By Ben Bertoli
August 22, 2017
When logging on to Nintendo.com, web users are greeted with a world map and prompted to choose their country of origin from an extensive list. The gaming giant’s most popular regions — North America, Europe, Australia, and Japan — are all accounted for. Notably absent are any countries from the Middle East. Much of the region isn’t even visible, covered by the large grey Nintendo logo sitting dead center on the map.
A Hard Sell
Nintendo’s biggest competitors in the console market, Sony and Microsoft, both recognize a handful of Middle Eastern regions on their respective websites, including Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Eminence, and Israel. The full list from the official Xbox site even includes often overlooked countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Azerbaijan.
But no Iran. The second largest population in the middle east, home to over 78 million residents, has no representation in the world of console gaming.
According to research — from a 2015 Landscape Report provided by the Iran Computer and Video Game Foundation (IRCG) and the Digital Games Research Center (DIREC) — there are roughly 23 million gamers in Iran. It’s an absolutely enormous market, but ultimately ignored for a variety of reasons. Nintendo’s annual fiscal report for 2017 offers at least a surface-level explanation as to why the company (and many others) would avoid such a region.
The report states, “Domestic and overseas business activities involve risks such as a) disadvantages from emergence of political or economic factors, b) disadvantages from inconsistency of multilateral taxation systems and diversity of tax law interpretation, c) difficulty in recruiting and securing human resources, and d) social disruption resulting from terror attacks, war and other catastrophic events.”
But despite the lack of love from major gaming companies, Iranians continue to buy, sell, and play games through any means necessary. It’s an odd market controlled by a sometimes unpredictable fluctuation of supply from outside sources and demand from Iranian players. This economic rollercoaster — coupled with a rise of online-only titles and Iran’s less than stellar internet speeds — can make the gaming climate in Iran seem unstable.
Unlike gaming powerhouses like the United States and Japan, Iran (and the Middle East as a whole) has been slow to build up a player fan base over the past two decades. Still, video games are increasingly becoming a mainstream hobby throughout the country. The communities tied to them haven’t flocked to news sites, streams, and YouTube like many in the West and East do, but rather to online forums, social media, and messaging apps. The most popular way to connect with other gamers is through Telegram, a messaging app where users can form or join large groups of like-minded fans and friends. These groups are known as channels.
Telegram is such a popular and powerful form of communication in the Middle East that gaming shops all across Iran have opened their own channels as a way to hock their wares. Online entities like PIXEL STORE and PlayStation Professionals use Telegram as a storefront, posting deals to thousands of potential customers multiple times a day. Outside of Telegram, there are a handful of more public sites that cater to the needs of Iranian gamers looking to buy games and systems, like Gameplay Iran and West Game. But since there are no official distributors for most games and consoles in the Middle East, these stores are all selling the same imported materials. This import-and-sell business model is also why it’s so difficult to find any hard data on what games or systems are selling well in Iran’s supposedly booming gaming market.
Breaking Through the Firewall
Internet prices and speeds are also a big issue for any gamer living in Iran. Dropped connections, as well as low average download and upload speeds can put Iranian players at a great disadvantage. Though online play is slowly improving, it’s still a constant source of aggravation for many Iranian players who want to compete with online opponents and allies via their gaming console.
The rules and regulations around online access and censorship in Iran are rather harsh by any standards. Iran’s Internet Censorship Committee is in charge of blocking and banning sites and accounts that they feel are morally reprehensible or anti-religious in any way.
COURTESY OF NINTENDO
With so many roadblocks, it’s somewhat surprising that gaming enthusiasts in Iran manage to stay so connected. Many Iranian online users, gamers or otherwise, have apparently found a way to circumvent their country’s overzealous censorship by using proxy servers and various virtual private networks — usually just referred to as VPNs. These measures are common the world over — even in countries without such intense online limitations — and with them in place, the citizens of Iran are free to browse Youtube, check news from other parts of the world, and communicate openly with those who share their interests.
The government has stepped in on a few occasions in the recent past to ban popular mobile titles like Pokémon Go and Clash of Clans, but surprisingly they don’t tend to interfere in the world of console or PC gaming very often. For now, Iranian players are enjoying the freedom.
Finding a Fandom
Like any hobby with dozens of options, gaming has long been a virtual arena of comparison. It’s usually not hard to find someone that shares your passion for a game, system, developer, or genre. Amir Badvipour and Aryo Abdali — both citizens of Iran’s capital, Tehran — have the unique struggle of finding a place for Nintendo lovers in Iran. Despite online hurdles and a corporate cold shoulder, this spirited duo has pushed to create a safe haven for Iranian Nintendo fans.
Badvipour tried (and failed) to start a dedicated Nintendo fan group when he stumbled on the modestly popular “Nintendo Iran” Instagram account in late 2016. The owner of the account, Abdali, was another diehard member of the budding Nintendo fan base in Iran. The two became fast friends, and Badvipour was made an admin of the group.
