How Lebanon’s Online Gamers Are Losing Their Virtual Reality Escape
Rita stalks her enemy on the fringes of the battle, invisible and patient. When the right time comes, his attack is ruthless.
The devastating curse cast by his enormous, terrifying figure leaps into the air towards his foe. But before reaching her target, Rita’s world turns black and silent.
Rita Bitar, 24, an online gamer in Beirut who is trying to make a living in the competitive world of live streaming, lost this time. But she’s not a rival player who mercilessly took out her avatar in a world hit match. Dota 2.
Instead, and more frustratingly, Rita’s internet connection failed, meaning she lost her game – and potentially her income – as Beirut is once again hit by blackouts.
Lebanon’s economic crisis is possibly one of the world’s worst financial crises since the mid-19th century, the World Bank said.
Millions of people cannot buy fuel for their cars, fill their shelves with food, or turn on the lights in their homes.
Shortages of fuel for power plants have disrupted the electricity supply, resulting in frequent and prolonged power cuts.
Finding a way out of these worries offers some fleeting comfort to those who live in the countryside.
For many, online gaming offers a fantastic brief respite from these all too real problems. For some, it also provides a salary.
Rita’s escape is to enter the mystical world of Dota 2 deal with ancient apparitions and humanoid beasts. Her fiancé Mark Boustany, 28, could grab a computer-generated sniper rifle and rescue hostages from terrorists on Counter Strike: Global Offensive.
Both share their adventures through live streaming sessions with subscribers who help them earn a salary.
That is until, inevitably, they lose power or internet connection.
“I would go live at midnight Beirut time,” Rita said. “Then the power would be cut off at 1 a.m., so the other half of my flow was in total darkness. Or sometimes our ISP didn’t have electricity when we did, so we had electricity but no internet.
Mark, an avid gamer before internet gaming reached Lebanon in the late 1990s, said it was difficult for people living in more developed countries to understand the extent of the problem.
“It’s heartbreaking that you can’t do what you love,” Mark said. “The game has been my getaway since I was a kid.
“Not being able to go online is so frustrating. And what’s even worse than that is disconnecting in the middle of our flow.
“This affects our [subscriber] numbers in a huge way. Sometimes you just want to quit. But that’s what we love.
The couple are part of a growing community of players who support each other both socially and financially.
The group is made up of Arabs “who live in different countries, have different nationalities and different religious beliefs,” Mark said.
One member, “LadyJoe”, a 29-year-old streamer, cannot reveal her identity as she works for the Lebanese government. She streams without revealing her face for fear of being punished.
“Many, many experienced players will not come out of this country because they will look for other ways to support themselves and their families,” she said.
“At the end of the day, the game won’t feed them.
“Every time we broadcast, we dread the moment when we might suddenly disconnect. But since all of these hardships, gaming and streaming have been my joy, my refuge,” LadyJoe said.
“I really hope I can convey all this positivity and hope to my viewers, as most of them are like-minded people here in Lebanon.”
Mark recently took out a small loan so that he could secure a proper connection and start streaming his games on YouTube and the live game streaming platform Twitch.
He and Rita rented a house together and outfitted their computers with powerful batteries at a cost of hundreds of dollars each. Rita plans to move into the house once the couple are married.
They still face six-hour power outages a day, but they don’t regret choosing streaming over potentially more reliable careers, in psychology for Rita and law for Mark.
Khalil Ibrahim Koussan, 27, from Nabatieh in southern Lebanon, said he feared losing his “online family” due to the cuts.
“We use gambling to escape everything life-related,” he said. “We value this virtual world for a reason; it’s virtual, an escape from reality.
“There have always been power cuts, long before the crisis. But when the economic crisis deepened, it really took its toll on us. You would look forward to this escape. But now I feel like I’m going to lose my dream, my family online.
Esport stimulates demand
The games market in the Middle East is expected to grow at a rate of 12.1% by 2026, according to the global Research and Markets platform. He says esports – organized professional gaming events broadcast live to a live audience – is driving that demand.
In contrast, Lebanon lost its only professional esports team shortly after the crash began in 2019. E-Lab, one of the first organizations in the Middle East to sponsor a professional Dota 2 team, formed in 2015. The team has participated in world tournaments and organized their own.
It provided a platform for the country’s top players, including Maroun “GH” Merhej, a Dota 2 player with career earnings of over $ 4 million.
Now, E-Lab only exists on paper. Mr. Merhej now plays for Nigma Galaxy, a new organization based in the United Arab Emirates.
“E-Lab was a very ambitious project and it came before its time,” said former E-Lab tournament organizer Wissam Tarabay.
“When E-Lab was first created, the Middle East didn’t know about esports at all, so every time we went looking for sponsorship offers, everyone laughed at us.”
Mr Tarabay now works alongside many former E-Lab colleagues for a new digital company called Quest in the Qatari capital, Doha. His YouTube channel – named after his gamer tag “Derrad” – has around 380,000 subscribers, while his Facebook page has 530,000 subscribers.
“Amateur players in Lebanon are losing touch with the games they love and it becomes extremely difficult for them,” Mr. Tarabay said.
“The game is an escape for the most part and now the access to that escape is gone.
“I left Lebanon a month ago. Three months ago, I could no longer work. There was no electricity or internet and all my work is internet based.
“Gambling has always been a middle class pastime. It’s a very expensive hobby – $ 60 for a game is a lot of money for the Middle East.
“For Lebanon it was a lot of money and now it is an unpayable amount of money,” Tarabay said.
“People who want to gamble now have to go to internet cafes or play on a mobile, which is not the ideal platform for a gamer to really get away from it all.
“Even if you are rich in Lebanon, you cannot live. Money is no longer a factor that will make you feel comfortable, ”he said.
“You walk down the street and people are mentally destroyed. Everyone is so sad and it’s such a dark feeling.”
Update: October 25, 2021, 3:26 a.m.