Why Nigerians are spending hundreds of dollars buying guns in a virtual world

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We mostly deploy on Saturdays, offshore from San Francisco, California, US, on a prison island called Alcatraz. Usually, we”re a team of four, reminding ourselves as we jump off the cargo plane, of the importance of sticking together and how it increases our chances of survival.

However, Alcatraz is too crazy for this because some soldiers have mastered the art of wiping out an entire team in seconds.

Whether you’re part of a team or not, in Alcatraz, you’re on your own. That’s why I broke off from the team as we landed on this particular Saturday.

As I glided through the air, I kept my eyes peeled for the prison block with Alcatraz boldly written on its roof.

I like this block because it gives me some time to gather weapons and other supplies before I’m surrounded by enemies. But on this day, I was unlucky as I landed where an enemy was.

I instantly knew the enemy was an exceptionally skilled fighter, better than me. You’ll recognise them once you see them.

Their costumes are flashy and sometimes scary. The murderer I was unfortunate to meet was a young female in a ponytail wearing spandex and moving faster than I could aim or even pull the trigger.

While I knew death was inevitable at the hands of this beautiful homicidal maniac, I wasn’t going to make it easy for her; I was not going down without a good fight.

“Yes, I’ll put up a proper fight. Maybe I could even win,” I thought.

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I ran as far away from her as I could, picking up body armour on the way. I donned my newly acquired armour on the go as is only possible in that world and spun around to look for the spandex-clad demoness.

If there’s anything I’ve learnt about them, you should find them before they find you.

I tried to muster as much courage as I could but my hands were getting sweaty and shaky.

Then I saw her. She was about 100 metres away. Without hesitating, I grabbed my AK-47, pulled the trigger, and emptied the magazine.

I landed some hits but as expected, she took evasive measures and ran for cover. I reloaded and charged forward, thinking, “I only get one chance at this.”

My finger remained on the trigger. Rapid shots were fired. But at no one, because she was no longer in sight.

That was my mistake. And that was just what she was waiting for.  

I ran out of ammo and before I could reach for another magazine, she emerged from hiding with a submachine gun (SMG). For some strange reason, my eyes were fixed on her ponytail as it danced around her shoulders and not on the 30 rounds per minute she was letting fly.

Her bullets tore through my flesh like hot darts piercing inflated balloons and in a matter of seconds, I was down. As if to spite me, she didn’t finish me off. Ponytail made me watch as she took out two of my comrades who tried to save me.

It is after embarrassing deaths like this that I usually close the Call of Duty: Mobile (CODM) app and plunge myself back into reality.

However, CODM has become so popular in Nigeria and Africa that you can call it some people’s reality. They live and breathe CODM. I decided to embark on a journey to uncover what is behind this obsession, and why Nigeria now has gaming communities with thousands of members.

The creation of CODM   

According to Call of Duty Wiki, CODM, — formerly Call of Duty: Legends of War — was released globally on October 1, 2019.

Before its worldwide launch, CODM was first released in Australia for alpha testing on Android on December 18, 2018.

In the first three days post-launch, CODM surpassed 35 million downloads. By the 25th — seven days later — it had over 100 million downloads on the Google Play and Apple app stores.

CODM can be seen as the mobile version of Call of Duty, the console war game developed and designed by American company, Infinity Ward and published by Activision. CODM was developed by TiMi Studio Group, a Chinese game studio that made $10 billion in revenue in 2020.

It is unclear what portion of this revenue came from CODM, but it is worth noting that the game had the second-largest mobile game launch in the world, reaching 148 million downloads in its first month.

In the almost five years since the game launched, it has made an impressive $1.4 billion. But this pales in comparison to PUBG Mobile (CODM’s competitor) which made $1.1 billion in 2023 alone.

However, while CODM might not have billions in yearly revenue, it has a vibrant community that is creating a new type of gaming culture that could transform the Nigerian and African gaming industry for good.

Africans and gaming  

The African gaming industry is small compared to mature ones like the US, but it is growing fast. Gaming in Nigeria, for example, has gone from paying  ₦100 to play a few soccer matches in a wooden game centre to watching Nigerians with decked-out gaming rigs stream their games online.

The statistics accurately represent this reality.

The number of gamers in sub-Saharan Africa went from 77 million in 2015 to 235 million in 2023, making it the fastest-growing gaming industry in the world. The Newzoo’s Global Games Market Report 2023 that gave these figures also estimated that the number of gamers in the region could grow to 278 million by 2025.

Revenue generated by gaming in the region has also gone from $200 million in 2015 to $1 billion in 2023.

This growth is made possible by the emergence of mobile games.

That is why 88% — 207 million — of the 235 million gamers in sub-Saharan Africa are mobile gamers.

Playing mobile games is significantly cheaper than console games. The low-end Chinese smartphones like TECNO and Infinix which dominate the African market, can run games like CODM.  

A console or PC game is an additional expense many Africans can’t afford. This is why we had nine million console gamers in SS Africa in 2023 and other regions like North America had 129 million.

