Ritalucia is a professional esports gamer based in Ghana.

Ritalucia is a professional esports gamer based in Ghana.

Photo by Agyeibea Asare-Boye.

Inside the Challenging World of African Esports

Facing several hurdles, Africa’s esports scene is yet to find its footing and roll with the industry’s biggest players.

No longer is esports (or electronic sports) seen as a mindless hobby. Also known as competitive gaming, esports has lifted off the ground and evolved into a billion-dollar industry. With innovations like Twitch and other high-stake investments, gamers around the world are making serious earnings thumbing away in live tournaments.

But the story isn’t as glamorous on the African continent. Video gaming in Africa is yet to catch up with the fast-paced industry, especially in competitive arenas. It’s still contending with issues like poor internet connection, economic equality, and, most importantly, unstable game servers. But a few relentless people are dedicated to growing the scene to its full potential.

Ghanaian gamer Ritalucia contends with poor esports infrastructure

For most African esports enthusiasts, passion is what drives them. Ritalucia, a professional esports gamer and shout caster in Ghana, wants to keep striving in the industry despite her geographical location tipping all the odds against her. “I am a competitive person but I have to stay away from professional esports competitions because of the huge ping difference in Ghana,” Ritalucia tells OkayAfrica. “ If I lose I know I’ll be sad.”

She’s joined other African gamers to call for the creation of local servers on the content to level the grounds with their international counterparts, especially when it comes to online competitions. It led to the emergence of #SeversInAfrica, a hashtag created to drive conversations for their cause. Kwesi Hayford, President of the Ghana Esports Association, has been a leading voice.

“During the FIFA e-nations tournament, Ghanaian players couldn’t participate in the global qualifiers mainly because we were facing server issues,” Hayford said. “We had to connect to servers in Madrid because that was much closer to us. We lost to South Africa because they flew their players to Dubai where the default servers were for the tournament and that gave them an advantage over our players.”

Kwesi began an online petition in 2020 to bring heightened attention to the issue. The petition, which was posted on the website, has garnered over 2,000 signatures so far. In the petition, Kwesi highlighted how servers in Africa will be the bedrock of a revolutionized digital and technological ecosystem on the continent.

Players petition for accessible local servers

Major companies and stakeholders in the gaming world including Sony, Konami, EA Games, and Microsoft were tagged in the petition. The question here is, are they willing to let up and commit resources to build the local servers in Africa?

“Africa currently boasts of 186 million gamers as of 2021,” James Karanu, a Kenyan game analyst and former professional esports player, told OkayAfrica. “I do believe that the number of gamers here is enough to operate servers to full capacity in Africa. In my view, I think building servers in the central part of Africa, like DR Congo for example, will be a vantage point to serve the whole continent.”

According to Karanu, Liquid Technologies, a pan-African technology company, is planning to host game servers in Africa. “They have the requisite infrastructure to connect different African countries towards South Africa and the other developed economies. The caveat, however, is mobilizing the various Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in Africa to join the #ServersInAfrica caravan,” Karanu said. “Every Internet Service Provider has different policies per the country they operate in as well as different costs in using their services.”

ISPs are the liaison between the servers and the gamers but if Karanu’s submissions are anything to go by, the abject economic situation most African countries are facing limits gamers from playing high-end games to their full capacity.

As it stands, running servers anywhere in the world is relatively expensive and with a nascent market like Africa, companies have been reluctant to invest in the gaming community and that has stunted the growth of professional esports players.

“Most of my friends who play professional esports often have to fly overseas to gain some advantage and engage in competitions without lagging.” Mhister Flak, a South African game enthusiast on YouTube, tells OkayAfrica.

With support, African esports could be an emerging market

In gaming, ping determines the time between a player’s input and the server’s response to that particular input. The lower the ping number, the faster and more advantageous a gamer gets. Since Africa barely has any game servers—except South Africa—the ping number for most countries is higher and that puts most gamers on the continent at a gross disadvantage. They don’t get to play in international competitions unless they can afford a flight to countries with servers.

Back in Ghana, Kwesi is in no way fazed by the exorbitant cost of running servers. He believes when major stakeholders like the government, ISPs, and gaming companies come together, a mutually beneficial agreement can be made to drive esports to its zenith in Africa.

“I don’t think the gaming community in Africa should be termed as ‘small,’” Kwesi said. “ First, there is no data backing those claims. I believe we are an emerging market. Africa being an emerging market in gaming makes it difficult. In my petition, I stated how big gaming companies have no adequate data on gamers in Africa. Take my PSN account, for example, it is tied to New York. Most gaming sites haven’t enlisted African cities in their database when it comes to purchasing their games.”

For this reason, African gamers are forced to buy games in foreign currency. There, however, is a South African market but, according to Kwesi, that data isn’t significant enough. South Africa is seen as the poster country for the African gaming community, the beacon of African local servers. Although they have quite a number of servers, Flak acknowledges the privileges but believes there’s still more work to be done to propel the country to the same level as other continents.

“Most gaming companies rarely see Africa as a continent with gamers,” he said. “ You check the release dates and times of your favorite games and all continents are enlisted except Africa.”

Even in South Africa, players compete with poor connection

The South African gaming market is relatively the “most developed in Africa.” Unlike other countries, they are equipped with local servers for eight of the high-end PC and console games like Call of Duty, Rocket League, and Rainbow Siege just to mention a few.

The ping numbers the servers in South Africa provide are too high for a professional gamer to work with.

“I play Apex Legends often and there’s no local server here and that makes playing online in multiplayer mode difficult,” Flak said. “Gamers have to connect to servers in London and Bahrain to get a decent connection but being farther poses a huge disadvantage to the African gamer.”

As a result, it delays the gameplay for most African gamers. Any move they make in the game has been countered by their overseas counterpart within milliseconds because they are closer to the server. It is always a lost battle for these gamers before it even begins.

“It is like a battle between David and Goliath,” he adds.

Flak and Karanu commended Hayford for taking the brave step to champion the establishment of local servers in Africa. They both expressed how hopeful they are for the future of gaming in Africa. However, most game companies according to them are operating huge businesses that require a steady flow of profits and return on investment, and are risk-averse when it comes to pumping money into the market.

“There is an Amazon data center here in South Africa, which can host most of these game servers,” Flak said. “ The resources are available but it all boils down to companies’ willingness to invest.”

For Ritalucia, gaming hasn’t been the best experience because the ping numbers aren’t favorable. “I pay around 850 cedis a month for my current internet plan to stream my games online and create content for my audience,” Ritalucia said. “The downloads take forever and the games are always lagging and honestly, it has affected my career in professional esports.”

For her, having local servers in Ghana would be a game changer and would really be a nice boost to have affordable internet for Ghanaian gamers.

Hayford has sparked a needed conversation for growing the African gaming ecosystem. Since starting this petition, he and his team have organized social media campaigns, written letters to gaming companies, and are in talks with data centers and important stakeholders to facilitate the establishment of servers in Ghana and other parts of Africa.