Gareth Bale, left, has invested in the esports industry as he co-owns Ellevens Esports ©Getty Images

Welsh football great Gareth Bale has claimed that esports is "definitely catching up with real football" when speaking at the Next World Forum in Riyadh.

Bale, a five-time UEFA Champions League winner with Spanish giants Real Madrid, was among the panellists at the two-day esports event held at the Four Seasons Hotel at Kingdom Centre in the Saudi Arabian capital.

The 34-year-old, who announced his retirement from football in January, co-owns Ellevens Esports that participates in FIFA and Rocket League tournaments.

"Never say never," said Bale when considering whether esports players could become more popular than footballers, as reported by Arab News.

"The scope is so big.

"Esports is definitely catching up with real football, and that’s not a bad thing.

"It gives kids a lot more opportunities to do what they want.

The challenges for women in gaming leadership was among the topics covered during the Next World Forum in Riyadh ©Saudi Esports Media
The challenges for women in gaming leadership was among the topics covered during the Next World Forum in Riyadh ©Saudi Esports Media

"Even my kids now, they’re growing up enjoying their consoles and have the opportunity to interact with their friends in another country.

"It’s a nice way to keep in touch - we’ve been in Spain, America, and obviously Wales and England, and they play games online and keep in touch.

"From where gaming has gone from when I started playing to now is incredible - just look at the facial hair and the acrobatics in celebrations.

"Since I’ve had the opportunity to invest in esports, it’s been really good.

"It’s been nice to invest and give opportunities to others.

"Virtual reality is becoming the next best thing to the real thing."

Bale was joined on a panel with American film director and producer Michael Bay and Gary Vaynerchuk, chief executive of Vaynermedia.

The Next World Forum attracted more than 2,500 people from a number of different industries including sport, technology and entertainment.

Among the topics discussed included "Gaming is the Future Economy" and "From Pixels to Podiums: Examining the Relationship Between Esports and the Olympics".

Saudi Arabia has carved out an increasing influence in esports and is aiming to become a global leader in the industry.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last year launched Saudi Arabia’s national gaming and esports strategy in a bid to create 39,000 jobs and boost the country’s gross domestic product by $13.3 billion (£10.5 billion/€12.1 billion) by 2030.

Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan, chairman of the Saudi Esports Federation, spoke on the panel, entitled "Creating the Gold Standard of the Competitive Gaming Scene".

"The esports industry is one that changes on a daily basis, let alone a monthly or yearly basis," said Prince Faisal.

"People always ask, ‘what’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ - but never ask ‘what’s going to stay the same over the next 10 years?’

"And that might be the more important of the two.

"For us, that constant is the community and the gamers.

"If we can keep focus on the fact that everything we’re doing is for our community then we set ourselves up to be in the best position for what’s coming up next.

"Saudi Arabia’s aim is to become a global hub for gaming and esports, and hosting events such as Next World Forum are a key part on the journey to fulfilling that quest."