Their Nintendo Iran account posts pictures from different collections, as well as bits of news and promotional art for upcoming games. Abdali recently showed off his new Triforce tattoo to their followers. Though their account only has a few hundred followers, its curators (of which there are officially four) have lofty aspirations.
COURTESY OF NINTENDO.IRAN
This small account is a message to a gaming giant. “The reason we built the Instagram page was because we wanted to show people that there are Nintendo fans in Iran,” Abdali said over a Skype call. “There is a market here. A huge market. When Nintendo releases good games, Iranians will come buy the Switch. Maybe we can get Nintendo to notice us. I usually don’t understand why game companies sanction us. It’s games. These are for kids, adults, everyone who enjoys entertainment. Why should they sanction us? Why should they exclude us from the list of support?”
When it comes to the short term, the main goal is a little more focused. “It’s a community. We want everybody to be friends. On the comments section, if two people start to become friends and post friend codes — that’s what it’s about. We don’t want any haters,” Abdali said. “We don’t want people arguing about if a game is good or bad. We want people to be accepting of each other’s tastes in games. I don’t mind if you don’t like The Legend of Zelda. I don’t mind if your favorite game is God of War. I respect that. Try to play a Nintendo game. Maybe try a game or two that you’ve made fun of. Educate yourself about games by actually playing them.”
Like many Iranian fan groups on Instagram, the Nintendo Iran faithful also have their own Telegram channel for followers. It’s here that most of the Nintendo fans can really connect and swap friend codes or poll the audience to see what time is best for a bout of Splatoon. There are Zelda screen grabs, playful bragging about collection additions, and an overall sense of lighthearted fun.
SEYED MAHMOUD JAVADI/COMPOSITE
The current Nintendo Iran followers have nothing but praise for the group. Most of the fans stumbled on Nintendo Iran because they were posting their own Nintendo content to Instagram and received a like or a comment from the account. One follower, Alireza Yousefi, enjoys participating in the community-hosted tournaments. “The Nintendo Iran community has been pretty busy arranging Mario Kart online tournaments, which a lot of people have participated in and I would say it has been pretty successful,” Yousefi said. These online tournaments usually consist of seven to nine community members. The group has even offered up prizes in the form Nintendo eShop cards. Both Badvipour and Abdali are determined to bring more gamers to the Nintendo side with friendly and competitive online tournaments and virtual meetups like these.
This small, dedicated group of fans is pushing to find more recognition from a gaming company that seems utterly unaware of their existence. In the meantime, they’re content with just adding new friends to their ever-expanding clique. They’re hoping they can sway a community of hardcore peers to let their guard down and enjoy the lighthearted pull of series like Mario Kart and Splatoon. All this thanks to the efforts of two young men who dream of retro consoles and games that have never touched the shelves of an Iranian store.
But there’s more pushing against the group than just internet speeds, access, or even Nintendo themselves. Gamers of any nation are no strangers to console wars, and Iran experiences just as much divisiveness in their community, if not more.
Despite the Xbox having what appears to be the biggest outreach in the Middle East, both Badvipour and Abdali are adamant that when it comes to console gaming in Iran, Playstation is the current undisputed king. “Ten or twenty years ago, the most popular games in Iran were strategic ones on PC,” Badvipour said over a Skype call. “Then the first Playstation came and everyone loved the idea of connecting to the TV and playing together. They didn’t know about things like the Nintendo 64 and NES. They weren’t very popular. PlayStation was a revolution for gamers in Iran — even casual gamers. It was very popular and almost everyone had it.”
Online groups gathering PlayStation fans seem to have the biggest following online — PS4_Iran_, PS4Iran, and PSPro_4sou have tens of thousands of followers each. They’re places where players congregate to share and discuss screenshots, cosplay, memes and other content around popular series like Grand Theft Auto, The Last of Us, and FIFA. They link to their respective Telegram chat groups, where PlayStation players can meet up or talk about the games directly.
Abdali and Badvipour enjoy their fair share of PS4 fandom, but they’re also critical of their apparent elitism. It’s one of the Iranian gaming scene’s biggest issues, they said.
“I could say one of the worst things about gaming in Iran are the ‘hardcore’ gamers,” Abdali said. “I can’t even have a good talk with them. When I start by telling them about how good a game is they just come back with, ‘I don’t like that game. You’re obviously not a hardcore gamer.’ They dismiss me and tell me I don’t have any good information on games. They’re very opinionated.”
Abdali recalled the launch of Blizzard’s popular team-based shooter Overwatch, and how the hardcore crowd mocked the bright colors and admittedly cartoonish characters. The general consensus was that the game would flop, due to its lighthearted approach to the FPS genre. “Even when The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild got good review scores, people started to say, ‘How can this game get good scores? That game isn’t even comparable with The Last of Us.’ And you can’t even say, ‘Those are two completely different games and different genres!’ You can’t say it! They won’t listen. They only compare new games to old games.”
