The Western Balkans: Towards an Emerging Game Development Hub?

Brought to you by: Emilija Jovanova Stoilkova Lea Shllaku Sabin Selimi Zenebe Uraguchi
Technology & digitalization

As you begin to read this piece, there’re more than 2.5 billion people playing games at the moment. They’re from all over the world. And the gaming industry is now looking to its ‘next billion’. Yes, you read that right.


Let’s take you through why the gaming industry is important, especially in emerging Europe, what are the challenges, and answer the ‘how’ question. Bear with us as we take you through arguably one of the most important and innovative sectors in tech today.


Why is the gaming industry important?


The importance of the gaming industry to culture, social networking, and entertainment cannot be understated. The term ‘entertainment industry’ is no longer reserved for Hollywood and the movie industry. Consider this: gaming is now providing one of the most immersive and awe-inspiring forms of entertainment to more than two billion people around the world.


What we’re trying to say is the gaming industry of today is a $200 billion behemoth that’s constantly pushing the boundaries of technology and entertainment. Not only do we have the continuous advent of new consoles and devices that are putting us right into the game, but we also have the opportunity to watch some of the best gamers in the world compete in the e-sports arena and online through streaming platforms like Twitch and Mixer.


Picture your favorite sport. All sports, whether it’s football or basketball, have many things in common: passionate fans, sold-out stadiums, engaging commentators, and world-class athletes. The same thing is true in the world of e-sports. E-sports athletes are essentially the Lebron James of their profession, but instead of dunking on opponents on a court, they’re outwitting, outmaneuvering, and outplaying their opponents in virtual worlds. Thousands of screaming fans pack the arena to root on their teams who are sitting on stage clicking away for a chance at a title, while millions more watch online around the world.


Let’s be a bit more specific. In 2020, e-sports had a viewership of more than 70 million people for a final. That’s more viewers than the NBA finals. The growing fanbase will eventually rival any professional sport on earth soon.


A word of caution. We’re still trying to see all the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The extent of its impact on the global economy is evident. Yet, the gaming industry has been one of the most stable industries in the world. Here’s the real kicker: gaming has become more popular during the pandemic.


The meteoric rise of the gaming industry is just getting started in the Western Balkans. Our research shows that the game development sector in Serbia is one of the fastest-growing niches of the Serbian IT industry. It employs around 2,500 people.


According to the annual industry report of the Serbian Gaming Association (SGA), there’re more than a hundred companies active in the field, with total estimated revenue of around 120 million euros in 2020. With 43% of the companies generating their revenues abroad, the top markets for games developed in Serbia are the United States, China, and Western Europe.


But some challenges need to be addressed...


It isn’t just the technological aspect of the gaming industry that’s the constraint. It’s also the soft skills in business development and marketing. Most of the gaming companies are still at the low level of the income category. The transition is very slow.


The slow business development and growth of the small gaming teams hinders the employment capacities. In other words, if the small gaming studios and teams could accelerate business growth, the revenue would increase, and more people would be employed in the sector.


The main challenge for the gaming industry is to empower the gaming community to grow towards the higher income category. The companies that are just starting to look into publishing and financing their projects are lacking the necessary array of specific business skills relevant to the game development sector, and more specific insights and skills related to accessing funding opportunities. And for most companies, it’s hard to find new employees who have the required skills.


But how can the challenges be addressed? This’s where RECONOMY has seen an opportunity from its analysis of sectors that are relevant for creating income and jobs for young people. The program has signed a cooperation agreement with the SGA to support capacity building of the small and medium (early stage) companies in the game development sector in Serbia and other countries in the Western Balkan region.


The intervention will be implemented through several training modules developed and implemented by the SGA The focus is on fundraising and increasing investment in the gaming industry in the Western Balkans. The training will improve the capacities of the SMEs in the game development sector and their knowledge and access to finance. This’ll bring not only an increase in the income of SMEs but also the employment of skilled labor among women and young people, in particular the disadvantaged and marginalized groups, in creating inclusive and sustainable business development in the gaming industry.


