/ 21 May 2020

Milliseconds keep African gamers from esports dominance

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Every millisecond counts: Nigerian gamers have the potential to win on the world stage but are hampered by unstable power and slow speeds.

Bamgboye Ayodele, 27, dreamt of being a professional gamer. He holds down a regular job as a software developer at a financial institution, but when he’s at home in Yaba, Lagos, he can usually be found in his pyjamas in front of his PlayStation or XBox consoles.

Ayodele is good. He could compete with the very best in professional esports tournaments, but there is one thing holding him back: Nigeria’s notoriously sluggish internet speeds.

“Gaming in Nigeria is difficult,” Ayodele told the Mail & Guardian. Sometimes, between 1am and 4am, the connections are good enough to attempt to compete with players based in Europe, Asia and the Americas. But even then his connection speeds are slower than his competitors – which means that sometimes his character gets shot before he has even had the chance to notice the danger.

Ayodele believes that, when it comes to gaming, Nigeria’s talent pool is unmatched. But, like many other potential pros, he has gone into early retirement, unwilling to invest too much of his time and energy when technical factors prevent him from competing with the very best in the world.

Ping. Lag. Latency. Every Nigerian gamer knows these words, and what they mean for what should be a thriving local industry.

Latency, or ping, is the delay between when information is sent and when it manifests on screen. Lag occurs when there is a high ping/latency or slow internet. These are all measured in milliseconds.

“There is no other way to go around it for now. So we have to make do with what we have,” Emmanuel Oyelakin, the president of Esports Nigeria, told the Mail & Guardian.

Every millisecond counts. Oyelakin explains: “It’s actually quite tangible when you’re playing. Let’s say you’re playing a shooting game and you see an enemy coming ahead of you and want to pull your gun to shoot, that enemy shot you before you pulled your gun. But because of your own latency, you’re seeing that he wants to shoot, not knowing it’s shot already.”

This puts Nigerian competitors at an instant disadvantage on the global gaming scene. Even now, with esports surging in popularity due to the coronavirus-induced restrictions on other live sport, Nigeria is being left behind. A persistent issue with unstable power supply does not help. Nor does the failure of big game publishers to install local servers in Nigeria that may allow gamers to minimise the lag.

South Africa is the only African country with local servers for most major games.

Despite the challenges, there is still a healthy professional gaming scene in Nigeria. Israel Ayodeji, 25, for example, is defying the many odds to pursue his passion. He signed on in September 2019  to the Lagos-based pro-gaming team owned by Oyelakin, called the League of Extraordinary Gamers.

He is also a content creator and Nigerian community leader for PUBG Mobile, a battle royale game that involves a team of four players competing against several other teams (in battle royale games, teams or individuals fight it on a virtual battlefield until only one is left standing).

In this year’s inaugural La Cup D’Africana, a PUBG Mobile community competition that saw more than 900 African teams compete against each other, Nigerian team Slime 4KT emerged victorious. This shows the potential that Nigerian teams have – if only they could compete on a level playing field.

Earlier this year, PUBG’s publisher Tencent Gaming delivered on its promise that it would create a local server for sub-Saharan Africa, which according to Oyelakin is a sign that games publishers are now taking Africa seriously. “It’s an awakening, it’s a sign of things to come in Nigeria,” he said.

Last week, Facebook unveiled its undersea cable project, 2Africa, which will circle the continent, connecting it to Europe and the Middle East. In 2023, when it is operational, it will increase bandwidth to the continent by a massive 180 terabits per second.

Bringing additional high-speed capacity to the continent through new undersea cables such as 2Africa wouldn’t directly improve the fortunes of esports on the continent, according to Ben Roberts, the chief technical officer of Liquid Telecom, a communications solution provider serving mobile operators, carriers, and other enterprises across eastern, central and southern Africa. “It will bring down prices but the price of the bandwidth does not impact gaming at all,” he said speaking to the M&G.

Once a game is downloaded, it doesn’t use much data as it is being played, relative to other services such as video streaming, for example. The issue is latency and lag, and the only way to improve that is to change the laws of physics.

“It’s a pure factor of distance and the speed of light travelling through glass fibre,” Roberts said. Instead, what’s needed is to grow the gaming ecosystem within each region, eliminating lag by having the servers close by.

The government is also taking esports seriously. Esports Nigeria was recently endorsed by Sunday Dare, the minister of sports. And last week, in a webinar to discuss the revival of sport in the post-coronavirus era, the minister said: “We are working on a plan that would produce for the first time an industry-based sports policy that will turn sports into business. We are on the verge of launching e-gaming sports in Nigeria. It is the most suitable for the post Covid-19 era. Globally, it is a $138 billion business.”

“Really we’ve got to have gaming servers across the continent, said Roberts. “East African clusters, West African clusters and Southern African class. We’ve been supporting a project in Uganda, where we’ve set up community gaming servers to solve exactly these problems [of lag and latency], especially playing first-person shooter games — Call of Duty, Counterstrike and so on, but also Minecraft. And we’re talking to gaming companies about bringing their servers to the continent. If you’re using European servers you’re never going to be able to compete.” — Additional reporting by Matthew Du Plessis