Africa. He was followed by Kenya’s William Omondi and Zambia’s Zaza Mwalele in second and third positions, respectively. Other Kenyans were Brian Diang’a, Adam McLaude and Baraza Jonah in sixth, seventh and eighth positions, in that order.
A little over a decade ago, gaming was virtually an unknown phenomenon among Kenyans. When gaming companies set up base in Kenya in 2007, it was an astonishingly ambitious move, potentially risky and nearly hopeless — since this arena was really off the beaten path.
Now, the local gaming landscape has transformed on a scale even the pioneers hadn’t foreseen, supported by the presence of high-speed internet connection and gaming cafes, such as Tric, that have set up base in various parts of the city to tap into the fast burgeoning number of Kenyan online gamers.
Kenya is now the fourth most popular gaming hub in Africa. The country has hosted two international gaming competitions so far, a feat unmatched on the continent.
Corporate sponsorship from entities such as telecommunications firm Liquid Telecom Group, who have provided high-speed internet connection during major gaming competitions in Nairobi, have been pivotal to this growth.
“While it is an emerging industry in Kenya and East Africa, gaming is now growing at an annual rate of more than 25 per cent, with African games and gamers moving into the global arena,” says Liquid Telecom Group's Chief Technical Innovation Officer Ben Roberts.
By the end of 2013, the video gaming industry in Kenya was worth $44 million (Sh4.4 billion) according to estimates from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), a figure that is expected to triple by 2020. Globally, gaming generated a total of $108 billion (Sh109 trillion) in revenue in 2017.
The development of the country’s digital infrastructure, notably the introduction of broadband internet in 2009 by the government, helped to accelerate gaming in Kenya, according to experts.
“No one imagined that by 2015 Kenya would be blazing the trail in the gaming front, not just in the region but on the continental scene as well. The growth has been accelerated by government support, corporate grants and shared spaces,” says James Karanu, a pioneer gaming investor in Kenya.
Today, gamers can find games and other players online on mobile games, PlayStation, Xbox and PC.
Besides e-sports, cosplay is fast emerging as the other favourite genre of gaming among local fans. Cosplay, a portmanteau of the words “costume” and “play”, is a practice which traces its origin from Japan. Participants, called cosplayers, wear costumes and other accessories of animation characters in anime, cartoons, comic books, TV series and video games.
Penny Njuma is a communication officer at PSG. She narrates: “In Kenya, the practice started at the Japanese Embassy as a cultural event. It was then a minor affair before Naiccon tapped into it and released it for trial in the Kenyan market.”
The decision was a masterstroke.
“The popularity of cosplay has been on a terrific rise, not only among enthusiasts but also among people who just attend movies dressed up in costumes for fun. These people also act as brand ambassadors for the practice, which is nearly becoming a profession locally,” Penny says.
With specialised cosplaying, she adds, participants are now making earnings, especially during major theatre events.
“Cosplay has been showcased in comics and during movie screenings such as the highly-acclaimed Blank Panther movie, which recorded the highest number of cosplayers ever in Kenya’s history,” Penny reveals.
Platforms such as Gaming for Kenya have also emerged to promote the culture of gaming through avenues such as media and events.
“Through our website we keep gaming enthusiasts in the loop of the latest news, trends and events in the gaming industry. We also work together with influencers such as vloggers and other content creators to drive our agenda,” says Karanu, who is one of the directors of Gaming for Kenya.
The platform has hosted several LAN parties and exhibitions to gaming competitions often known as eSports (electronic sports), a subsector of gaming.
Furthermore, the gaming culture has led to the formation of gaming communities that transcend international borders. William Omondi, or the Priest, who emerged second in the recent competition, is a member of the Kenyan Fighting Game Community (FGC) as well as the South African Fighting Game Community.
“We host online gaming sessions weekly to compete and improve our skills, share ideas and network. For people with shared preferences, it’s thrilling to interact with people from different counties and regions,” explains William, whose speciality is fighting or combat games.
Another gamer, Brian Diang’a, or Krach the Beast, has won major awards including during the East African gaming convention pro series gaming in 2017 and 2018, where he was placed second and fifth, respectively.
Brian, a student of graphics design at Africa Digital Media Institute, belongs to several gaming communities.
“Through gaming, I have met a diversity of people and made friends in Uganda, Zambia and Tanzania, all of whom I would otherwise have not met. Gaming connects people, thus creating a strong community of gamers across the world,” he argues.
Among hundreds of Kenyans who have spotted an investment opportunity in the flourishing gaming culture is the pair of Sheila Amolo and Jessica Olago. The duo designs costumes, props and other accessories for superheroes, anime stars and celebrities through their brand Kirakira, which was started in 2016.
Experts opine that corporate sponsorships will be the ultimate pivot for the thrust and sustainability of gaming in Kenya.
“Corporate entities should tap into this lucrative opportunity. Local game developers should be supported and given an enabling environment to create high quality products for gaming platforms such as the PlayStation, Xbox and the Nintendo equivalents,” Karanu says.
Karanu, however, laments that even as gaming continues to thrive in the region, Kenya and other East African countries are yet to be recognised as vibrant markets by some gaming platforms such as PlayStation4.