Locked Out: US sanctions are ruining online gaming in Iran

Barriers Iran's gaming community face are next-level thanks to Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign.

    Locked Out: US sanctions are ruining online gaming in Iran
    League of Legends boasts up to eight million concurrent players a day, making it one of the most-played personal computer games in the world, but not in Iran where user accounts have been blocked [File: Johanna Geron/Reuters]

    Iranian fans of the popular multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) video game League of Legends (LoL) encountered an almost insurmountable obstacle this summer - one that only the most powerful opponent in the physical world could throw at them.

    When they logged on to their accounts, they were greeted with the message: "Due to US laws and regulations, players in your country cannot access League of Legends at this time."

    Developed by California-based Riot Games, LoL boasts up to eight million concurrent players a day, making it one of the most-played personal computer (PC) games on the planet. 

    But not in Iran, where fans have been locked out of gameplay, as digital companies around the world err on the side of over complying with US economic sanctions rather than risk falling afoul of them.

    It appears that Riot Games is being prudent with this decision.

     Brian O'Toole, senior fellow, Atlantic Council 

    Maximum pressure

    Since unilaterally withdrawing last year from the Iran nuclear agreement with world powers, the administration of United States President Donald Trump has steadily ratcheted up economic sanctions on Iranian government officials and other powerful entities.

    Those punitive measures are not meant to prevent Iranians from accessing personal communications over the internet, such as instant messaging, chat, email, social networks, web browsing, blogging and media sharing.

    But digital subscription services, like online gaming, are not necessarily covered by those exemptions.

    A company selling an online service to users in Iran could potentially land in hot water with the US Treasury if the user opening the account has been slapped with US sanctions.

    "It appears that Riot Games is being prudent with this decision," said Brian O'Toole, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council and a former senior adviser with the US Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) that administers and oversees sanctions.

    "If Riot were to argue that its services were authorised, then it would have to identify any person who met the Government of Iran definition and deny them an account, as well as any who were designated [sanctioned] under counterterrorism and other such authorities," O'Toole tells Al Jazeera. "This would be exceedingly difficult as there is little to no identity verification used in gaming profiles."

    It is not just online gaming - companies across different industries are increasingly weighing the potential risks of selling online services to customers in Iran.

    San Francisco-based GitHub, the world's largest software code-hosting service, severely restricted users from Iran in late July. Cloud computing services giant Amazon Web Services also disabled Iranian accounts this year.

    Riot Games is not the only game developer or publisher to block Iranian users from its list of eligible service recipients.

    Epic Games, which developed the online phenomenon Fortnite, has blocked its online store to Iranians.

    Apex Legends, a major game developed by Electronic Arts (EA), was blocked in February but was later unblocked after calls by Iranian fans.

    Iran-based gamers can were temporarily unble to access California-based Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft.

    Epic Games, Riot Games, EA and Respawn Entertainment - the development studio behind Apex Legends- did not respond to Al Jazeera requests for comment.

    We don't want to lie and we just want to play a game normally like the rest of the world, but unfortunately, sometimes there's no other option.

    Amir Golkhani, gamer and gaming journalist

    Corroding the gaming experience

    In June, Riot Games said it looked forward to removing the ban on Iranian fans of LoL "if and when" the US government changes such restrictions. But that was of little consolation to thousands of Iranian gamers, some of whom have been playing LoL since its beta phase more than a decade ago.

    Some fans have worked around the restrictions by using a Virtual Private Network - or VPN - that encrypt connections and mask user locations, enabling them to keep playing.

    But VPNs have significant drawbacks. They can be expensive to run and can corrode the overall gaming experience by increasing "ping" - a lag between executing a gaming action and the corresponding result.

    The barriers only add to the growing isolation of Iran from the global gaming community.

    There are no authorised retailers in Iran for games or gaming merchandise. Popular cross-border multiplayer online games cannot be hosted on Iranian servers, which means Iran-based players have to connect to servers in other regions.

    That can adversely affect the gaming experience through higher pings. Iranian players who connect to servers in other regions also risk being unfairly associated with so-called "pay to win" practices in which players buy goods to advance through a game, as opposed to relying on their skills alone.

    Payment is another hurdle. Iran is cut off from international payment networks, which means debit and credit cards issued in Iran cannot be used to buy anything outside of the country.

    To pay for games, subscriptions, in-app purchases, or even provide billing information, Iranian gamers must go through intermediaries such as local websites that sell pre-paid debit cards. Those pre-paid cards have steep fees attached - a mark up Iranians can ill-afford given the local currency, the rial, has lost more than 60 percent of its value since the US announced its intention to withdraw from the nuclear deal.

    Then there is customer support. Often an elusive service under the best of circumstances, it is even more difficult for Iranian gamers to get the help they need because the layers of anonymity required for them to even access games and subscriptions make them appear as if they are not legitimate customers.

    "A friend of mine had purchased an [Microsoft] Xbox console downloadable content by mistake and wanted to get a refund, but the customer support personnel, who had traced his location to Iran, wouldn't even answer him," 22-year-old gamer and gaming journalist Amir Golkhani tells Al Jazeera.

    "So he lied by saying he was here for a short business trip!" he added. "Of course we don't want to lie and we just want to play a game normally like the rest of the world, but unfortunately sometimes there's no other option."

    Politics are no good for us, we're just here to play games.

    Amir Mahboubi, aka 'Phanthom, professional electronic sports player

    The Iranian stigma

    It is not just gaming enthusiasts feeling the sting of sanctions.

    Iran has all of the ingredients of a potentially thriving game development hub. Close to half of the country's roughly 81 million-strong population is under the age of 30. Many of them are highly educated, unemployed and are happy to be paid in rials, meaning foreign game developers could be accessing a relatively inexpensive pool of digitally savvy workers.

    "Developers here negotiate with potential foreign investors and investors can't believe that you can make a good game with just $70,000 in Iran," said Gokhani. "They think you either don't know what you're talking about or you won't deliver a quality product."

    According to Gokhani, a young game developer in Iran can be hired for approximately $700 a month, compared with $5,000 a month for a comparable developer in Europe.

    But the spectre of US sanctions makes foreign firms weary of partnering with Iranian talent.

    "Recently a European firm was on board to invest $500,000 in my friend's game development firm," Gokhani said. "But they stopped answering emails once they found out the firm was based in Iran! The Iranian firm ended up signing a deal for a fraction of that figure with a much smaller partner."

    Iranian developers and publishers who do manage to strike deals with foreign partners often see the deals kept quiet and not publicised for fear of drawing scrutiny. That means Iranian developers cannot leverage foreign deals to go after more of them.

    As Washington continues to ratchet up sanctions on Iran concerns are mounting in the country's gaming community that the dragnet could ensnare professional online gamers by barring them from participating in international tournaments or making it difficult for them to collect prize money won in cross-border tournaments.

    Amir Mahboubi - aka "Phanthom" - is a 27-year old Iranian professional electronic sports player and the captain of Iran's national team for the massively popular MOBA game DOTA2.

    Mahboubi told Al Jazeera that though he has never been turned away from a championship held in a physical space, he was recently blocked from taking part in an online DOTA2 tournament hosted by Epulze

    "The issues of politics and electronic sports are fully separate," said Mahboubi. "Politics are no good for us, we're just here to play games."

    This article is the latest instalment in AJ Impact's ongoing series "Locked Out", which examines how every-day Iranians are being cut off from global digital services. Click here to read about Iranians being blocked from data-hosting firm GitHub and here to read about Iranians being barred from Amazon Web Services.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News