Esports is on the rise in Africa and two Kenyans are doing pretty well putting Kenya and Africa on the world map. This on-the-rise global game is in a league of its own, where athletes may not look like your traditional sports stars — yet have huge earning potential, massive brand endorsements and even fans of their owns.
While many of the top participants reside in Europe or the United States, the African continent is looking to share in a global market that pulled in over $1 billion in 2019.
Africa’s gaming industry is projected to grow massively by 12% in the next five years, with Egypt and South Africa leading the industry in revenue earned.
This year, South African esports teenager athlete Thabo “Yvng Savage” Moloi made history by becoming the first-ever player from Africa to be sponsored by Red Bull. At just 18 years old, Thabo is South Africa’s top-rated FIFA player on PS4 and is ranked 73rd globally.
However, some of the continent’s most promising stars are in East Africa and Kenya in particular.
Sylvia “Queen Arrow” Gathoni, 22
A Law student by day and pro-gamer by night, Sylvia Gathoni is better known by her gaming handle “Queen Arrow”. She is Kenya’s first female professional esports athlete. Her area of prowess is the fighting game “Tekken 7.”
According to a 2019 study, women account for 35% of all gamers worldwide, Gathoni being among only a handful of them on the continent.
“We don’t have many women (gamers), so you don’t have a support system from people who share the same gender,” Gathoni says. “I have to make sure that I’m an example to other women and other people who aspire to be in the gaming industry.”
Gathoni has been a regular on the gaming scene since 2018 and today, at just 22 years old, is ranked 13th in Kenya. She is also the first female in East Africa to be sponsored by a global brand.
A challenging industry
But her rise to the top has not been without its own challenges; the biggest challenge, she says, has been sexism in a male-dominated industry — an issue that is gaining more attention across the world of esports.
“There are some men who don’t like the idea that I’ve made it this far,” Gathoni says. “They say that the only reason that I’ve gotten signed is because I’m a woman and it’s not because of my skill.”
While she admits those comments are distressing, Gathoni says she is determined not to let them get in the way of her plan, which includes using her degree in law to help streamline the future of the industry itself.
She also hopes to use her platform to prove that esports and gaming is a viable career path.
“Right now, for a lot of people, it seems like we are just wasting our time, resources and energy,” she says, adding that pressure now remains to pursue a more “conventional career path … like law or medicine.”
Brian “Beast” Diang’a, 28
Born and raised in the heart Kenya’s largest slum, Kibera, Brian “Beast” Diang’a is one of the country’s most recognized Mortal Kombat players. “If it wasn’t for gaming, I wouldn’t be here today,” he tells CNN, adding that he chose gaming instead of crime.
His journey into esports began as a kid, spending all of his spare time in a Kibera playing games at a place called “After Homework,” where he says he would go to escape the harsh slum reality.
“We would go without food for days. The whole of high school I was wearing one pair of shoes,” Diang’a recalls of his life outside gaming.
But through gaming, ‘Beast’ found purpose. “The good thing about Kibera is you are low and you can’t go any lower than where it is. The only place left for you to go is to go higher. So I just kept pushing myself and telling myself I don’t have limits.” he says.
He says he honed his skills by watching YouTube tutorials and studying other players online since he couldn’t afford professional training and in 2014, he began entering local tournaments, where his professional career and “Beast” identity took off.
Since then, Mr. Brian has played a significant part in growing the local gaming industry and developing esports in Kibera, where he still lives and runs gaming joints for kids from the community.