Providence, Rhode Island – The government recently announced an ambitious plan to nurture Japan’s nascent esports industry. And both gamers and business leaders alike were left with a simple question:
Surely right now — in this chaotic era of COVID-19 contagion and Olympic postponement — directing governmental resources at video games is at best tone deaf. And at worst, irresponsible.
After all, Japan is in crisis. With $13 billion sunk into the Olympics, the decision to reschedule the games raises the costs by another $3 billion. Perhaps more importantly, postponing the Olympics has dealt a devastating blow to national morale that must be addressed. Compounding matters, the pandemic is already depressing travel and consumer spending. All these factors solidify a 2020 recession as a certainty, with most analysts predicting Japanese GDP to decline by 1.1 percent or more.
And the current COVID-19 crisis does not exist in isolation. Rather, it is another woe heaped upon a country struggling with deep systemic issues: including an aging population and endemic workplace sexism (as underscored by the #KuToo movement).
What could esports possibly have to do with all of these national challenges?
Everything. Esports may just be the total panacea Japan has been searching for.
First, let’s discuss the Olympic hangover. Focusing on esports creates a smart opportunity to substitute one type of games for another. Around the world, professional leagues like NASCAR, FIFA and the NBA are already leveraging esports content as replacement programming for traditional competitions. Few spectacles can fill the void of the Olympics. But major esports tournaments already receive hundreds of millions of viewers — far more than the games.
Secondly, esports are the perfect social activity for a global pandemic. Video games do not require players to meet up in person or congregate in public. In fact, esports keep aficionados at home, while still generating meaningful economic activity in the form of game sales and micro-transactions. In fact, the gaming industry is growing as half the global population seeks entertainment while under lockdown orders.
But most of all, esports offer a much-needed morale boast to the beleaguered Japanese nation. Esports are something Japan should be good at. After all, the country essentially invented modern video games.
Given how much domestic gamers idolize fictional heroes like Mario and celebrity designers like Shigeru Miyamoto, it’s not farfetched to envision Japan rallying around an esports icon in this dark time.
But the benefits of esports address more than just the current crisis. Competitive gaming also provides solutions to some of the fundamental, structural challenges facing the Japanese economy.
First and foremost among these is the aging population. Esports are a form of social interaction that can be enjoyed by gamers of all ages and ability levels. Critically, this includes Japan’s booming base of senior citizens. Envisioning a future of gaming grandmothers might seem ridiculous, but the problem of idle elderly is a real social issue. And esports don’t just distract. Crucially, they keep both the mind and reflexes sharp — ameliorating the neurological decline threatening senior citizens.
Esports even addresses the nation’s challenges with workplace sexism, albeit indirectly. As the world’s first truly egalitarian sport, both men and women compete side by side at esports’ highest levels. Competitive gaming tournaments are an opportunity to display the skills of female gamers and demonstrate gender equality through collective triumph. No other form of competitive entertainment offers such an inclusive playing field.
Simply put, investing in esports makes strategic sense for Japan. Fostering this industry will provide meaningful solutions to both the immediate and societal challenges threatening the nation.
So are there any problems with the government’s plans to embrace esports?
Absolutely. The biggest challenge facing the program is a crucial lack of details. Without clear funding targets or partner organizations, the plan reads as lacking commitment — as though it were crafted as a part of a “see if it sticks” policy approach.
Furthermore, the scale of Japan’s investment in esports isn’t large enough. The current plan aims to generate $2.6 billion in esports revenue by 2025. But Japan’s GDP is $4.9 trillion, contextualizing esports’ growth as little more than a drop in the bucket. Moreover, many estimates peg neighboring South Korea as a $4 billion esports market. At a minimum, Japanese esports should rival the Korean scene in the next half-decade — particularly considering the Japanese economy is four times larger as a whole!
But these two policy missteps are matters of scale and implementation, not strategy. Focusing on esports as a lifeline for Japan is not only smart but necessary. Hopefully the government will follow up its announcement with the crucial initiatives and details required to accelerate a good idea into a groundbreaking reality.
If the government can spark esports, competitive gaming may save the nation both economically and psychologically. And wouldn’t it be grand for the country that birthed Nintendo, Sony and Sega to resurrect itself with a digitized dream?
William Collis is co-owner of Team Genji, the No. 1 Hearthstone esports team.
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