BEIRUT: In the heart of a southern suburb of Beirut, a sweaty young man screams bloody murder at his friend, “kill him, to the right, get him.” But in a country not unused to running street battles, the 20-year-old is today fighting a different kind of conflict. Just near Mar Mikhael Church in southern Beirut, some of Lebanon’s small but growing gamming community is locked in a fierce round of the popular game Dota 2. The players say their community not only bridges the gap between neighborhood and sect but now also offers youths a chance at a coveted and viable career as a pro gamer.
Dota 2, released by the U.S. Valve Corporation in 2013, remains hugely popular and is described by fans as chess on steroids. Two teams of five players each select one of 113 character pool of “heroes.” The objective is a battle to destroy the opposing team’s “ancient” structure.
The “heroes” are diverse, with their own strengths and weaknesses – making teamwork essential.
Mahdi Daher, 24, owns and operates Elite Gaming, a 40-computer network arena that’s packed week-round with people playing against other gamers across the world.
“For me, it is more than a business. We are a community and I am doing what I love with my friends,” he told The Daily Star. “People come here for the atmosphere. It is different than when you are playing at home; here people are playing together and enjoying their time together. We are really a community and most of us have known each other since we were children.”
The air in the two-story venue is thick with cigarette smoke as the rows of gamers light up continuously. As they wait their turn, gaggles of younger kids watch experienced veterans hoping to pick up a trick or two.
A seat at one of the computers is coveted. Each round lasts around 40 to 60 minutes, and when those already seated decide to go for another turn, sighs and friendly complaints echo from the background.
The players say the community bridges the gaps in society, transcending Lebanon’s geographical and sectarian cleavages.
“We have gone and played in Christian areas which I would not have gone to as a Muslim Shiite, but when we have these tournaments it doesn’t matter,” Daher said. “I now have friends that I would not have made had it not been for [gaming].”
With Lebanon’s perennial power shortages and slow internet, network arenas have become a haven for players in the country.
“Electricity, internet and payment methods are the biggest hurdles we deal with in Lebanon, [but] we have a big gaming community,” 33-year-old Jimmy Youssef, another gamer, told The Daily Star. “Although the transition to digital purchases and online services is happening [globally], we are getting left behind. … We struggle to take advantage of the new features.”
Yet as with many things in Lebanon, the gaming community has found a way to work around the challenges. “I have groups that I play select games with; we plan it on WhatsApp. There’s the ‘Lebanon Clan’ for gaming and people join from across different platforms,” Youssef said.
For many, the dream is to work their way into the professional leagues and turn their gaming hobbies into lucrative careers.
There are many international competitions, but for Dota 2 the most sought-after is “The International,” run annually by the Valve Corporation. The event is held each summer and the prize pool has been steadily increasing since it started six years ago.
Last summer’s prize was $20,770,460. Twenty teams from around the world competed to take home the top prize of $9,139,002. Even after deductions, each player raked in more than $1 million.
This year, Lebanese teams are vying for their chance at the prize money. A team from Hamra-based network arena Spotnet has already taken the first steps toward their goal.
“The international competition has its own qualifiers, but you have to have won a regional championship to qualify for the qualifiers themselves,” Rod, the coach for Spotnet’s Dota 2 team, told The Daily Star. Having just won one of these, they are on the road to the main event. “Winning the regional tournament has opened the door for us to potentially compete in the international tournament.”
Spotnet is building a team of the best local players to turn professional. Each receives a salary and commits to training a set number of hours per week. Nicholas, one of Spotnet’s professionals, said he was living the dream of getting paid to play.
“We saw the potential in it, how much money was being made abroad, how popular it was, so we have a head start on any future competition because we’re investing in our players already,” Nicholas said. “We at Spotnet are the only ones [in Lebanon] to pay our players a salary. We have 15 players under signed contracts with Spotnet,” he added.
“[Many other gamers] think that Arabs aren’t good players and that there is no serious competition for Europe and Asia in this region. I want to prove them wrong.” – Additional reporting by Michael Jerab