The recently released Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy was plastered all over Iranian Playstation fan pages for weeks before and after the game’s release. Abduli explained that, since many players had grown up with Crash on the original PlayStation, their nostalgia took center stage. The game, though unrealistic and silly, is also familiar. Even with many Iranian PS4 players reminiscing about Crash’s twirling combat and precise platforming, Abduli confesses that he hasn’t seen many players actually admit to buying or playing the revamped trilogy.
“Some of the players here don’t enjoy games,” Abdali said. “They see them as something too important. Almost like a job.”
Outside of the hardcore Playstation hoard, there are a small number of Xbox and PC fans speckled throughout Iran’s population. And then there’s Nintendo, a company that even in major markets is often criticized for being too kid-friendly.
In Iran, this mentality is tenfold, magnified by a gaming community that refuses to be swayed by Nintendo’s animated characters and fantastical worlds. “The judgement on Nintendo in Iran is very extreme,” Badvipour said. “People look up games, and all they really care about is graphics. They think if the graphics are good enough, then the gameplay will also be great. And since Nintendo doesn’t always have the best graphics, they look down on it as kiddy games.” Badvipour and Abdali both equate this to an overwhelming stubbornness toward new titles.
It’s Dangerous To Go Alone
Abdali’s first Nintendo system was his childhood Game Boy Color his grandmother bought him. “I spent most of my days playing Pokémon Silver, and I remember how everything in this game was so good that I started to dream about Pokémon,” he said. “As I got older I would play Pokémon games with some friends. We enjoyed playing together so much that I fell in love with the feeling. I never played for the story — I played because it just made me feel good.”
“I love Nintendo because it offers something the other consoles don’t,” Badvipour said. “I love the idea of playing together and having fun. I feel like other consoles this generation don’t offer that. I had it with Wii U, and it was fantastic.”
The Wii U is a sore spot for Badvipour. It’s generally accepted that the Wii U flopped in the average gaming market, but it was almost completely ignored by players in Iran. There was virtually no demand for the system, making acquiring games a constant and costly struggle for Badvipour. “I had tons of fun playing co-op and multiplayer on the couch. My relatives and my friends all got together and we would play. It was a lot of fun. It made so many memories for me, which is something no other console has done. I had this nostalgia of playing with friends on the first Playstation. We would play co-op or other multiplayer games. I just feel like the other consoles don’t offer the same kind of experience that I had with the Wii and Wii U. And I think that’s going to happen with Switch, too.”
Now You’re Playing with Power
The Switch, as it turns out, is finally winning over some of the Iranian gaming demographic. It’s turning heads in the best way possible, with both Badvipour and Abdali claiming that it may be just what their local gaming scene needed to put Nintendo in the spotlight. Unlike the Wii U, the Switch — according to Badvipour and Abdali — was apparently hard to find in Iranian gaming stores after its initial launch, with customers paying extra to have the consoles imported from nearby European countries. “The only thing that’s going to convince people here to go and buy the Switch is the games,” Abdali said. “If they continue to release games like Zelda, with high scores, it will sell. If they released a Metroid game that blows everyone’s minds, I think it will sell and everybody will buy a Nintendo system.”
“I think Iranians like [the Switch’s] style,” Badvipour said. “They like stylish things to show off when they go out. I think the Switch is a very good concept for Iranians, and they can really use the portable features. They also like mobile games, so the idea of being a hybrid is very good for Iranians.”
Gaming sites that cater to the Middle Eastern audience are also noticing Nintendo’s return to the spotlight. News and reviews for upcoming Switch titles are popping up more and more as the hybrid console digs a deeper foothold into the world wide gaming audience. Online shops that forwent selling any Wii U systems or games have begun offering Switch bundles, accessories, and prepaid Nintendo eShop cards. Even with every Switch sale and announcement framed by a half dozen PlayStation or Xbox headlines, the rise in demand for Nintendo products and news in Iran is undeniable.
The Switch’s lack of region locking is also a godsend for the Nintendo fans of Iran. Many gaming stores in the Middle East have suppliers from different corners of the globe. That means that you could’ve bought a European system, but still find that all the games in stock are for North American consoles. Nintendo’s decision to launch the Switch as a region-free device has since melted that issue away and made the system ever more alluring for those who want to give the Nintendo library a try.
Badvipour and Abdali are hopeful that the Switch’s reinvigorating of the Nintendo scene in Iran will lend itself to their attempts to spread the gospel of The Big N via their Instagram fan page. It’s doubtful Nintendo will professionally establish itself in the Middle East anytime soon. But the Nintendo Iran club will continue to spread the good word, fawning over new announcements, and sharing everything they discover with anyone who will listen.