Saudi Arabia speeds up
You can’t be the Formula 1 world champion if you don’t have a fast car. You can’t become the world leader at gaming, if you don’t have decent broadband.
This was the position Saudi Arabia found itself in the mid-2010s. The Kingdom had a relatively young, affluent population with a huge appetite for gaming. However, the country’s broadband networks – both fixed-line and mobile – weren’t delivering the required performance. And to make matters worse, the big games makers weren’t hosting their servers in Saudi Arabia either, further diminishing games performance. Saudi Arabia decided to do something about it. The Saudi Vision 2030 programme promised the Kingdom would use its “investment power to create a more diverse and sustainable economy”. Gaming was one of the industries targeted for investment, but that would require world-leading broadband and the big games companies to bring their games servers closer to the Kingdom. Within a few short years, that’s precisely what Saudi Arabia has achieved.
This is the story of how Saudi Arabia upped its game.
Getting broadband up to speed
Saudi Arabia’s desire to drive its gaming industry forward is no passing fad. The Kingdom is making huge investments in infrastructure, games companies and gamers themselves, and that all stems from the Kingdom’s gamer-friendly demographics.
“If you look at the Saudi society, 70% of the population is considered to be youth and a lot of them are actually gamers,” said Dr Ahmed Alsohaily, chief technologist and adviser for the governor of the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) in Saudi Arabia. “There’s a substantial gaming community; they’re very active and it’s been very interesting to see how they’ve very quickly been adopting the latest trends when it comes to gaming.”
However, until recent years, keeping up with the latest gaming trends wasn’t possible for the majority of Saudi’s keen gamers, because the infrastructure wasn’t ready. As Dr Ahmed explains, until seven or eight years ago, the nation’s broadband networks were below par. “Back then, connectivity was bad across the board,” he said. “We had 50% of the population with a throughput of less than 5Mbits/sec. That means that more than half of the population couldn’t watch a HD video without seeing the infamous loading circle over and over and over again.”
The Kingdom invested heavily in ultra-fast connections for the majority of the population, which saw that throughput figure rise from 5 to 100Mbits/ sec. “Major initiatives were launched to introduce fiber connectivity, and the number of households that have access to fiber increased from 1.5 million to 3.5 million,” said Dr Ahmed. “Now two-thirds of the population, give or take, have access to fiber connectivity.”
70% of the population is considered to be youth and a lot of them are actually gamers.
It wasn’t only fixed-line connections that the Kingdom focused on, either. When it came to mobile broadband, the bottleneck was radio spectrum. So, the Kingdom reallocated spectrum in such a way as to maximize connection speeds.
The investment in the fixed-line and mobile networks was accompanied by another tool: the Meqyas initiative. In association with SamKnows, this saw detailed measurement of the performance of broadband providers in the Kingdom for the first time. “We figured we’d leverage the soft tool of naming and shaming, for the lack of a better term – just making the data available for the public,” said Dr Ahmed.
“There was a wide range of tools that were being used, but the key idea has always been transparency and giving consumers the knowledge of how different networks perform. If you look at the early Meqyas reports, there was heavy emphasis on throughputs when throughputs were the bottleneck. It kept evolving to include latency for some of the key applications, the quality of videos on YouTube and so on.”
That’s when it became clear that – despite the improved infrastructure – Saudi still had challenges with gaming.
SamKnows has been testing the performance of individual games since early 2021. That meant SamKnows had the unique insight required to help Saudi Arabia identify why games performance in the Kingdom wasn’t as strong as it could be. And it had nothing to do with the raw broadband speed.
SamKnows puts huge effort into identifying individual games servers and ensuring its tests mirror the experience of players (as Jamie Mason explains on the podcast that accompanies this issue). “Big companies will often have their own international network,” said Jamie Mason, head of measurement support at SamKnows. “For example, Riot – which publishes and produces League of Legends – has its own Riot network, which means it’s in full control of international routing between data centres across the globe.”
Other games companies may rely on multinational cloud providers to host their games servers. Some may simply operate their own servers in selected regions.
SamKnows tests the performance of these games servers from the user’s location. With this testing capability already in its portfolio, SamKnows was able to identify that games performance in the Kingdom was suffering because many of the popular games didn’t have a server presence in Saudi or even the Middle East. In fact, Saudi players were often being routed to servers in Europe, particularly France.
That put Saudi gamers at a big disadvantage, especially when it comes to fast-moving action games such as Fortnite or FIFA. “It doesn’t really matter how good your connection is, if you’re connecting to a server that’s a very, very long way away, the natural limitations of how the internet works and how networks communicate mean that you’re always going to have some level of high latency,” explained Jamie Mason.
