Levelling the Playing Field: Najd Fahad's mission to pioneer change in esports

Football video games have long been a favourite in Saudi Arabia, primarily dominated by male players both in leisure and in the esports realm. However, a shift is taking place with more of Saudi Arabia’s young female population taking a more active interest in video games.

And it has not gone unnoticed. This year’s EA Sports FC 24 has progressively incorporated the women's game. Now, it prominently showcases female players, seamlessly integrating them across objectives, rivals, and icons. The addition of 74 teams and over 1,600 players enable the creation of mixed teams, reflecting this change.

More avenues are being opened for female competitive esports players in the region who are taking the global stage and showcasing the best in Saudi Arabia’s gaming talent. One such success story is Najd Fahad. A champion in the realm of esports, she's a unique figure; she's the first Saudi woman to clinch an e-football title and remains a shining example of Saudi Arabia elevating its young population to become the next generation of esports athletes.

Najd Fahad's journey into video games began early, at the tender age of seven, when she got hooked on video games like FIFA.

Growing up in a household where video games were more than a mere pastime, Najd's immersion into the gaming world was inevitable. "In our home, while others might have gone to amusement parks for fun, we turned to Nintendo and PlayStation. That's how we entertained ourselves," Najd recalls, evoking memories of her childhood. Her father and brothers served as her early inspirations, and she embraced gaming with a passion.

It went beyond beating the AI; for Najd, it was about mastering challenges. By her early teens, she was giving her older brothers a tough competition in FIFA. But the true test came in 2018 when she took the plunge into her first professional tournament. " The tournament, of course, wasn’t specifically for women. I reached an advanced stage in the competition, and I was the only girl, and there was a focus on me, wondering how as a girl, I reached to this level, " she says.

Streaming added another dimension to her journey. The online community, struggling to believe that a girl could excel in a game of football, tuned in eagerly. "They even doubted I was a girl streaming a football game," Najd mentions, pointing to the gender biases that persist in the gaming arena. “But when viewers saw that I play at a high level, it was only then that things changed. This is also what gave me a chance to represent the “Kingdom in the FISU eSports tournament.”

Yet, the journey has been far from smooth.

With each achievement, Najd confronted societal norms and battled scepticism. "In our society, there are supporters who cheer you on purely because you're a girl, while others applaud skill regardless of gender. To this day, I sometimes wonder if people support me because I’m a girl or because I’m a good player," she reflects.

The challenges faced by female gamers aren't isolated to virtual arenas. There's a broader cultural narrative at play. "The early days were incredibly tough for me," Najd admits. "There's no doubt that it will take time for society to adjust to the idea of girls playing esports and accepting it. But over time, I noticed a shift. I worked on myself extensively and overcame all the challenges. I think I've laid the foundation, which we urgently need, for society to embrace the idea of girls playing esports. The negativity has reduced over time and my community is continuing todefend me as a female esports player. This has been very motivating. It pushes me to keep going."

When asked about the gaming culture's barriers, Najd adds, "Every girl has the potential to excel in areas typically seen as male-dominated, like esports. It's essential for women to trust in their capabilities and ignore societal pressures. There's a misconception that female gamers only succeed due to shortcuts, not skill. I want to tell every girl out there: believe in yourself, push your boundaries and you’ll prove every one wrong.”

Najd's passion isn't just about her personal journey. She's on a mission to pave the way for future female gamers. "The community is slowly accepting female players. I urge every aspiring female gamer to tap into this momentum. Stay ambitious, remain focused, and know that the future holds immense promise," she says optimistically.

Najd Fahad’s journey is one that has been marked by resilience and determination, serves as a testament to her commitment, inspiring future generations to challenge and reshape the landscape of esports in the country.

We look forward with great anticipation to her continued successes and the path she’s setting for others to follow.