Counter-Strike in the Middle-East is still growing, trying to find its foothold within the region. As efforts are being made to establish a proper competitive circuit and a healthy community, one of the figureheads in this region is Abdallah ‘t0ks’ Al’Ghafari. As a retired professional player himself, t0ks knows the ins and outs of the Counter-Strike business while having a solid understanding of the local demographics.
AFK Gaming caught up with the man himself at the Middle-East Qualifier of ZOWIE eXTREMESLAND 2019, and the conversation that followed took us on a journey through his struggles, both personal and professional, that helped to establish himself in the field of esports while being one of the driving forces behind the growth of Counter-Strike in the region.
Hi t0ks. Thanks for speaking to us. Tell us a little about the Counter-Strike scene in the Middle East and your involvement in it.
Hello! Nice to meet you. Actually, CS:GO in the Middle-East has been really popular these days. I am the Middle-East Hub Owner on FACEIT and we have around 2,000 members ever since we introduced it last year. We have had a very high number of people subscribing to us and playing, and we have also launched a teams’ league which saw thirty-three teams registering.
This was a huge surprise to me especially since teams from the gulf region which is UAE, Kuwait and Saudi signed up. I would say that in the past few months a lot of people have been playing and we have a very active scene. Gradually, the Middle East region has been receiving slots in many international tournaments as well.
When and how did FACEIT come to the Middle East?
A representative from FACEIT named Milos contacted me last June, he is responsible for FPL. He said that they wanted to expand into the Middle-East, and due to my reputation in the region he contacted me. Issaa from HellRangers recommended me and eventually, we started this Middle-East project on the Dubai server.
As the countries in the Gulf Region have lower ping to Dubai when compared to those in the Levant, we started off with these countries first in June last year. Since then we have grown to a user base of 2,000 members and are currently the fifth most active in the entirety of all FACEIT hubs globally.
I am really glad that the scene has stepped up big time. We are making continued efforts to grow in the Levant region, as the numbers keep increasing day-by-day.
If we had to compare the Middle Eastern teams to the SEA or the Chinese teams, how do you think they would fare?
I think the amount of support the Asian teams get is a lot more than what the Middle Eastern teams do. We still have a lack of professional mentality, as people still say things like, “You guys keep quitting games, so we are not going to support you, it is all a waste of time.” But slowly we are witnessing growth as organizations such as NASR eSports, YaLLa Esports, and Divine Vendetta are getting involved in the scene, with their players now drawing steady salaries, and also being provided with a boot camp. All of this has helped these teams to play better and has put their names out on the map.
We can observe that these teams from the Middle East are slowly catching up to Asian teams, and in a competition where teams from the two regions were to face off against each other, I think it would be very close. As for the Chinese teams, they still have an upper hand as they have played more tournaments and have a good amount of international exposure as well.
Winners trophies and medals won by YaLLa & Demise
Do the Middle-Eastern CS:GO teams get a chance to play and practice outside of the region?
The main problem that the Middle East region faces, especially teams from the Gulf region is that they play on around 140 ms against the European teams, which has a negative effect on their gameplay, mentality and game style. So instead, they either play against the Asian teams at a ping of around 100 ms or they simply play against each other, and unfortunately, this has been a negative point for a long time now, with no solution available in the foreseeable future.
However, the teams in the Levant region play against the European teams often, as they have a ping of around 60-70 ms, which is decent and is the reason behind teams from that region doing so well. Look at Issa ‘ISSAA’ Murad, he qualified through FPL because he had a good ping to Europe, on the other hand, NASR eSports is still struggling to play in FPL leagues.
We have seen teams like Demise who usually play in the European region, coming to take part in events happening in the Middle-East. Why do you think this transition is taking place?
I think due to the skill gap between the two regions, Turkish teams have a higher chance of qualifying and actually doing damage here rather than in Europe. If given a choice anyone would logically choose to compete in the Middle East region because it offers an easier path to the LAN. But still, even this region has some highly skilled teams like NASR and YaLLa Esports that can put up quite the competition.
