Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Gaming world remains land of untapped potential for sumo

by John Gunning

CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Details of the PlayStation 5, Sony’s latest console, were revealed in a livestream event on June 11.

The electronics giant also distributed information about several new and upgraded games, but unfortunately for fans of Japan’s national sport there was no mention of any sumo software.

It’s closing in on two decades since Japan Sumo Association — Official Japan Grand Sumo — Fighting Edition was released for the PlayStation 2.

The only things clunkier than the name of that game were the controls, but being able to fight as Takanohana, Musashimaru, and Asashoryu (among others) was just too good to resist and I bought the console solely to play it.

Frustration with the counterintuitive and confusing gameplay soon led me to ditch both the game and machine, but unfortunately in the 20 years since the title came out, not a single noteworthy successor has appeared.

It’s well past time for a replacement.

Hoping for a decent and updated sumo game isn’t just longing for the glories of the past, however.

It is becoming increasingly clear that if a particular sport wants to both survive and thrive in the future it needs a presence in the gaming world.

One need look no further than how American football players and fans around the world have been spending their time during the coronavirus lockdowns.

Madden tournaments, promoted by various national leagues, have been running in numerous countries and attracting a lot of interest.

In 2020 far more people play virtual football games than actually participate in the sport on an organized level.

When it comes to physically intense sports like sumo or rugby, which aren’t easy to do on a casual basis, governing bodies need to do more to engage with that large potential audience.

I’ve owned, and spent countless hours on, game systems right from the days of the Atari 2600. A lot of the interest I have in various sports, leagues and teams, comes from playing games connected to them when younger.

I haven’t played regularly since the early 2000s, though, and these days I only have time for chess. I play at least 20 games of three-minute limit chess (with no time increments added on) a day, and quite often that goes up to 50 games or more.

Apart from the sheer enjoyment of playing I use it as a judge of how focused (or tired and distracted) I am on any given day or at any time and plan my activities accordingly.

Being tuned into the Chess world means I couldn’t miss a recent Wired article entitled “The Grandmaster Who Got Twitch Hooked on Chess” which detailed Hikaru Nakamura’s dramatic effect on the streaming platform over the past few months.

The American grandmaster has created a massive chess boom on Twitch with the game reportedly seeing a 600 percent increase in player numbers.

When I point to cases like that for why sumo needs a better virtual presence, I often hear the counterargument that gamers will never participate in actual sumo events or attend tournaments, so time or efforts spent on developing games is wasted.

Such thinking misses the reality of the world we live in.

Twitch and YouTube are, for better or worse, places where a large section of the population (in particular young men) spend a huge amount their time. Those two online spaces in particular are where they have their views, likes and interests both formed and influenced.

Imagine if sumo, as a playable game or accessible video content, was a part of the formative experiences of the tech and business leaders of the future. How much more exposure do you think the sport would have if the heads of television networks and social media companies were fans from an early age?

Putting a sport in front of the eyeballs of the younger generation guarantees much higher rates of engagement and participation at all levels and generates a snowball effect when it comes to popularity.

Organizations that ignore the gaming world in 2020 are no different from those that thought television wouldn’t catch on in the 1950s or dismissed the World Wide Web in the mid 1990s.

Regardless of what happens with political alliances or national or supranational boundaries, the world is on a path of deepening connectedness online.

Sumo’s future audience (both Japanese and foreign) is, and increasingly will be, situated in the section of the population that plays games either on consoles or online. Not catering to that audience would be a huge error of judgement.

Whether it’s with the PlayStation 5 or some future console or streaming platform, those who care about the future of sumo should hope that a solid game, where ideally participants can choose real life rikishi, comes out in the not too distant future.

Wrestlers currently in the sport, when asked how they first came to be interested in sumo, often cite the fandom of a parent or grandparent. Spending time with family watching sumo on TV was an important point of first contact for many future rikishi.

In the modern world where television to a large extent has been replaced by games and time spent online, having a presence in that new space could be vital if sumo is to continue to create future generations of fans, rikishi and supporters.

Hopefully when the next game does come out it will have both better gameplay and a snappier title than the one for PS2.

Madden is named after a famous commentator, and in that spirit I’m willing to lend my name to any future sumo game.

Gunning20. I like it.

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