Playing 'Wolfenstein' in Tripoli

How video games are helping integrate Libyans back into the international community

RTR2Q7DJ-615.jpgPaul Hackett/Reuters

Last October, as Libya's congress was throwing out the then-prime minister-elect and the hunt continued for the killers of the American ambassador, around five dozen young men filed into a Tripoli theater for the country's first-ever open national qualifier tournament for the Electronic Sports World Cup (ESWC).

On the stage were four tables, each with a monitor and a Sony PlayStation. To one side stood a whiteboard with four charts like genealogical trees to organize matches. Six young men in dark jeans and black polo shirts were hurriedly setting everything up; it was the first time they had done anything like this, and they were behind schedule. A splitter cable had gone missing. The young men's shirts had the word "TESCA" -- which stands for Tripoli Electronic Sports Clubs Association -- written in silver-white on the right breast. One of them tested the microphone: "Bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim" -- "In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate."

When one of the new guys discovered that Counterstrike was unavailable, he threw a tantrum. 'It says "tournament" and there's no Counterstrike?'

There are many ways to help bring countries like Libya out of isolation: trade, educational exchanges, and tourism, for example. There is the world of fine arts. And there is competitive online gaming. This notion is being pushed by two young Libyan gamers named Alameen A. Layas and Hassan Drebika, who founded TESCA and organized the tournament. "Most young people here don't have the opportunity to interact with other nationalities," says Layas, who is also a medical student. "Gaming can be a bridge."

He spent his boyhood in Tours, France, where his father was studying surgery, before returning to Libya when he was 12. He taught himself how to use a computer and began frequenting cybercafés. In time he became adept at games including Half-Life, Counterstrike, Soldier of Fortune, Wolfenstein, Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, Quake, Doom, and World of Warcraft.

"Each café had a team, and they played one another at weekends," he says. "There were skilled players. But what they didn't realize was that, in Europe and America, gaming had been taken to the professional level."

In 2007, a Libyan expat in Greece -- whose name Layas and Drebika say they don't know -- arranged for Libyan gamers to compete in the ESWC. Invite-only qualifier matches were held in Tripoli, and Drebika was among those selected. Then the Libyans went to France and got clobbered. Their opponents were seasoned competitors, and many had sponsors, Drebika says. "They had much better internet connections in their countries, and much more experience. After what happened in France, I thought, 'We need to be a part of this'."

Around that time, Drebika met Layas and they started thinking about new ways to organize gaming in Libya. The government mouthed interest, but nothing came of it. Restrictions on associations suffocated hope for a national league. Only after Qaddafi was toppled in August 2011 could they start working.

There are a half-dozen or so big international gaming tournaments held regularly around the world. The ESWC, founded in 2003, is one of the biggest. Last fall, Layas and Drebika got approval from ESWC for Libyan players to compete in two games at the November 2012 competition: FIFA 13, a soccer game, and Starcraft II, a futuristic strategy game set in outer space. To choose contestants, they organized last October's qualifier matches in Tripoli.

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John Thorne, an American journalist based in Tunis, has covered North Africa since 2006.

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