Games could mean serious business for the Maldives, says MESA

A team of young Maldivans from the Maldives E-Sport Association (MESA) returned home last week fresh from competing at the Sri Lankan Cyber Games (SLCG), facing off against the tournament winners in their first exhibition match outside the country.

‘E-Sports’ – competitive multi-player computer gaming – are extremely popular in the Maldives. MESA holds its own gaming festival every year (the next is at the end of November) and attracts sponsorship from companies such as Dhiraagu, Point IT, Coca-Cola and Raajje Online, rivaling a major sporting event.

The Maldivian side is getting noticed on the international pro-gaming circuit too, explains MESA’s President Ismail ‘Levitan’ Azmee, for despite their relative lack of experience, the team drew their exhibition match with the Sri Lankan champions at the SLCG.

The game was ‘Call of Duty 4’, a first person shooter (FPS) in which two teams of players must coordinate to achieve a set objective, such as capturing a flag, or more usually, exterminating the opposition with virtual gunfire. A player is reincarnated at the beginning of each round.

Matches at the SCLG were a race to 13 win, Azmee explains.

“The first match we lost 9-13. But in the next match we got to chose our [preferred] map, and we won 13-11,” he says. “If you know the map, you have an advantage over your opponent because you know how to flank them.”

The Sri Lankan teams were very experienced having played together for three years, while the Maldivian side: Ali Ayham, Mohamed Maaiyz Nasheed, Mohamed Samhan, Mohamed Bassam, Ikram Easa, Mohamed Jinad, Mohamed Iyash and Ali Farooq had only eight months.

Teams play opposite each other at a bank of computers, communicating using in-game commands to avoid tipping off the opposition.

Sportsmanship was tested during the match, when, outnumbered by jeering spectators, one of the Maldivian side was ‘knifed’ in-game by a Sri Lankan player.

With all the high-powered weaponry in the game, the close-combat killing of an unobservant player is considered the ultimate humiliation.

“But we kept our cool, and knifed him back twice,” says Ali Ayham, one of MESA’s exhibition players. “They became quite agitated after that.”

Other games played included racing simulation Need for Speed.

“The Maldives is strongest in Counterstrike and Call of Duty, but we also have possibly one of the best Guitar Hero players in the region,” says Azmee. “He doesn’t miss a button.”

Far from the inconsequential past-time of idle and dissolute youth, MESA is one of the Maldives’ largest, youngest and most active associations. Were its 10,000 to 12,000 members to form a political party, it would come close to being the third largest in the Maldives, after the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP).

Accordingly, MESA wants nothing more than to trigger a surge in high-tech investment to the Maldives.

“Maldivian industry is limited to tourism and fishing,” Azmee says, “and we want to introduce electronics in the near future. The country has a high youth population, and one of the biggest forms of entertainment in the country is electronic. Most gamers are not out to compete at a professional level, they just play for fun, but for those that want to take it to the next level, MESA is trying to make that happen.”

Gaming, he says, “is not just entertainment – it’s an industry. Game testers are paid more than doctors in the Maldives – you have to be an extreme gamer and really know your gaming history. It’s a demanding job.”

MESA has already built connections with companies in South Korea, where computer gaming is the de facto national sport. “They have committed to supporting us to develop the electronics industry in the country,” Azmee notes, adding that the association has letters from the government supporting the creation of an “electronics village”, in a location such as like Hulhumale.

“We particularly want to attract game developers,” Azmee explains. “There are already a few mobile game developers here who have submitted proposals to [famous developers] Electronic Arts and Square Enix, but there are currently few opportunities for professional developers in the country because of a lack of support for the industry.

“There are a lot of people here with the required degrees, but no opportunity to develop what they have been trained to do. They have to accept jobs with low wages doing things they are not trained for. We have asked companies to come and develop here – we’ve already talked with them, we have all the documents and support from the government, even from the President himself.”

Internet access speeds in the Maldives are not up to the level of competitive gaming however, Azmee says, which has forced MESA to decline some offers to compete online.

“We don’t have the net connection here to play online competitively, although we have really good PCs. We are working with both the telecoms companies to try and get better pings (speeds).”

However corporate support for sponsoring gaming within the Maldives is already strong, Azmee says.

“At the SLCG in Sri Lanka we observed that while they had 200 teams, they had far less support than we have in the Maldives – they’ve asked for our assistance to get it. We are shortly going to start the first ever South Asia E-Sport Association here in the Maldives, and in the near future we’ll be signing MoUs with Pakistan, Singapore, India and Vietnam.”

Locally, MESA runs a gaming centre in Male’ on the main road of Majeedhee Magu, decorated with painted characters from the popular FPS Counterstrike. Many more players from the islands play online, and the association’s local servers attract many German, Brazilian, Korean and Singaporean players as well.

Prior to MESA’s arrival the centre had a reputation for being somewhere where local drug addicts would come to buy drugs, shoot up and hang out, says Azmee, and some still drift to the centre.

Astoundingly, MESA has had significant success in rehabilitating addicts by getting them involved in gaming. Users become so absorbed in the expansive, online multi-player game worlds such as World of Warcraft (WoW) that they “forget” one addiction, trading it for another far less harmful.

“It works, and the government has acknowledged it,” Azmee says. “They tried with the youth centres to get them playing sports but it did not work. A lot of the addicts in Male’ are just people with nothing else to do, and for them gaming can truly be a life-changing thing.”

Far from a solitary pursuit, so-called ‘massively multi-player’ games such as WoW require groups of players from around the world to cooperate and work together to achieve common goals within the game, such as slaying difficult adversaries. The action-reward nature of such games and the social interaction has proven so addictive for many players that WoW is sometimes disparagingly referred to as ‘World of WarCrack’.

But its dealer, Blizzard Entertainment, has out-performed any drug mafia. WoW boasts more than 11 million paying players, and revenues in excess of US$1 billion per year.

For MESA’s competitive wing, games are serious business. Top players must practice up to eight hours a day “if we want to be the best at what we do, just to stay ahead of the competition,” Azmee explains.

It’s not all in-game practice either – the teams watch and analyse replays, and study the performance and tactics of world-ranked teams such Dignitas.

But despite the in-game challenges, the greatest obstacle comes in the form of convincing their skeptical parents that time spent gaming can lead to a viable career.

“A lot of parents are concerned, and say we are wasting our time and that playing games changes you sociologically. We’ve consulted several universities on this and found studies that show that gaming engages the mind, reflexes and problem solving abilities,” Azmee says.

“I try to explain to parents and educate them that games are not bad if played in the right way – and obviously you should not let a young child play a game like Grand Theft Auto. We are planning to introduce a ratings system to help parents learn more about the games their children are playing.”

While convincing the parents is a series of battles, MESA’s elite players appear to be winning the war.

“At first they gave us a lot of trouble by saying it was better for us to focus on studying and that there was no future in gaming,’ Azmee says. “But that changed when they saw all the medals at the last Maldives gaming festival. Now they are really helpful.”