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High school soccer teams in west Japan gear up for virtual matches in esports tourney

KITAKYUSHU -- High school soccer players and others will take part in an esports soccer tournament in this southwestern Japan city and elsewhere on Aug. 20, to make up for lost opportunities for national championship games amid the coronavirus pandemic.

    Following the cancellation of this year's Inter-High School Championships due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, the esports tournament is motivating young athletes as they aim for glory in the upcoming All Japan High School Soccer Tournament, which had at one time also been in jeopardy. While the preliminary rounds of regional matches for the national tournament have begun, the players are gearing up for virtual soccer matches while visualizing their long-awaited moment in the spotlight.

    Houkoku Gakuen High School soccer team players are seen practicing for an upcoming esports tournament in the southwestern Japan city of Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture, on Aug. 18, 2020. (Mainichi/Hiroya Miyagi)

    Participating schools in the esports tournament include: Takagawa Gakuen based in Hofu, Yamaguchi Prefecture, western Japan, a powerhouse that makes regular appearances in the All Japan High School Soccer Tournament; Houkoku Gakuen High School in Kitakyushu; Fukusho High School in the city of Fukuoka and Fukuchi High School in the city of Tagawa -- all based in the southwestern Japan prefecture of Fukuoka. In addition, Nippon Bunri University High School in Saiki, Oita Prefecture, also in southwestern Japan, and Kyoto Kogakkan High School in Seika, Kyoto Prefecture, in western Japan, will join the competition by sending in their esports clubs which have experience in competing at national tournaments.

    Community sports club "Diversity," based in the city of Kitakyushu's Yahatanishi Ward, has held soccer games each year around this time by inviting teams from around 10 high schools in and outside Fukuoka Prefecture. The soccer matches for 2020 have been canceled in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and the sports club planned this alternative esports tournament.

    Mikitaka Hayashi, 38, head representative of the club, said, "We cannot move forward just by waiting for infections to be contained. I wanted to help high schoolers who can't play soccer to their hearts' content." As the games are held online, players do not need to gather around in the same place. The athletes will be divided into groups at each venue in Yamaguchi, Fukuoka, Oita, and Kyoto, so that close contact in confined spaces can be avoided. The esports tournament will be co-sponsored by the Kitakyushu Municipal Government, which was also searching for events to be held under a new lifestyle while the outlook for the containment of novel coronavirus infections remains unclear.

    After the 2020 Inter-High School Championships were called off, high school soccer teams had been subject to restraints, such as being forced to refrain from making trips outside their respective prefectures, leaving athletes and those concerned filled with frustration. They had nearly lost sight of their goals as the All Japan High School Soccer Tournament, where top schools compete for the championship title, had also temporarily been at risk of cancellation

    Houkoku Gakuen High School soccer team players are seen practicing for an upcoming esports tournament in the southwestern Japan city of Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture, on Aug. 18, 2020. (Mainichi/Hiroya Miyagi)

    Given such circumstances, the esports tournament enables the young players to pour their passionate energy into the games -- even though they are virtual -- and participating athletes spoke of having been greatly looking forward to it.

    Keito Ikai, 17, a third-year student at Houkoku Gakuen High School, expressed gratitude and said, "I was disappointed as memories among those in my grade have become fewer due to the cancellation of the inter-high school championships and long-distance trips. I am thankful that such a tournament is being held, even if the form of playing is different."

    The video game to be used in the tournament is Winning Eleven, which has recently been adopted for use in a nationwide prefectural esports tournament during an exhibition of the National Sports Festival and on other occasions. The video game is hard-core, with many J-League soccer players claiming that they brushed up on their strategic play and positioning through Winning Eleven.

    Yuichiro Kanasaki, 38, manager of the soccer team at Houkoku Gakuen High School and deputy head in charge of the esports tournament, commented, "The game demands the ability to envision strategic plays and athletes' movements while keeping watch over the entire pitch."

    Two to three members selected from each school will participate in the event. The six teams, split into two groups of three, will first compete in an all-play-all tournament within their respective groups to determine the top two schools from each group to proceed to the finals. "I would like to make the esports tournament an opportunity for growth in preparation for future matches," said Ikai.

    Diversity head Hayashi expressed his desire to see heated competition, saying, "I'd like for the athletes to play to their hearts' content and perform well."

    Meanwhile, the preliminary rounds of regional matches for the All Japan High School Soccer Tournament have started in Fukuoka Prefecture. Houkoku Gakuen High School and Fukusho High School have won the first round and proceeded to prefectural matches.

    (Japanese original by Hiroya Miyagi, Kyushu News Department)

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