You have been a professional player yourself in the past. Tell us a bit more about that journey and why you chose to retire and become a talent instead.
I initially joined Risky Gaming because Abdulaziz ‘Nami’ Ibrahim had joined the national service. I stayed with the team for a whole year after which I quit, not because Nami had come back into the team, but because I couldn’t see a future for myself as a player.
I didn’t have any support and was also working as an engineer back then, which took up most of my time. I was getting a sustainable fixed salary in this job, contrary to when I was a professional player. But a little later, I got the opportunity to become a talent and started doing commentary, analysis, and hosting at various esport events. The salary was good and I also got to interact with many organizers, which is how I got in contact with FACEIT, resulting in me opening up the FACEIT hub for the Middle East region.
Overall I don't regret taking this path, I think it opened up so many doors for me. My hub is a good example of how a setback can be turned into something really positive, and I am really glad that it worked out in my favour.
t0ks casting at the Middle-East qualifier
In almost all Asian countries, there is a general stigma against gaming. Have you ever had to deal with this kind of a problem from your family or members of society in the Middle East as well?
My father was extremely critical of me pursuing a career in esports and he was always telling me that it was a waste of time, up until I travelled to Spain for my first professional CS 1.6 tournament in 2011 where we played against Fnatic. That was the first time when my father took notice and said, “Oh yeah! My son is now in the news and he is being talked about.”
A few years down the line and I now work as an operations manager for Power League Gaming (PLG), running various events every week. Doing what I like and actually getting paid for it, twice the amount of what I used to get as an engineer. Seeing all that I have achieved my father is now very proud of me and the community has started taking notice as well.
Before I used to be shy about what I do and people used to call me a nerd, but now I am very open and when I talk about it people are very shocked and surprised about how far esports has come in the Middle East.
With the whole scene picking up the pace and so many companies coming to Dubai, I would say that it started off hard for me but now both my family and the community have a positive outlook towards what I do. And it is something that I want to pursue forever if it continues to grow.
The company you work with organized the PLG Grand Slam last year in December, which was a really big esports event taking place in the Middle East. But unfortunately, it was plagued with a lot of delays and technical difficulties. What did you guys take away from that tournament?
Yes, tournament wise we faced a lot of issues. That was the first tournament we organized at such a huge scale, offering such a big prize pool. It was certainly not an easy task, and unfortunately we had a run-in with too many technical issues, However, everything was sorted out by the final day of the event, as everything fell into place, running very smoothly.
From my personal experience, I think hospitality wise everyone was pleased to visit Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The tournament did have a positive impact on the Middle-East because while the teams might not have been very happy with the tournament itself, they certainly did not have any complaints when it came to hospitality.
Also, this venture opened up so many job opportunities for PLG and for the people who worked in that event, including my own personal FACEIT hub. Honestly, I would love to do it once again.
BenQ Middle-East team along with a few players and organizers
Does that mean PLG is looking to do another such event in the future?
I think we are doing crazy events event right now! When it comes to Counter-Strike, we are definitely thinking of doing another Grand Slam but maybe on a smaller scale, perhaps with eight teams instead of sixteen. Overall, we do have the budget, the proper backing as well, and I think this time we would do it in Dubai instead of Abu Dhabi because it is more in our comfort zone since we know all the companies and suppliers out here.
Currently, we are working on a huge project with Riot and it is going to be an epic event taking place in Saudi. This opportunity came to us in part due to the PLG Grand Slam, so I think we are surely going to continue with it, hopefully organizing another one by next year.
Note: Parts of this interview have been edited for clarity and brevity.
With this our conversation came to an end. T0ks was working as a commentator at the Middle East qualifier of ZOWIE eXTREMESLAND 2019 and many of the other people we spoke to at the event had high respect for him. The qualifier came to an end with YaLLa Esports and Demise booking their slots for the main event in Shanghai, China taking place this November.