Intensified activities of integrated communications will have the development and realization of training hybrid events. The aim is to increase the visibility of these training packages and to attract more participants from the Western Balkan region.


But the gaming industry has long been viewed as primarily for men, and the people behind the scenes developing games are male-dominated. According to a diversity report by the International Game Developers Association, only 22% of game developers sampled are women. This sector’s attitude to gender is having—and will increasingly have—an enormous impact on our future.


There’s a promising development concerning the participation of women. Just to provide an example from Serbia, the sector employs around 2,500 people, out of which 30% are women, which puts the Serbian game development sector as the European leader when it comes to gender equality. While the trend is promising, numbers indicate that the gaming industry is still a largely male-dominated sector. That’s why RECONOMY aims to facilitate creating better economic opportunities for jobs uptake and increase income for women as one of the main target groups.


Towards branding the Western Balkans as a game development hub


For a long time, the gaming industry has coalesced around three major hubs: Japan, North America, and Western Europe. Publishers from the United States, Western Europe, and Japan were the largest and most powerful, taking what appeared to be an unassailable lead in this emerging, booming industry.


In recent years, however, this has changed. The industry has also become a career choice for some young people. It's offering new ways to make a living that didn’t exist 10 years ago. Developers from emerging Europe, including the Western Balkans, have stormed the market, creating some of the world’s most innovative and best-selling games, creating a phenomenon that brings in not just export revenue but boosts the cultural recognition of an entire region, branding it as the home of cutting-edge gaming. Serbia has led the way in the Western Balkans.


Serbia is transforming into a regional gaming hub with the potential to attract investors, talents, and innovative teams capable of creating the next successful startups. New shining examples may cast more light on Serbia and its surrounding countries in the Western Balkan region.


RECONOMY will support the Serbian Gaming Association to disseminate their knowledge and skills and to increase their network in several countries in the Western Balkans, such as North Macedonia and Montenegro, striving to achieve regional collaboration by increasing global competition, undertake new joint acquisitions of more complex products results by applying new technologies and act as the key driving force of the Western Balkans startup ecosystem.


This way we enhance the integration of sustainable development principles into regional development practices creating additional decent job opportunities and increased income on individual and private-sector levels.


Stay tuned and we’ll be right back with more stories to share with you.

Emilija Jovanova Stoilkova

Emilija Jovanova Stoilkova is the Knowledge Management and Learning Manager in the RECONOMY Regional Programme of Sida, implemented by Helvetas in 12 countries in Eastern Europe, South Caucasus and the Western Balkans. Her previous experience includes work in skills development, lifelong learning, inclusive market development, labour market insertion and workforce development. Emilija is passionate about knowledge management and continuous learning and education, ensuring that the right knowledge is available for the right people at the right time.

Lea Shllaku

Lea Shllaku is the Regional Manager for the Western Balkans in RECONOMY, covering six countries – Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia. She has also been working as Senior Intervention Manager of the Enhancing Youth Employment (EYE) project in Kosovo. Her previous experience includes work for the Government and private sector. Lea holds a master’s degree on Institutions, Development & Globalisation at the University College London. Her areas of expertise are in designing and managing interventions on skills development and private sector growth.

Sabin Selimi

Sabin Selimi works for Helvetas as Communication Manager in RECONOMY. Before, he worked in communication advisory roles in the public sector and internationally-funded projects, with experience in the Balkans. As a Chevening scholar, he obtained an MSc in International Public Policy from University College London. As a recipient of Presidential Scholarship, he received a bachelor’s degree in Economics and International Studies from American University in Washington, DC.

Zenebe Uraguchi

Zenebe Uraguchi is a development economist with multi-country experience (Asia, North America, Eastern Europe and Africa). He holds MA degrees in International Relations and Political Economy, as well as a PhD in Development Economics. His experience originates from working for a multinational private company, an international development bank and a research institute. Zenebe is the Programme Manager for a regional initiative in inclusive economic development, covering 12 countries in Eastern Europe (Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine), South Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia), and Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, N. Macedonia, Serbia). His areas of expertise are in the design, management and evaluation of private, public and non-profit development initiatives focusing on employment and income.