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Esports searches for foothold in Japan

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

During August and September, esports competitions took the stage in two very different and significant places.

In August, esports had a presence at the Asian Games in Indonesia as a demonstration sport alongside swimming, track and field and other traditional athletics endeavors. Then in September, there were esports events held at the Tokyo Game Show, whose resident sprint king isn’t Usain Bolt, but “Sonic the Hedgehog.”

With esports on the rise around the world, many are wondering where the activity fits in the sporting landscape in Japan.

“A lot of the questions I get are, ‘are esports sports? How does it compare to traditional sports,'” Asian Electronic Sports Federation president Kenneth Fok said during a forum at last month’s Tokyo Game Show. Fok is also a vice president of the Hong Kong Olympic Committee.

“The IOC (International Olympic Committee) had a summit last October … and esports is showing strong growth and has created quite a platform for engagement of young people, especially (young people) who can promote the Olympic movement.

“Also, they recognize that esports can be considered as a sporting activity. The players prepare and compete with the same intensity compared to other athletes. Of course, by moving in this direction, esports must not infringe on the Olympic values.”

One thing that’s for sure, is traditional sports leagues have begun to embrace the phenomenon, even in Japan. Both the Japan Football Association and Nippon Professional Baseball are involved in esports leagues. The JFA sees investing in esports as a way to tap into a new audience.

“We are engaged in traditional sports,” JFA vice president Kazumichi Iwagami said. “When we look at it, ideally we want to see people play both traditional sports as well as soccer (video and PC) games.”

Those people who play esports, in Iwagami’s view, could then be drawn to supporting real soccer as well.

“If we could combine those points, or have them play both esports as well as real soccer, I think that would be important in expanding the scope and range of both games,” he said.

The esports competition at the Asian Games featured six titles including “Pro Evolution Soccer” and “League of Legends.” The Japanese team took gold in PES during the event. It marked a big step for esports, being the first time it was included in a large multisport event.

“It is the first time athletes truly represented their countries,” Fok added. “What I mean by that is, it’s the first time athletes were recognized by their respective NOCs (National Olympic Committees).”

Fok understands the perception of esports as just video games, and has made it his goal to combat it.

“One of my missions is to promote esports as not just about gaming. Let’s not see esports as just playing computer games. It’s actually a big industry moving forward.”

The pressing issue in Japan is attracting more players, especially among the younger generation.

“I don’t see people my age playing anymore,” said 23-year-old Alonzo Omotegawa, an avid “Overwatch” player. “Tell me the youngest famous person besides Sonic Fox (a 20-year-old U.S.-based fighting game player named Dominique McLean) right now. That’s the only one. That isn’t enough.”

That sentiment was echoed by Scott Popular, a longtime Japan resident who helps organize fighting game tournaments with Final Round Battles and also competed.

“In the FGC (Fighting Game Community) in particular, there aren’t a lot of young players. That’s going to hurt them a lot. Because without youth, how can you build upon this,” Popular said.

Attracting youth, though, requires winning over skeptical parents, which could be a hard sell in Japan.

“It’s kind of hard to convince parents there’s actually a business in gaming,” Omotegawa said.

Fok also thinks educating parents is key to the success of esports, which will be part of the program at the 2019 National Sports Festival in Ibaraki Prefecture.

“Not just marketing and promoting to sports fans, but to parents, to schools, universities,” he said. “I think these are important stakeholders for a sport to develop. It’s not the kid, it’s more the parents. Will they allow the kid to play esports?”

In Japan, from Popular’s standpoint, more public recognition of is also essential.

“The aspect of being a pro player here is still a far reach,” he said. “A lot of people don’t consider that as a viable means of income.”

Fok, though, sees the Asian Games as a first step toward esports carving out a place in the larger sporting world.

“Our ultimate goal of course, by hosting (esports) in the Asian Games, is we really hope that it can be included in the Olympic agenda,” he said. “The IOC has already opened the door and I believe this is the first of many steps we have to take in order to bring esports into the Olympic Games.”