This was clearly a pain point for Saudi games, because when the Meqyas report began to include information on games performance, it attracted huge interest in the Kingdom. “We saw the interaction with the report increased by orders of magnitude,” said Dr Ahmed.
“We also saw at the same time the impact on performance once operators started to pay attention to gaming.”
The interest in gaming was so high, the CITC created a separate Game Mode initiative, with a report dedicated to gaming performance alone. That report highlights the performance of individual games, showing the latency times for each of the Kingdom’s broadband providers for each individual title. So, if you’re a die-hard Valorant player, you know which service provider (both fixed and mobile) will deliver the least latency on the connection.
The Game Mode report has a direct impact on which provider gamers choose, according to Dr Ahmed. “If you are happy with your current performance, the Game Mode report isn’t going to change anything for you; but for those who aren’t happy with their service provider, we found that a large chunk of them actually use the Game Mode report as the basis for their switching decision,” he said.
The report also highlights where servers for the popular games are hosted, and that has put pressure on the major games publishers to bring their servers closer to Saudi Arabia. “We’ve noticed that certain games have come closer, even if they’re not being hosted in Saudi,” said Dr Ahmed. “We’ve actually seen some pretty good gaming titles be hosted here and we have high hopes that big announcements are going to be coming soon.”
We’ve noticed that certain games have come closer, even if they’re not being hosted in Saudi.
Jamie Mason confirms that SamKnows’ data shows the big games are moving closer to the Saudi players. “More local games servers are appearing for some of the games that we’re testing,” he said. “Not necessarily in Saudi Arabia itself, but in nearby countries, such as Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates.”
The increased presence of the major cloud providers in the region also has benefits for Saudi gamers. “Just looking at our results, the latency can vary,” said Jamie Mason. “If you’re a Saudi Fortnite player, then it’s great. You’ll be averaging somewhere between 20 and 40 milliseconds most nights and you’ll be hitting Amazon’s AWS fairly close by.”
“If you’re playing Among Us, you’ll be hitting servers based in Europe and you can be anywhere from 70 milliseconds to 120 milliseconds on an average night, and that’s excluding any particular international routing problems or issues that might happen on the path.”
And as Jamie points out, the combination of both broadband provider and games server location can make a notable difference to performance.
“There’s still quite a reasonable amount of difference between internet service providers,” he said. “This reflects the nature of their peering arrangements with big companies such as Amazon, and also reflects their connections to Europe for the games that are hosted there.”
The Game Mode report has clearly led to enormous improvements for the Kingdom’s gamers – but it isn’t only gamers who have reaped the reward. It’s had knock-on benefits, too. “Gaming is essentially the ultimate frontier when it comes to improving quality of experience and quality of service,” said Dr Ahmed. “If you have good routing for a game hosted in a certain country, by association any applications hosted in that same location will be optimized. If you can provide a good experience for gamers then you’re probably providing a good experience for everything else.”
However, the improvements made to the country’s broadband infrastructure have made even the major games publishers sit up and take notice. To the point where they’re now prototyping their next-generation games in Saudi Arabia, because the Kingdom’s infrastructure shows where other markets will be in the future.
“The Game Mode initiative shed light on how big the gaming market and the gaming opportunity is in Saudi, and I think that caught the attention of a lot of people,” said Dr Ahmed. “Being able to demonstrate how well a game can perform, and making this public, actually means a lot to some of these developers and we’ve seen it in other aspects that we’ve been working on.”
There’s a lot of forecasters that say gaming is going to be growing exponentially over the next few years.
Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure has attracted a lot of interest from hardware manufacturers because it allows them to “provide the maximum performance supported by our devices,” he said.
“Similarly, we’re seeing some kind of effect with game makers, and especially online games. They see how well things are improving.” And now it has the infrastructure in place, let nobody be in any doubt of Saudi Arabia’s gaming ambitions. The Kingdom may already have bought one of the world’s biggest esports companies (ESL Gaming) and one of the biggest esports tournament organisers (FACEIT) and merged them into one company; it may be funding its own games studios; it may boast gaming world champions such as Najd Fahd and Musaed Al-Dossary, but it’s only just got started.
“You look at the global landscape, the multi-billion dollar acquisitions,” said Dr Ahmed. “There’s a huge gaming industry. There’s a lot of forecasters that are saying it’s going to be growing exponentially over the next few years, so it’s one of the key areas where the Kingdom is looking to diversify its economy and embrace this digital era as a digital leader.”
The Saudi experience is yet more evidence that the days of relying on raw broadband speed are over. Quality of experience (QoE) is now the defining factor for broadband consumers.