Bashar Abo Khalil’s PUBG character rushes around a wall in a pink robe and samurai helmet, hitting an enemy with a frying pan – standard fare in the mobile game that’s causing a stir in Iraq.
The online star, known as G2G, is one of many Iraqis addicted to PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds – a battle royale first-person shooter reminiscent of ‘The Hunger Games ”.
The mobile version of the game has become so popular in Iraq, where 60% of the 40 million people are under the age of 25, that the country’s youth have been dubbed the “PUBG generation”.
Iraqis across the country spend hours every day on the gaming virtual battlefield, socializing through its live chat, playing competitively, or even falling in love.
Abo Khalil, 31, said he used to play for hours to “stop thinking about problems”.
“When you play the game, you can shut yourself off from the rest of the world. It can be like a drug, ”he added.
Now based in Turkey, he makes a living by streaming games and making videos.
Fan Dalya Waheed said she played PUBG for an hour or two a day with friends she met on the game, and even set up a game center at the electronics retailer where she works.
“It’s really easy to meet people on PUBG,” said the woman in her 30s, who lives in the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq.
– Better Internet, better opportunities –
Some Iraqi parents criticized the game as a waste of time or worried about the violence it portrays, with guns and explosives splashing blood.
But Reshar Ibrahim, who plays PUBG Mobile competitively, said the game would never be as bad as what many Iraqis have experienced in real life during decades of conflict that have devastated the country.
“It’s just a game,” said the 19-year-old Iraqi Kurd, who has lived in Sweden for three years.
In 2019, the country’s parliament banned PUBG amid local reports it was leading to bankruptcy, suicide and divorce.
This decision, which was easily circumvented, has been criticized as being out of touch with the real challenges facing the Iraqis.
Almost 40 percent of Iraqi youth are unemployed, according to the World Bank, and the country’s poverty rate has doubled to 40 percent during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Later that year, thousands of young Iraqis – some dressed in PUBG outfits – took to the streets to protest rampant corruption and unemployment. In the months that followed, some 600 protesters were killed in the violence linked to the protests.
Abo Khalil and Ibrahim are just two of many successful Iraqi players outside the country, far from the added challenges of poor internet and unreliable electricity players face at home.
Ibrahim, aka Freak, recently won the Most Valuable Player award from the PUBG Mobile Star Arabia Challenge, which handed out $ 100,000 in total.
His team, GunZ Esports, won the competition despite losing power from one player in Iraq mid-game and another having to travel from southern Najaf to northern Kurdistan – where internet connectivity “is slightly better,” Ibrahim said.
– Hanging –
Helmat Shiar, 23, who participated in the tournament with Iraqi team iKurd E-Sports, said it was not just that Iraqis “are playing against teams abroad who have a much stronger internet” .
There was also no support from private or government sponsors, he lamented.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, governments and major sponsors are investing in eSports.
In the Gulf, the gaming market is expected to reach $ 821 million this year, according to consulting firm Strategy &.
Hayder Jaafar said he struggled for 10 years to register his non-governmental Iraqi Esports Federation as a full member of the international gaming body before succeeding in 2020.
“The structure of youth ministry for eSports was last changed in 2009, and a lot has changed in eSports since then,” the 38-year-old told AFP.
Iraq suffers from war-torn infrastructure and poor electricity – most households have only a few hours of state-supplied electricity per day.
But there are 40 million mobile phone connections in the country and 30 million Internet users, according to a DataReportal 2021 study.
Last year, PUBG was the 11th most searched term in Iraq on Google, and variations of the game’s name also took up several top spots in YouTube searches.
PUBG’s widespread popularity is in part due to the launch of a free mobile version by Chinese tech giant Tencent, which said in March that more than a billion people have downloaded the app since 2018.
IKurd player Jiner Hekmat, 18, said he was hooked on the mobile version but didn’t have all his hopes on being a competitive player, saying he wanted to focus on his studies .
But, he added, “I will also do whatever I can to keep my level in PUBG, and continue playing as long as the game exists.”
© 2021 AFP