The Japan Football Association has taken its biggest step yet in the country’s burgeoning esports scene, joining the Japan Esports Union as co-host of the newly established esports competition in the cultural program at the 2019 National Sports Festival in Ibaraki Prefecture.

The inaugural Inter Prefectural eSports Championship will be contested in three-on-three matches of the popular Konami title Winning Eleven (known overseas as Pro Evolution Soccer). The championship will take place across two divisions, with one reserved for high school students and the other open to any participant.

The tournament had initially been announced by the JESU and the 2019 National Sports Festival planning committee in May of this year.

“We first heard in March that the committee for the Ibaraki Sports Festival intended to introduce esports,” said JESU chairman Hideki Okamura. “We considered this to be an incredibly brave decision and wanted to support them, especially as esports in Japan is still in its infancy.

“We hope this can become the first step toward our goal of establishing esports as a club activity in junior and senior high schools.”

Okamura revealed that the duo of Naoki Sugimura and Tsubasa Aihara, who won the gold medal in Winning Eleven at the Asian Games’ inaugural esports demonstration event earlier this month, have expressed interest in participating in the event.

JFA chairman Kozo Tashima cited progressive involvement in esports by FIFA and other soccer leagues and clubs around the world, noting that the JFA had established an esports department in late 2016. He defined the collaboration with the JESU as as a way to expand the organization’s reach across Japan.

“The idea of a competition in which anyone can participate regardless of age, gender or physical disability resonates with our philosophy,” Tashima said. “I believe that through connecting with participants and fans of esports we can further carry out our mission as an organization.”

The JESU and JFA will hold qualifiers for the National Sports Festival from April to July, using prefectural football associations to coordinate the events. Tashima believes that increasing the number of tournaments will be key to legitimizing esports in the country.

“By creating local and national tournaments, you give players something to aspire toward,” Tashima said. “Holding this tournament at the National Sports Festival will expose many people to esports, and perhaps allow them to discover a new way of enjoying esports by joining teams.

“We have one million players and five million members of our soccer family registered to the JFA,” Tashima added. “We want to increase the number of people involved in soccer to five or 10 million in the future, and one of the ways in which we can do that is by getting involved in esports.

“There are lots of esports players who play soccer, and lots of players, including members of the national team, who play esports. I hope we can promote interaction between these groups and get more people involved in (soccer) itself.”

Ibaraki Gov. Kazuhiko Oikawa expressed hope that the 2019 event could serve as a guidepost for future Sports Festivals, including the 2020 edition in Kagoshima Prefecture.

“We haven’t had any discussions with (the 2020 Kagoshima planning committee) about it yet but I’m sure they’re watching closely,” Oikawa said. “With the cooperation of (the JESU and JFA), we have high expectations.”

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