At a time when eSports is becoming increasingly prominent all across Europe and America through streaming and traditional media. Recently the eSports industry heard plans at Blizzcon which are aimed at establishing a framework to ensure pro-gamers playing Overwatch at the top level from next year will be rewarded properly. But what is the situation of eSports in Japan?
Japan is one of the pillars of video gaming and eSports and helped revive a declining sector in 1983 following the crash of the American gaming industry. Early on, the Japanese people showed a competitive spirit worldwide with arcade games and ‘high score’ mechanics. One of the first popular games was Space Invaders (1978), so much so that the title caused a shortage of 100 pieces ¥ forcing the Japanese government to increase the production of coins!
Although the global recognition of eSports as we know it today is relatively recent, Japan experienced a rise in eSports early on through competitive tournaments (the best known are the Tougeki, Toganga League or Mix up Night) on arcade or console, as well as phenomena such as Danisen, or even the Caravan mode.
Danisen: the “championship” retro gaming
If some games directly integrate real-time ranking system (like Street Fighter IV with the BP system), that was not the case of games of past generations. In some arcades, a division system based on party martial arts (Dan and Kyu) was established and named Danisen. The best known of them is that of Street Fighter 2.
The rules are simple, at an official meeting between several individuals of the same ability – if a person wins a certain number of points (usually 5) against other players, he rose in rank. Losing points means relegation. A victory is a point, but also the player keeps his place in the contest to try to gain a string wins (the loser is replaced). Defeat means the loss of a point.
An example video, with Street Fighter 2 commented Ken Bogard:
Hudson All-Japan Caravan Festival and Summer Carnival
From 1985 to 1993, the company Hudson (Bomberman) had set up the All-Japan Hudson Caravan Festival. Every year, trucks equipped with gaming equipment circulated through 60 Japanese cities to organize competitions with the objectives of “scoring” on a precise time (2 or 5 minutes).
Among the games used by Hudson, there was Star Force, Star Soldier, Starshop Hector, Power League, Gunhed Blazing Lazers, Final Soldier, or even Soldier Blade. The Caravan mode plays out differently from conventional modes.
Soft Naxat greatly drew from the Hudson model to achieve similar competitions between 1991-1993 with the Summer Carnival.
eSports: amazing underdevelopment in Japan
Japan has a very advanced gaming community and a number of players capable of real exploits on “shoot em-up”, “puzzle games” or “rhythm games”. The country though suffers from underutilization. eSports in Japan lacks an economic and media plan.
With the exception of fighting games (Street Fighter, Guilty Gear, Virtua Fighter …) Japan is underrepresented, to say the least, on the famous titles of the eSports scene such as; Counter Strike, Starcraft 2, FIFA, CoD & Hearthstone. Which draws stark comparison to the West or its Chinese and Korean neighbors. Only League of Legends (LoL) begins to act as an exception with the presence of one or two professional teams (such as DetonatioN Gaming).
This underdevelopment can be explained by two factors
The games known in the world of eSports remain largely PC games. But in Japan, consumer video games revolve mostly around smartphones, handhelds and arcade (in that order). The PC is last in the pecking order. In addition, the PC community in Japan seems to be focused on Visual Novels, or RPGs like Falcom. FPS, MOBA and RTS do not really attract the Japanese public.
Japan has a reputation for of money gaming (via the pachinko and other Pachislot) but in reality, Chapter 23 of the Japanese Penal Code imposes strict rules for the sector. The government of Shinzo Abe wants to relax the law in question to open casinos in the country for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, but it is fraught with tensions. The Japanese population (over 70%) has an unfavorable opinion on gaming with real money. Naturally, video games are not 100% from gambling, but the “recent” status causes legal uncertainty and it is not really in the Japanese mentality to get into conflict. Few sports sectors have a legal exception in Japan (such as baseball).
The financial aspect of eSports in Japan
Naturally the difference between a pro and an average player, apart from the obvious, is the financial aspect. There are few players in Japan who can actually live their passion, but there are a number of semi-professionals who combine their eSports activity with another gainful activity. Some Japanese eSports heavyweights by choice retain their original day to day jobs despite sufficient income to live off their eSports activity.
There are several ways to earn money in this very specific sector;
Tournament winnings: Obviously, the first way to make money is for players to win tournaments. For example, by winning the Pro Tour in 2015 Capcom on Ultra Street Fighter IV, Momochi won $ 120,000. A great player can get several awards in the same year.
Sponsors: Companies fund players to become “sandwich men” at tournaments, to represent a brand through a t-shirt and/or game accessories (arcade stick, mouse, keyboard, headset etc…). According to Nobuyuki Umezaki, team DetonatioN Gaming make 80% of the income as a professional team through sponsors.
Dedicated products: Some companies are creating special branded products with eSports themes in mind and sometimes showcase and sell at certain conventions.
Quality tester: As professional players have a developed mind for gaming, some companies use their services to detect bugs or balancing problems.
Although Japan is slow off the blocks in terms of eSports, and despite the presence of an active community, mentalities are changing and the sector should take more and more of a front seat in the country due various recent initiatives: the opening of an e-sports section in the establishment Tokyo School of Anime, a “cash prize” Nintendo of one million dollars on the game Splatoon, or even a willingness of the government to relax the law on gambling, as well as the opening of visas for foreign pro-gamers.