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Can Japan's rapidly expanding esports culture go mainstream?

Students are seen with serious expressions as they play in the All Japan High School Esports Championship, in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, in December 2019. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Maruyama)

TOKYO -- Esports competitive gaming is growing in popularity, with some 100 million players worldwide concentrated particularly in the U.S., Europe and South Korea. In Japan, too, the activity's base is gradually expanding, with more and more high schools offering students courses studying esports. The Mainichi Shimbun went to find out more about esports' current state in Japan.

    Mitsuasa Kudo is a third-year student doing an esports course at the correspondence school Renaissance High School Shinjuku Yoyogi Campus in the capital's Shibuya Ward. When he joined the school, he said he was "surprised I could play games for a class."

    He comes to school twice a week to do video game training, under the instruction of a former pro player. The course started at the campus in April 2019, and the number of students increased quickly to now stand at some 100 people, about 10 times the number enrolled in the first school year.

    His school came third at the third edition of the All Japan High School Esports Championship held in 2020 school year and sponsored by companies including The Mainichi Newspapers Co. A record 194 schools and 346 teams entered, and schools including the 2020 champion, the correspondence-based N High School, and high school baseball powerhouse Sendai Ikuei Gakuen have esports clubs.

    Esports is even used in welfare activities. At tech firm S2 in the northwest Japan city of Akita, the company has been recruiting members to set up a professional team of elderly gamers -- a cohort typically thought of having little to do with video games. Already 14 people aged between 62 and 72 have applied since June, and practice sessions at a facility prepared by the company are starting.

    Academia, a company based in the west Japan city of Osaka, opened an office in 2020 for transition support to employment for people with disabilities who are interested in gaming. The office teaches skills including communication via video games and how to assemble computers to help the individuals find work related to the esports industry and related event businesses, among other companies, which they may be compatible with.

    A manager at Academia's facility said, "It's important to make connections with the things you enjoy and work. Through esports, people can find the will to face the training to try and find a job."

    But others are deeply concerned about game addiction. Public health professor Hideyuki Kanda of the Medical School at Okayama University became the team doctor for the esports club at Okayamaken Kyousei High School in the prefectural city of Niimi. Kanda checks on the students' health and other factors while offering them advice.

    Regarding game addiction, Kanda said, "When too much priority is given to gaming, it seriously affects home and school life. There are many cases where the individual doesn't realize they're dependent on them." As a preventative, he suggests: "It's important not to be neglectful in doing the things you should be."

    He says that at the school, students who are continually late handing in assignments or who see steady falls in their grades can be made to stop competing on doctor's orders. To reduce pain affecting areas including the neck, wrists and back -- as well as tired eyes from looking at screens for long periods -- massages and exercise time are also set out for team members. Kanda stressed: "Esports are in their infancy. In the future, there needs to be a framework to ensure physical and mental care so that the activity can take root as a culture."

    The market for esports worldwide has exceeded 100 billion yen (over some $915 million), and it is expanding in Japan, too. Esports researchers at Kadokawa ASCII Research Laboratories say that in 2018, referred to as esports' inaugural year, when a number of pro teams emerged, the sector was worth some 4.8 billion yen (around $44 million). As of this year, it is now thought to be worth about 8.7 billion yen (some $80 million), and in three years from now in 2024 it is expected to reach 18.4 billion yen (around $169 million).

    The number of fans watching tournaments from video or by spectating live is twice what it was in 2018, and is predicted to exceed 7.96 million people. Mitsunobu Uwatoko, an employee at Kadokawa Laboratories, said, "The effect of the coronavirus has dulled it, but the expansion of the esports market is remarkable. We're expecting further progress with the wider uptake of fifth generation (5G) wireless networks."

    There are almost no tournaments in Japan offering prize money exceeding 100 million yen, but contests abroad are notable for their massive financial rewards. Total prize money for the 2019 world championships for the popular game "Dota 2" came to a total of around 3.6 billion (some $33 million). In the same year, a 16-year-old player came away with $3 million at a "Fortnite" championship.

    A senior esports management official told the Mainichi Shimbun, "It seems there are almost no teams in Japan making it as a business." According to figures collected by the Japan esports Union and current to 2018, Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball market is worth some 180 billion yen (about $1.65 billion), while J-League soccer is worth around 125.7 billion yen (some $1.15 billion), and the Japan Professional Basketball League is at about 30.3 billion yen (around $277.5 million). Yusuke Momochi, a professional "Street Fighter" fighting game player who has won world championships, says there are "few players who make a living as pros."

    Kadokawa Laboratories' Uwatoko said, "It's still at a development stage. It will improve as the playing population rises."

    (Japanese original by Shusaku Sugimoto, Sports Project Department)

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