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Esports classified as sport in Taiwan, pros even exempt from mandatory military service

Lu K'e-hung, background, instructs an esports club student, at Overseas Chinese University in Taichung, central Taiwan, on Aug. 1, 2018. (Mainichi)

TAICHUNG, Taiwan -- At the Overseas Chinese University "esports training center" here seven students in the school's esports club gaze into their computer screens intensely and practice their skills at a shooting game.

"A strong team will come to build defenses like the Great Wall of China," said former club member and instructor, 27-year-old Lu K'e-hung, as he passionately tutored the players.

Overseas Chinese University is one of several universities in Taiwan that is beginning to offer a system in which students can get class credits for learning to play esports. Lu himself was a professional esports player, but gave up competing at age 24. He then enrolled in graduate school for business administration, and came to serve as a coach for the school esports club team.

However, the arrangement did not come without complications. After finishing his graduate studies, he was meant to enlist in the army for one year of mandatory service. Due to the falling birthrate and other factors, Taiwan has abolished the mandatory military service for men born in 1994 or after, but those born in 1993 and earlier still must serve -- including Lu. Change in the esports world moves at a dizzying pace, and Lu said, "Even not being able to practice for two or three days has a huge impact." He said he could not imagine trying to come back from an entire gap year.

What saved Lu was the "substitute" system. Those individuals with specialized technical skills can work at government or social welfare institutions to substitute for military service, and some athletes are eligible to apply for the exemption. Luckily for Lu, the Taiwanese government added esports to the list of sports that fell under the substitution system in February 2017, with a condition that the player has to be active as a professional for at least a year.

Lu's substitution was approved, and for roughly a year up until this July, he served as an esports instructor at his alma mater and other places. "Thanks to the system, I was able to pass on my wealth of experience and thought process to young people," Lu said.

Beginning in August, Lu began teaching information technology at his alma mater as an instructor, while also overseeing the school's esports club. Second-year student Chiang Yu-lun, 19, who is aiming to go pro, said, "From technical elements of the competition to time management in order to efficiently practice, there is a lot to learn."

The addition of professional esports players to the list of athletes included in the military exemption system comes from a top-down push from President Tsai Ing-wen. In March 2017, Tsai visited the training area for Taiwan's representative "League of Legends" esports team the "Flash Wolves," and cheered them on by telling them she was proud of them. Tsai even did her best in trying to play the game herself. By November 2017, with a push from Tsai, the Taiwanese legislature passed a bill that officially recognized esports as a sporting event.

According to the Taiwan esports association, there are roughly 300 professional players on the island. Association director Shih Wen-pin, 53, commented, "In the near future, esports will become a mainstream member of the Taiwanese sports community."

(Japanese original by Shizuya Fukuoka, Taipei Bureau)

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