In 2018, the global gaming industry consisted of 2.3 billion consumers, who spent nearly $138 billion on games. Research done two years ago showed that there were more than 11m gamers in South Africa.
A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report showed that spending on gaming in South Africa in 2017 was R3 060 million. While this is only 2.37% of total South African entertainment and media spending in that year, the video games sector had the fastest year-on-year growth rate (16.8%) in 2017 of any of the media and entertainment sectors in South Africa. It includes sectors like books, magazines, cinema, music and podcasts.
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The growth is partly because of the rise of mobile gaming via smartphones which has meant that many more South Africans can afford to play. Schools and higher education institutions are increasingly offering competitive online gaming activities, referred to as “eSports”, which are watched by spectators. This too is driving the popularity of online gaming.
The PwC report identifies the digital video games sector as one of “the biggest success stories” in South Africa’s entertainment and media industries.
To understand the size, international growth potential of the local market, and to identify challenges and opportunities, the Department of Arts and Culture commissioned the South African Cultural Observatory to produce a study of the sector.
The Observatory is a research hub funded by the Department of Arts and Culture. Based at Nelson Mandela University, partners include Rhodes University, the University of Fort Hare and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Its purpose is to provide policy relevant research on the cultural and creative industries. It also provides capacity building resources and information to cultural sector practitioners.
The size of the South African animation and gaming sector is comparatively small. Yet, the international rise in demand for their content, and the growing quality and recognition of South African products, shows that the sector is maturing. It could play an increasingly important role in driving innovation and growth.
Not only entertainment
Gaming is not just about entertainment. For example, the Serious About Games (SAG) movement in South Africa promotes online gaming for educational purposes and social change. Serious games look like video games, but their purpose goes beyond that.
Online games are also being used to test and develop artificial intelligence (AI) programs that could be put to more serious uses in the future. OpenAI is a non-profit AI research organisation. Its aim is to promote and develop friendly AI that benefits humanity. It also supports technologies driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution – technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality and the internet that are driving major changes in the world.
To establish the size of the South African market we undertook a comprehensive online search for South African gaming and animation companies. We also sent out an online survey to collect information on the business environment and industry perceptions of the challenges and opportunities faced by the sector.
We identified 59 gaming, or gaming and animation (hybrid), companies in South Africa. Nearly half (48%) are based in the Western Cape. The most commonly used gaming release platform is still a PC.
In the future this, combined with high data costs, could be a constraining factor given the international shift to mobile platforms.
What we found
There is a considerable overlap between gaming and animation, with 46% of companies producing games also doing animation work. Most of the gaming and animation companies (65%) in the database were founded in the last 10 years. 57% of gaming companies are “very small”, with annual turnover of less than R2 million.
Turnover data was provided via an online survey. It is estimated that the turnover for the gaming and animation industry (that is, companies based in South Africa who develop video games or offer animation services) in the 2017/2018 financial year was R476 million. This is a considerable increase from the R100 million revenue for the gaming industry in 2015 found in a previous study.
South African gaming companies currently create 310 direct jobs, an increase from the 255 direct jobs found in previous research four years ago. While still small compared to other creative industries, the rate at which the sector is growing, and its potential applications to education and artificial intelligence, mean that it has great potential.
Advantages and challenges
We identified a number of challenges facing the industry.
Firstly, most people who work in it are white men. The reason for this seems to be that the industry isn’t developed enough to provide a viable career path. This means that only people who can support themselves can get involved. Given South Africa’s history, this tends to be white, middle class people who grew up playing video games.
What contributes to this is also the fact that the current gaming meta is “Free-to-Play” (F2P). In this business model, game developers release early versions of their game that users can play at no cost, in exchange for user feedback that aids development. Later on, players may have to pay for additional game levels, or for virtual goods that are part of the game.
While useful for development, the F2P business model means that only those who can afford to have periods of no, or low, income can afford to work in the industry.
To help establish the gaming industry as a viable career path for more diverse participants, more support for the technical training required has to be considered. To encourage more start-ups the government could provide tax breaks for smaller companies in the sector, or targeted support like the film and television rebates offered by the Department of Trade and Industry.
Delon Tarentaal, lecturer, Rhodes University and Jen Snowball, professor of Economics, Rhodes University.