With 'e - Sports' Gaining In Popularity, Video Gamers Go Professional

With 'e-sports' gaining in popularity, video gamers go professionalWith the dimly lit venue illuminated in red and blue lighting, players made their entrances as their names were announced over the microphone.
The whole scene was reminiscent of a mixed martial arts match.
Instead, it was a cash prize electronic sports competition for a popular online game that was being held in late March in Tokyo's Akihabara district.

Staring at their personal computers with intense looks on their faces, each video gamer swiftly pounded the keyboard and wiggled the mouse to control a character on the computer screen as they battled it out.

A team of five players collaborated with each other to launch attacks into enemy territory. The battle was projected on large monitors, provided with live commentary on the game as it progressed.

"The fervor is so intense. It feels the same as going to a soccer game or any other sporting event," said a 19-year-old college student from Yokohama, who sat in the front row of the venue with his friend to watch an e-sports competition for the first time.

A total of about 800 spectators who gathered for the event cheered loudly every time a high-level attack technique was performed. Another 130,000 fans watched the event, streamed live on a video-sharing website.

The winning team was given a cash prize of 200,000 yen ($1,655).

Thanks to the increasing popularity of e-sports, which are widely accepted as a part of competitive gaming rather than as a hobby or for fun, "cyber-athletes," who earn paychecks, have emerged in Japan.

The term e-sports describes video gaming competitions in soccer, fighting, first-person shooting and the like, entered by individuals or teams in the same vein as actual competition in soccer, baseball and other sports.

A professional e-sports team paid on a monthly salary basis was recently formed. DetonatioN FocusMe is an online game team composed of six men ranging in age from 18 to 24. They have been living together since mid-February in a rented two-story house with a basement in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture. The team manager also lives under the same roof.

A total of eight personal computers are set up in the living room, with a whiteboard showing the training regimen for the day. They practice about 10 hours a day to participate in tournaments held at home and abroad. They receive a monthly salary equivalent to slightly less than the average starting salary for a high school graduate.

Rent, utilities and meals are covered by the team. Sponsorships from manufacturers of personal computers and peripherals, as well as other income, provide seed money.

"We thought it was necessary to create an environment where players could get a steady flow of income and concentrate on gaming if we want to nurture professionals who can compete globally," said Nobuyuki Umezaki, who manages the team.

The Tokyo School of Anime is set to offer a major to train professional gamers starting from April 2016.

Students will attend at least 900 hours of classes per year for a fee of 1.46 million yen, including tuition and other expenses. They will learn gaming techniques and strategies in a special classroom equipped with 10 gaming PCs, in addition to tips on self-management skills as a professional player and even how to give an interview after winning a competition.

There will also be a course specializing in developing human resources who can plan and run e-sports competitions.

"These are jobs that are not familiar in Japan, but we want to nurture human resources who can play an active role in the e-sports industry," a spokesperson said.

When it comes to games in Japan, home-use gaming consoles developed by Nintendo Co., Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. (SCE) and other companies since the 1980s were the main impetus. In the meantime, e-sports were beginning to become popular in the late 1990s in Europe, the United States and South Korea. Japanese game companies did an about-face to capitalize on the popularity of e-sports in overseas markets to stimulate the domestic market.

It is only over the past few years that e-sports competitions offering cash prizes became an increasing presence in Japan.

Since 2013, Capcom Co. has been organizing a series of "Street Fighter" tournaments across the world. Square Enix Co. also has been holding cash prize competitions at regular intervals since 2013. In 2014, Sega launched its first national cash prize competition while a dedicated e-sports facility, E-Sports Square, opened in Akihabara.

Tokyo Metropolitan Television Broadcasting Corp. is currently airing "E-Sports Max," which provides the latest information from home and abroad.

This year, SCE is increasing the number of competitions held in Japan. Capcom is offering a total of $500,000 in cash prizes for its world tournaments, including the Tokyo round, in 2015.

"We'll make a major e-sports title that stands on a par with 'Dragon Quest' and 'Final Fantasy,' " said Square Enix President Yosuke Matsuda.

The Olympic Council of Asia included e-sports as an official event for its indoor games competition in 2007.

There are professional e-sports leagues in South Korea, the United States and elsewhere. Last year, a U.S. tournament exceeded the equivalent of 1 billion yen for the overall prize pool.