CHIBA – The Tokyo Game Show kicked off Thursday with the usual assortment of bells and whistles, while Sony Corp., Sega Sammy Holdings Inc., Square Enix Holdings Co. and the other usual suspects all occupied large swaths of the convention halls at Makuhari Messe in Chiba Prefecture.
What’s different this year is the increased presence of esports.
The show has devoted a much larger space to competitive video gaming this year, and competitions will be held on all four days. If this year’s TGS is any indication, Japanese companies are diving into the esports phenomenon.
“It’s a new market, however we are able to compare the numbers from September of last year and July of this year,” said Hideki Okamura, the chairman of the Japanese Esports Union. “We have a higher degree of recognition among the public now.”
According to Hideki Hayakawa, the chairman of the Computer Entertainment Supplier’s Association, 41.1 percent of people nationwide are at least aware of esports, compared to just 14.4 percent last year.
This year’s TGS has two stages set up for esports competitions. The events will cover a wide variety of genres, from first-person shooters (“Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare”) to sports (“Winning Eleven 2018”) and mobile games (“Puzzle and Dragons”). An installment of Capcom Co.’s famous fighting game series, “Street Fighter V,” will also be among the titles fans can watch pros play.
“They’re able to see how these players fare in group environments and that helps raise the popularity of the games,” said Capcom’s Shigenori Araki, head of esports.
Multiplayer battle royal titles “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” and “Fortnite” also have a presence.
On Thursday, JESU kicked off the esports events with a “FIFA 18” match on PlayStation 4 between two-man teams of pro esports players representing the J. League’s Urawa Reds and Feyenoord of the Netherlands’ top soccer league.
“More people are watching esports and more people are participating in esports,” Aart Jacobi, the Dutch ambassador to Japan, said in remarks before the match.
Scott Popular, a longtime Japan resident who has played fighting games competitively, says Japan has to create the right foundation if it hopes to cash in on the esports boom.
“We need to focus more on the infrastructure, making sure everything is tight and we have a foundation,” he said. “That we know exactly where the money is coming from and how it’s going to be utilized.
“As for media coverage, it’s everywhere. There are memes everywhere about video games. So I think we just need infrastructure. The people on the inside need to work together a little better to make sure these events are beneficial to the players, the developers and people who are gamers and want to become pro gamers.”
Popular thinks Japan is far behind in esports globally. “(This) is funny because right next door, South Korea is light-years ahead,” he said. “One of the biggest reasons is that it has government backing. They actually support it. They have stadiums dedicated to just gaming. When you have facilities like that, there are a lot of things that can be done.”
Okumura offered a similar sentiment.
“The market lags behind that of other countries,” he said. “If you compare our market to the market outside Japan, you can see a big gap,” he said. “That’s why our organization was created.”
Elsewhere on the convention floor, lines snaked around the Square Enix booth as fans waited to play a demo of the long-awaited “Kingdom Hearts III,” a Japanese role-playing game featuring characters from various Disney movies that was available to play there and in Sony’s booth.
Another popular title was Sega’s “Judge Eyes,” the new title from the team behind the Yakuza series, which stars former SMAP boy band member Takuya Kimura. The game looks, feels, sounds and plays like a “Yakuza” clone.
For those with more old-school tastes, Hamster Co.’s home arcade machines, smaller versions of old arcade boxes, were set up and running a few SNK classics.
The Tokyo Game Show runs from Sept. 20 to 23. The last two days are open to the public.