As you enter the premises, you’re greeted by flashing beams of neon lights fixed on the walls and a strangely congruous sound from constant pushing of buttons and movement of joysticks. The pink, green and blue lights are just bright enough to let you make your way around the cubicles where young men wearing hi-tech headphones have their sights fixated on the monitor screens as they play popular video games with one another, and in globally administered online networks.
The gaming arcades of yesteryear have given way to these high-tech gaming lounges in Lahore, and the impact is beginning to be felt globally.
Arsalan ‘Ash’ Siddique, a Lahore-based gamer, rose to fame last year when he won the Tekken World Tour 2019 at Las Vegas, USA. Continuing his winning streak, he secured a $5,000 prize at the RoxNRoll Dubai tournament in September 2019 and moved to the sixth spot in the international rankings. Another Pakistani gamer, Mussawar ‘Ghost_Khan’ Nawaz, ranks in the top 100 in the Southeast Asia Leaderboard for Defense of the Ancients II, a multi-player online strategy game widely known as DOTA II. Nawaz was the first Pakistani gamer to cross 8,000 match-making rating points in DOTA II.
The global gaming market is estimated to have generated more than $150 billion in revenue in 2019, and it’s not just restricted to professionals but also caters to casual gamers. While social media and smartphones are gaining popularity among gamers, many still prefer the personal computer (PC) over any other medium. PCs continue to have an edge because they are cheaper to maintain. Each component is separate and can be replaced with its latest upgrade. This makes it easier for PC games to have better graphics.
A prevailing myth about gaming is that it’s insular. A prototypical gamer is believed to be an introvert with no connection to the physical world around them because of the influence of the virtual world of video games they remain absorbed in most of the time. However, the interactive aspect of online gaming networks belies this image. The communal spirit of gaming is at full display at public gaming arenas. Not only are gamers in close physical proximity to one another at these arenas, but they’re also constantly interacting with other gamers whom they play with. A lot of multiplayer games in fact require such high levels of coordination and dexterity that teammates develop enduring bonds with one another.
Since most games are designed by men, for men, another persistent myth is that gaming is a traditionally male
pastime. While it is estimated that, in 2018, 45% of gamers in the US were women, the industry still upholds barriers to women’s entry both as gamers and as developers. While young men create enduring bonds with gamers online, women gamers face excessive harassment and are often discouraged from visiting gaming zones which are viewed as a male-dominated public space. As the number of women gaming developers and all-women gaming teams increase, women will increasingly become active patrons of video games. There are some encouraging trailblazers who persisted in their passion for games and went on to create opportunities for other women to enter the field. Sadia Bashir started out playing Mario Bros at the local arcade in Islamabad with her brothers and has gone on to start Pixelart Games, an academy for Pakistanis interested in game development. Sadia, who stitched clothes and taught at a local school to raise money for her own education, believes sexist attitudes are ‘nonsense’ and, despite a fair share of rejections and barriers to entry, she has been able to make a name for herself. Asma Rahoo, a PUBG player from Mirpurkhas, started out as a vlogger but now has more than 76,000 subscribers on her Youtube channel. Her videos feature PUBG gameplay where she can be seen competing with players from India and Bangladesh. While speaking to MIT Technology Review Pakistan, she said, “A lot of people called me a ‘noob’ when they heard that I’m a girl but I let my game do the talking and eventually they became my fans.”
The gaming industry in Pakistan is all set to grow as faster and cheaper Internet becomes
widely available and the infrastructure needed for e-sports grows.
For most serious gamers, introduction to gaming starts in their formative years. Aziz Nasir, a DOTA player since 2006, recalls his school days when he and his classmates used to frequent a gaming cafe near their school in Lahore’s Defence Housing Authority (DHA) Lahore. “Time would fly by quickly when we played together. Often, we would spend the entire day after school at the gaming zone,” he reminisces. Years later, Nasir and his classmates have gone their separate ways and they’re located in different parts of the world but, they still come together online to play DOTA II on the weekends. “Some of us are married. Others have kids, and located in different time zones but we still come together online to play games. Those moments take me back to the teenage years,” he says.
