At video game lounges or in living rooms in urban centres, young Kenyans sit for hours on end, transported into a virtual world where they fight zombies and mythical creatures through pad controllers and mouse clicks.
Some employed and others in colleges, these young Kenyans have carried on their childhood thrill of video games into adulthood, playing to pass time, with others doing it professionally in tournaments.
Known as electronic sports or e-sports, the pastime is drawing many crowds and substantial amounts of money.
Mike Kiguta is one of the few who has won money from video games. Just like many Kenyans of a certain age, video games occupied a crucial place in his childhood.
However, he started playing them competitively last year in an Asus-sponsored event at Nairobi’s Sarit Centre.
Together with his friends, they each earned Sh10,000 after finishing fourth.
Mike who started playing at Tric Café Gaming, a lounge in Nairobi, to while away the time, says he does not fear getting addicted.
‘‘It is addictive, perhaps, just like dancing, because someone gets satisfaction from it and there is the monetary motivation after winning,’’ he says.
To gun for prize money, he turns to You Tube tutorials to master the gaming skills.
There are other groups that are organising tournaments in Kenya such as Ace Pro Gaming and Tekken Two-Five-Four Gaming where winners earn prize money.
Last year, they organised the first ever league series, attracting about 20 players. The tournament paved the way for others this year including Jumia Gaming Tournament, East Africa Gaming Convention and Pro Series Gaming tourneys.
As other young Kenyans go to nightclubs, there is this other group of ‘geeks’ that holes themselves in bachelor pads alone or with a few friends, attacking and counter-attacking creatures on laptops, Xboxes or on PlayStations.
Ellis Lunayo who recently got employed as a technology technician says he does e-gaming for fun and occasionally gets paid in tournaments.
He started playing e-sports three years ago during his final year in university. He prefers the National Basketball League, the English Premier League and car-racing.
The gaming platform has broken the barriers that traditionally have been played along gender lines. Ellis occasionally plays against his female friends, whom he says are fast matching up to him and his male colleagues. Leon Mandela, also in his early 20s, has found a new night-life away from the traditional drink-and-dance.
“It has kept me from the crazy night-life and I always look ahead to playing against friends and neighbours,” he says.
A near-unquenchable thirst for gaming saw Leon get a soft loan from a friend to buy his first-ever player while still in university. It was a PlayStation4 Slim going for Sh38,000 but as technology changes fast, it is almost reaching the end of its life cycle.
Console manufacturers often upgrade their products and to keep up with the latest models, gamers have to dig deeper into their pockets or risk having an obsolete gadget.
For example, PlayStation 4 pro, the ‘super charged console ‘that offers 4K television gaming goes for about Sh55,000, with each of its game retailing for at Sh10,000. Xbox 1X, thought to be among the best goes for over Sh60,000.
Electronic sports has also pushed up sales of more sophisticated laptops dedicated to gaming which range from Sh100,000.
Like many gamers, Leon’s top games include ‘Call of Duty’, ‘FIFA 18’, ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and ‘God of War’. He adds that he is excited about the impending release of ‘FIFA 19’.
These games are not cheap. Games such as ‘Forza Horizon 4’ which is new and a favourite among many enthusiasts costs Sh8,000. A dedicated person may play one game in a week while others play it for one or two months, especially if they do it every day for an hour after work, and six to eight hours on weekends.
Davy Kamanzi of Tekken Two-Five-Four Gaming that organises competitions says that for tournaments, gamers can play for seven to nine hours.
Kenya’s e-sports industry is unregulated and gaming is not a rich man’s game. Even in Nairobi’s low-income estates, small makeshift kiosks host lovers of the game.
Players say it helps them relax while increasing the mind’s ability to solve problems.
A visit to Tric Gaming Café in Nairobi’s Moi Avenue Street depicts a picture of an industry that is growing fast.
The lounge has more than 10 screens, where gamers play after paying Sh150 per hour. Other lounges charge Sh500 and organise competitions where winners get up to Sh100,000.
The competitions are gruelling and to outgun the rest of the players is no mean feat. In some instances, gamers have adopted an unwritten rule that a loser foots the bill of the entire session.
In Africa, Egypt is the top gaming market, generating Sh20.6 billion ($205 million) a year, according to Statistica. Last year, Kenya ranked seventh among African countries, with gaming revenue estimated at Sh3 billion ($30 million). With investors opening more lounges and others organising tournaments, the game keeps appealing to the young population.
Charles Wambugu of Ace Pro Gaming, which also organises tournaments says, the business is not cheap to start.
“One tournament requires more than Sh100,000 which goes into the prize pool, hiring of venue, set-up and media engagements,” says Charles who has organised events in Kenya and Uganda.
However, Charles says Kenya is yet to reach to a level where gamers can make a living from e-sports.
“We are still at the infant stage, but not to say we are not making huge strides. It is only a matter of time before players are able to settle and concentrate on gaming as a source of livelihood,” he says.
Ace Pro Gaming usually collaborates with international gaming companies such as Electronic Sports Circuit in the US and Uganda’s Gamer’s Arena to sponsor players and the competitions.
“Gamers earn money from advertising revenue and viewer donations on videos and streams such as Twitch and You Tube and endorsement deals from companies that produce gaming products,” Davy of Tekken says.
Collins Akasa owns The Score Gaming Lounge, a quaint spot with red and black cozy seats, TV screens with two pads for each screen; a club that almost looks like a living room. He started the business with a friend. He says the club attracts both young women and men, mostly from college going.
When he started, he bought a few television screens each going for Sh50,000 and has increased them to about eight. He bought PS4 consoles, at Sh40,000 for one and two pads for each screen with one retailing at Sh5,500.
‘‘Most youths love video gaming. It is a game of peers. The women prefer action-packed or car-racing games while the men pick sports,’’ he says.