DAKAR: Avid fans of the best-selling FIFA video game watched on a big screen as leading Senegalese gamers battled it out as virtual iterations of footballing royalty like Cristiano Ronaldo and Olivier Giroud.
Some 400 eSports enthusiasts attended Dakar´s recent Esport Experience tournament, inspired by local heroes like Mouhamed Thiam, 19, alias "Dex77" — three-time continental champion — and by Senegal´s real-life football team, the continent´s reigning champions.
Rising star Cheikh Thiaw, 20, alias "Coldfire Junior", said that the national football team´s recent successes, making it into the World Cup´s last 16, motivated him "to face off against any foreign gamer".
The tournament featured one million CFA francs ($1,626) in prizes, divided among the top players of the games FIFA, eFootball and Street Fighter.
Gamers from the West African nation are now eyeing global eSport success, with their stars competing in tournaments throughout the region.
Establishing a career in eSports is no mean feat — the prize money in Senegal is low compared to the rest of the world, and few can become professionals.
But the country is an emerging economy in Africa, and analysts say gaming is likely to expand in the coming years.
Senegal is home to some 20,000 competitive video game players, according to Sengames, the country´s main gamers´ association.
Dex77´s older brother Papa Adama Thiam, 26, alias "Doctor Dexx", is also on the forefront of Senegal´s gaming revolution. Alongside his pharmacy studies he has become five-time national FIFA champion.
"My father gave me my first PlayStation when I was 11," he said.
"My mother used to work half the year as a hairdresser in the United States and brought back the latest version of PlayStation."
With help from Senegal´s few gaming sponsors, Doctor Dexx earns about three million CFA francs per year — more than twice the average yearly salary.
He spends his free time coaching younger gamers to nurture "the stars of tomorrow".
According to Newzoo, which analyses gaming trends, the African continent is fertile ground for eSports thanks to internet connections that are becoming quicker and cheaper, as well as a growing middle class.
The Middle East and Africa are home to 488 million video game players, or 15 percent of the global total, Newzoo´s 2022 report shows.
The combined super-region has the highest growth rate, up eight percent in a year.
"More and more young amateur gamers want to become professionals," said Mamoudou Soumare, deputy director of the SOLO Esport club, home of Senegal´s best players.
Gaming consoles remain prohibitively expensive for many in Senegal. Older models change hands for around 150,000 CFA francs.
"Our recruits work and take part in international tournaments," said Baba Dioum, the SOLO Esport club´s co-founder and president of Sengames.
"It´s a new field that needs to be structured, and that is very promising for Senegal´s youth," said Laurent Montillet, deputy director of Dakar´s French Institute, which staged a tournament with players from across the Sahel.
Senegal is also slowly seeing the emergence of local video games, mainly inspired by African mythology rather than football.
"The only sports game we´ve seen so far is about wrestling," which is Senegal´s other main sport, said Soumare.
He said that the video game sector will need support in the form of a federation, public funding and training to spur the creation of more Senegalese start-ups.