SS Africa had more mobile gamers than North America in 2023. The former had 253 million while the latter boasted 153 million.

And it’s not just Africa where mobile games rule. In Southeast Asia, another emerging market, the number of mobile gamers was 323 million, while console gamers were 28.5 million.

This mobile game push is why CODM has succeeded in Africa, especially in Nigeria.

CODM is huge in Nigeria  

Gaming Industry Africa partnered with AppMagic (a mobile market intelligence service) to track which games appealed to Algeria, Egypt, South Africa, and Nigeria in 2022.

The games were divided into top free games and top grossing. Top free games provide data on the most downloaded free games in the country, while top grossing provides data on the games that generated the most revenue.

The results

  • Algeria: The top free game was Subway Surfers with 4.4 million downloads; the top-grossing game was PUBG Mobile with $158,000 in revenue.  
  • Egypt: The top free game was Subway Surfers with 7.7 million downloads; the top-grossing game was PUBG Mobile with $7 million in revenue.
  • Nigeria: The top free game was Candy Crush with 2.2 million downloads; the top-grossing game was CODM with $799,549 in revenue.  
  • South Africa: The top free game was Subway Surfers with 1.5 million downloads; the top-grossing game was Candy Crush with $7.3 million in revenue.

CODM received $799,549 in revenue from Nigeria in 2022, followed closely by Candy Crush with $649,000.

CODM generates some of this revenue from its in-app purchases. These purchases include legendary weapons that look cooler than the free ones, kill animations, and beautiful game characters like the one that killed me in Alcatraz. However, these things do not make you play better, which begs the question why do gamers pay so much money for them?

The answer lies within a sort of classism that exists in the CODM community. You’re either a poor or unskilled player if you don’t have a $100 legendary gun. You could also get kicked out of groups or clans if you don’t have some sort of paid equipment.

CODM call of duty
A legendary gun on CODM

People who also want to become respected creators in the community are expected to have a leggy — short for a legendary gun.

An image of a call of duty mobile CODM skin
Characters you buy on CODM

But there are still many like me who will not spend a dime on a free game. The rebellious members of the CODM community, we play with ourselves and enjoy the game, because CODM is more than just a game.

It is more than a game for Daniel Afolabi, a designer from Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria, who has also refused to spend on the game. For him, it is more like a way to interact with other people. Afolabi who lives alone in his two-bedroom apartment, turns to CODM to have fun with his friends and meet new people.

While there are console games that could have gotten him the same level of connection, they require good connectivity.

“In the gaming world, CODM is like the itel. We have Samsung and iPhone, but CODM is the itel, it is accessible and compatible with most phones.”

Compatibility with most phones means more people can play it, which means there are more people to interact with.

“My job makes me stay in one place throughout the day so I don’t get to network with people. CODM lets me interact while staying in my comfort zone.”

Afolabi is sure most people who play the game share his perspective.

“The interaction is the most interesting part,” he says, “Imagine thinking you’re the best in the squad and someone from nowhere just shoots you and starts taunting you.”

The taunts and bants are indeed some of the most interesting parts of the game. The clips on TikTok and X confirm this.

However, these bants sometimes escalate into what Ayere-Victor Great, who won TikTok gaming content creator for 2023, described as toxicity.

A CODM content creator  

Great, is known popularly as Manja on TikTok, and has become a controversial creator for his stance against toxic content and gameplay within the CODM community.

While he’s glad that the community has grown and some of the creators are getting more influential, the level of toxicity seems to be increasing as well.

“Controversy and toxicity sell and a lot of creators that want to get to the top don’t care how they do it.”

Getting to the top has its perks, which is why these creators will do anything to get there. Manja, on the other hand, did it by playing CODM professionally and joining tournaments. This made him a skilled player, but his journey as a content creator started when he saw a video by a creator named Odun.

“He made this viral video where he was doing a squad wipe breakdown. He added a lot of comical expressions and it was really funny.”

This funny video spurred Manja to create his first video which got 10,000 views.

Now, Manja is one of the top gaming content creators in the country, with over 200,000 followers on TikTok and millions of views.

Beyond bragging rights, being a big creator has its financial perks.

Manja said while he works as an auditor, he can survive completely on the income that comes from being a gaming content creator.

“You could get paid to host tournaments and stream them. Some gaming content creators go live and get gifts from their audience, which can be converted into money.

“There are also sponsored ads from brands and companies. So it is almost like an endless stream of income. All you have to do is to find a way to weave content creation with finance.”

Manja also makes money from tutoring people on how to play CODM. These perks are probably why more people are leveraging toxic content to get ahead, a practice Manja says could lead to a decline in the CODM community.

However, there’s a bigger threat to the community — Activision. The game publisher recently launched Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile and has deleted some maps such as Alcatraz to promote the new game.

CODM players have aired their grievances, but from reports, it seems CODM could be killed to promote the new Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile.

This makes many wonder what will happen to the vibrant CODM community across the world, and the creators that have dedicated years to the game.