Esports is quickly establishing itself as a way for video game lovers around the world to make a name for themselves — and a living — from their favorite pastime.
Japan, despite being a major maker and player of video games, is belatedly jumping on the bandwagon.
The shift comes as the international profile of esports continues to rise, as seen by its inclusion as a demonstration event in the upcoming Asian Games in Indonesia and as a full medal event at the 2022 Asian Games in China.
Even the International Olympic Committee is cautiously exploring the possibility of eventually adding esports to its program.
What is esports?
Short for electronic sports, the term refers to professional multiplayer video gaming competitions. Players in the competitions, often held in packed venues and streamed online, can earn prize money reportedly as high as tens of millions of dollars in a single tournament.
Global revenue from esports is projected to break $900 million (¥99 billion) this year, up 38 percent from 2017, and reach $1.65 billion by 2021, according to gaming market researcher Newzoo.
Esports cover strategy games, fighting games and traditional sports, among other genres. Popular titles include “League of Legends,” “StarCraft,” “Street Fighter” and “FIFA 18.” Mobile games played on smartphones are also gaining ground.
In addition to tournaments at the international, national and local levels, some countries have established professional leagues with sponsored teams that regularly compete against each other.
Esports is estimated to have a global audience of 395 million, up nearly 18 percent from last year, with an increase to 580 million anticipated by 2021, according to Newzoo data. About 173 million are thought to be avid esports fans, with a whopping 57 percent from the Asia-Pacific region.
Why has Japan been slow to embrace it?
Japan is known around the world as the home of major game developers Nintendo Co., Sony Corp., Capcom Co. and Konami Holdings Corp., and about half the nation’s population of 127 million are said to play video games in some form.
But esports had trouble taking root largely due to legal restrictions, including a law that made it difficult for game-makers to hold competitions offering substantial prize money to promote their products.
“Let’s say a company were to come out with a game that costs ¥10,000 and hold a game tournament to promote its sales. If the top prize was set at ¥100,000, that would be construed as inappropriate sales promotion because it would move many people to buy the product in order to go for the prize money,” explained lawmaker Jin Matsubara, head of the secretariat of a suprapartisan group of lawmakers promoting online games and esports.
“Japan is the only country that has this kind of law,” said Matsubara, who was previously state minister for consumer affairs.
To set the stage for growth in the domestic esports market, the group negotiated with the Consumer Affairs Agency and helped make it possible for esports tournaments to offer large monetary prize pools on condition that the contestants are professional competitors.
The Japan Esports Union (JESU), formed in February this year through the merger of five related entities aimed at unifying administrative activities, is tasked with issuing professional licenses.
JESU has so far issued licenses to more than 100 people for game titles including “Street Fighter V Arcade Edition,” “Call of Duty: WWII” and “Winning Eleven 2018,” known internationally as “Pro Evolution Soccer 2018.”
JESU Vice President Hirokazu Hamamura said the esports movement in Japan is accelerating. This has drawn the interest of companies outside the industry, including entertainment firm Yoshimoto Kogyo Co., which formed a professional esports team in March.
Still, the remuneration in Japan lags the rest of the world, peaking at around ¥60 million. Hamamura said prize money is merely one index.
“A bigger prize may bring excitement about esports, but another aspect is to attract attention,” he said, referring to such events as the Olympics, which do not directly offer prize money to the medalists but succeed in exciting athletes and spectators alike.
What is it like to be a professional Japanese esports player?
Teenager Kento Ota was aspiring to become a cook last year when he found a different calling in life after winning the national competition for mobile online strategy game “Clash Royale,” developed by Finnish firm Supercell.
Ota, who goes by the name Kentsumeshi in the gaming world, went on to the Asian stage of the competition and finished third. He enjoyed the experience so much that he quit vocational school and moved from Gifu Prefecture to Tokyo last September to pursue a career in esports.
“At first my parents were against the idea. I think they were worried because there wasn’t a clear path toward this career,” the 19-year-old said. “But I didn’t have a lot of good reasons I could give them and felt that I should become a pioneer so that young kids can convince their parents by saying they want to be like Kentsumeshi.”
In February he signed a management deal with Well Played Inc., a Tokyo company that specializes in esports events and activities. He then joined a team called FAV gaming in a new professional league established two months later.
Ota practices “Clash Royale” about 10 hours a day to improve his weak points and find new tricks to deploy in the multifaceted game. He makes a living mainly from advertising income from his YouTube channel, which has 100,000 subscribers, and his monthly pay from FAV gaming.
What does the future of esports in Japan look like?
No one would dispute the notion that the esports industry will continue to grow around the globe. It is already a major business in countries like South Korea, the United States and Poland. While Japan has a long way to go to catch up, people from multiple sectors involved in the field express hope for positive developments.
“There are many (potential) sponsors who have interest in esports from various standpoints, but a key point is their assessment that esports is an arena where the young generations communicate with one another,” said Eishin Kim, a member of advertising giant Dentsu Inc.’s esports promotion team.
While the IOC has been noncommittal about putting esports in the Olympics, Kim said the interest shown is noteworthy in itself.
The IOC and the Global Association of International Sports Federations jointly organized a forum on the topic on July 21 in Switzerland.
The Japanese government has also begun to take notice, adding a reference in documents released by the Cabinet Office in June that it will work on creating an appropriate environment for the sound development of esports as a new growth area.
With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics coming up, promoters are eager to hold some kind of esports event — whether recognized by the IOC or not — in the lead-up to the Summer Games.
Lower House member Matsubara and JESU’s Hamamura both expressed hope that a Japanese esports star will soon be born who can give the industry more exposure.
Ota, one such prospect, could not make it to the Asian Games scheduled to start in mid-August in Indonesia but won a spot as Japan’s representative in the qualifying stages for the “Clash Royale” event.
“The better I fare in international competitions, the more people will look at me as a hard-working pro gamer from Japan, so I’m excited to think that my performance could help advance esports,” Ota said.