Business / Tech

Japan's professional video game sector advances to next level

by Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writer

The Japan eSports Association, which promotes the competitive playing of video games, is nudging the sector toward professional status.

A nationwide tournament this month and the first-ever issuing of athlete visas to two gamers on Wednesday point to its growing recognition.

JeSPA uses the term e-sport to refer to video games ranging from shootout arcade games to team-based tournaments set on a virtual pitch. It is hard to put a figure on the number of enthusiasts worldwide, but around 100 million are thought to play regularly and seriously.

The tournament wound up with finals in five games on March 12 and 13 in the Tokyo neighborhood of Toyosu. The finale was a round of the fighting game “Guilty Gear Xrd -Sign-,” which attracted 350 players and roughly 1,000 spectators, while more than 10,000 people followed it on Dwango’s Nico Nico Live website.

The winner — who goes by the name of Dogura — told The Japan Times he considers video games to be “sport performed with your brain.”

Organizers said there is potential for more such events.

“I feel that this tournament has become the first big step for e-sports to gain popularity nationwide,” said JeSPA Chairman Yasutoshi Nishimura during the event’s closing ceremony. Nishimura is a Lower House lawmaker.

The organization was founded last April to promote video gaming and help to nurture the development of a league of professional players in Japan. It aims to join the Japan Olympic Committee and have Japanese gamers participate in the 2017 Asian Indoor Games in Ashgabat.

“E-sports were officially included in the Asian Indoor Games in 2007, and for Japan to participate, we must have a foundation that is a member of the JOC,” said Akira Hirakata, a member of JeSPA’s executive council.

Hirakata said Japan’s video gaming industry is not as advanced as some overseas, both in popularity and in terms of nurturing talent. For example, it lacks tournaments in which the prize money is enough for players to make a living from their competing.

One tournament in the United States has prize money of roughly $18 million. Professional players in the U.S. can earn more than ¥100 million, according to JeSPA.

One of the biggest events in Japan to date was Game Party Japan 2016, which took place in January. The prize money totaled roughly ¥100 million.

DetonatioN Gaming, established in 2012, is the first Japanese company to offer full-time employment and a salary to a professional gaming team. The team, named FocusMe, has participated in international tournaments such as the 2015 International Wildcard Invitational. The firm fields five other teams, too, but their players are not on full-time salaries.

DetonatioN Gaming CEO Nobuyuki Umezaki attributes the slow development of competitive video gaming in Japan to the fact that console games are more popular than PC-based games.

“Since most of the events related to game playing in Japan tend to be organized by video game companies, it’s difficult to get sponsorship, which limits the amount of prize money,” he said. “If it’s PC games, there should be many more possible sponsors, as there are many related companies in the PC industry.”

Originally a player himself, Umezaki said 80 percent of the financing for DetonatioN Gaming’s teams comes from sponsorship and partnerships, and the rest is derived from advertising and promotional campaigns. He said the teams cannot depend on prize money at this point.

“With many companies offering to become sponsors, we make about six times more profit than other teams in Japan. However, with the increasing popularity of gaming PCs in Japan, there has been a better flow of parts-makers investing in teams and tournaments,” he said.

On Wednesday, DetonatioN Gaming announced that the central government has issued professional athlete visas for the firm’s two South Korean team members.

Umezaki considers this a pivotal moment for the competitive gaming industry in Japan, as it is the first time players have received such visas.

He likens it to the establishment of the Japan Professional Football League with 10 teams in 1993, the nation’s first professional soccer league.

Umezaki said that although soccer was not a major sport in Japan back then, foreign star athletes taught pro-level techniques and boosted the sport’s popularity. He believes competitive video gaming would follow a similar path.