The National - News


▶ Fantasy web worlds that provide income and friendship are not immune from crisis, writes Jamie Goodwin


Rita Bitar is an online gamer in Beirut trying to earn a living in the tough world of live streaming. The biggest threat she faces is not a rival player who can ruthlessly take out her avatar during a game on Dota 2, it is a power cut.

Rita’s internet connection fails, meaning she loses a match – and potentiall­y income – as Beirut is once again hit by power cuts.

Lebanon’s economic crisis is likely to be among the world’s worst financial meltdowns since the mid-19th century, the World Bank says.

Millions of people cannot buy fuel for their cars, fill their shelves with food or switch on lights in their homes.

Shortages of fuel for power stations have disrupted electricit­y supplies, leading to frequent and lengthy power cuts.

For many, online gaming provides an escape from real-world problems. For some, gaming provides a salary.

For Rita, 24, escape is the mystical world of Dota 2 to face ancient apparition­s and humanoid beasts.

Her fiance, Mark Boustany, 28, may pick up a computer-generated sniper rifle and rescue hostages from terrorists on Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

Both share their adventures and earn a living through live-streaming sessions for subscriber­s.

That is until, inevitably, they lose power or their internet connection.

“I would go live at midnight in Beirut time,” Rita says. “Then, the power would go out at 1am, so the other half of my stream is in complete darkness. Or sometimes our internet provider wouldn’t have electricit­y when we did, so we’d have electricit­y but no internet.”

Mark says it is hard for people living in more developed countries to understand the extent of the problem.

“It’s heartbreak­ing not to be able to do what you love,” he says. “Gaming 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 getting disconnect­ed in the middle of our stream.

“That affects our [subscriber] numbers in a huge way. At times, you just want to quit. But this is what we love.”

The pair are part of a growing community of gamers who support one another both socially and financiall­y. The group is made up of Arabs “who live in different countries, have different nationalit­ies and different religious beliefs”, Mark says.

One member, a 29-year-old who uses the alias LadyJoe, cannot reveal her identity because she works for the Lebanese government and fears punishment.

“Many, many skilled gamers won’t make it in this country because they will [have to] go and find other ways to support themselves and their families,” LadyJoe says.

“At the end of the day, gaming won’t feed them.

“Every time we are streaming, we dread the moment we might suddenly go offline. But since all this hardship, gaming and streaming has been my joy, my safe haven,” she says.

“I truly hope I am able to

channel all this positivity and hope to my viewers, because most of them are people in the same situation here in Lebanon.”

Mark took a small loan to pay for a reliable internet connection and started streaming his games on YouTube and gaming platform Twitch.

He and Rita rented a house together and equipped their computers with powerful batteries at a cost of hundreds of dollars each.

Rita plans to move into the house once they are married.

They do not regret choosing streaming over what are likely to be more financiall­y reliable careers in psychology for Rita and law for Mark.

Khalil Koussan, 27, of Nabatieh in south Lebanon, says he worries he could lose his “online family” because of the power cuts.

“We resort to gaming to escape from anything life-related,” he says. “We enjoy this virtual world for a reason. It’s an escape from reality.

“There were always electricit­y cuts, long before the crisis. But when the economic crisis grew, it really took its toll on us. You’d look forward to this escape. But now I feel like I’m going to lose my dream, my online family.”

The Middle East gaming market is expected to grow at a rate of 12.1 per cent between now and 2026, according to global platform Research and Markets.

It says e-sports – organised profession­al gaming events streamed to a live audience – is driving that demand.

In contrast, Lebanon lost its only profession­al e-sports team soon after the crash began in 2019.

E-Lab, one of the Middle East’s first organisati­ons to sponsor a profession­al Dota 2 team, was formed in 2015.

The team entered global tournament­s and organised its own challenges.

It provided a platform for the country’s best gamers, including Maroun “GH” Merhej, a Dota 2 player whose career winnings have exceeded $4 million.

Now E-Lab exists on paper alone. GH now plays for Nigma Galaxy, an organisati­on based in the UAE.

“E-Lab was a very ambitious project and it came before its time,” says former E-Lab tournament organiser Wissam Tarabay.

“When E-Lab was formed, the Middle East was not aware of e-sports at all, so whenever we went to get sponsor deals, everyone would scoff at us.”

Wissam is now working with many former E-Lab colleagues for a digital venture, called Quest, in Doha, Qatar.

His YouTube channel – named after his gamer tag, Derrad – has about 380,000 subscriber­s, and his Facebook page has 530,000 followers.

“Amateur players in Lebanon are losing touch with the games they love and it is getting extremely difficult for them,” Wissam says.

“Gaming is an escape to most and now access to that escape is gone.

“I left Lebanon a month ago. Three months ago, I wasn’t able to work any more. There was no electricit­y or internet and my whole job is based on the internet.

“Gaming has always been the hobby of the middle class. It’s a very expensive hobby – $60 for a game is a lot of money for the Middle East,” he says.

“For Lebanon, it was a lot of money and now it’s an impossible amount of money to pay.

“People who want to game now have to go to net cafes or play on a mobile, which is not the ideal platform for a gamer to truly escape.

“Even if you are rich in Lebanon you can’t live life. Money is no longer a factor that is going to make you comfortabl­e,” Wissam says.

“You go down the street and people are broken mentally. Everyone is so sad, and it’s such a gloomy feeling.”

There were always electricit­y cuts. But when the economic crisis grew, it really took its toll KHALIL KOUSSAN Lebanese gamer

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 ?? Saleel Abdussamad; Mark Boustany; Rita Bitar ?? Clockwise from top, E-Lab’s Wissam Tarabay, left, and Elie Gemayel. Rita Bitar and her fiance Mark Boustany choose gaming as a career
Saleel Abdussamad; Mark Boustany; Rita Bitar Clockwise from top, E-Lab’s Wissam Tarabay, left, and Elie Gemayel. Rita Bitar and her fiance Mark Boustany choose gaming as a career

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