The gaming lounge culture has seen its ebbs and flows. After a period of popularity in the early 2000s, it began to wither away with the availability of high-speed internet in the comfort of homes. In recent years, the decline in the use of PCs in favor of laptops has coincided with the comeback of gaming lounges equipped with a complete e-sporting experience.
While gaming zones dot many neighborhoods in Lahore, there are a few which deliver top-notch tech and an upscale environment for its customers. Among these is the Gooline Space franchise that has three branches in the city. Their flagship branch in Gulberg has 40 PC gaming stations. Ahsan Razzaq, a recent graduate, has been a regular visitor since about a year. Even though he has a PC at home, he still prefers the gaming lounge because of the uninterrupted power supply and reliable and fast Internet connection.
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The staff at Portal, another premier gaming lounge in the city, lists down Fortnite, Rainbow Six Siege, Counter Strike Go, DOTA II, PUBG and Tekken 7 as their most popular games. Portal has also hosted some of the biggest gaming events in the city recently, including the Dew Gamers Arena 2019 qualifiers and All Pakistan DOJO 2019. It’s equipped with 20 i7 PCs with GeForce GTX 1080 graphics cards, Razer Kraken headsets and DXRacer gaming chairs. A regular at Portal, Mohammad Ahmed, expresses his desire to play Tekken at the international level. “I play Tekken at home as well but here I can compete with other visitors offline and improve my game.”
Portal’s proprietor Fawad Ghauri says the lack of international standard gaming zones in the country had led him to establish the lounge. The shortage of such infrastructure has disadvantaged Pakistani gamers who aspire to compete at the global level.
A brief glance at global player rankings in prominent PC games shows a clear dominance of South Korean and Japanese players. Around 95 percent of the Korean households have high-speed broadband Internet access and almost every town has ‘PC bangs’, cafes dedicated to PC games. It is no surprise that Korean professional gamers are some of the best in the world. E-sports have become such an integral part of the Korean society that top-ranked players gain an almost celebrity status. Gaming zones in the capital city Seoul boast hundreds of gaming stations.
Competitive e-sports requiring grueling long hours of daily practice may not be everyone’s cup of tea. For the casual gamer, Lahore has several Virtual Reality (VR) gaming zones too. Transfinity at Fortress Stadium is a virtual reality entertainment arcade with branches in Islamabad, Karachi and Faisalabad as well. HTC VIVE headsets allow users to play games like Space Junkies, a jet-pack fueled arcade shooter and Audio Trip, a dance game. The VIVE headset allows users to create a 3.5m by 3.5m room-scale stage to move around and play in. It has a 3.6 inch AMOLED dual screen and 1,080 by 1,200 pixels per eye for immersive virtual reality experience. Traditional PC and arcade games have also adapted to the latest advances in gaming tech with Skyrim, Doom and Minecraft now considered some of the best VR games out there.
A Dew Gamers Arena has now been organized two years in a row to boost interest in e-sports and gaming in the country. The latest version of the event, held in September 2019 at Lahore’s Expo Center, drew large crowds of serious as well as casual gamers from across the country. The event invited players of PUBG Mobile, Counter Strike: Global Offensive and DOTA II to compete for a prize of Rs1 million each. After an initial pool of more than 1,250 teams, Team Bablu won PUBG Mobile, Gaming Hub took home the CS:GO trophy while the DOTA II championship was won by Recreational Hazard.
The gaming industry in Pakistan is all set to grow as faster and cheaper Internet becomes widely available and the infrastructure needed for e-sports grows. Tournaments and sponsorships allow local gamers to showcase their skills to international e-sports organizations who in turn attract even larger sponsors. As more and more e-sport stars win big money and stardom at international events, professional gamers and the gaming zones which nurture them will gain the reverence they deserve in Pakistan.
Rafia Asim is a writer based in Lahore.