Rise of the Japan eSports Union

Akihabara News (Tokyo) — The Covid-19 pandemic may have slowed the rise of the Japan eSports Union (JeSU), but all indications are that it has not stopped it.

Indeed, even while institutional development was frozen for several months during Japan’s state of emergency, many Japanese spent more time during the soft lockdown playing video games and reconnecting with online hobbies, possibly increasing interest going forward.

JeSU was established in February 2018 through the merger of three organizations—the Japan Esports Association, the Esports Promotion Organization, and the Japan Esports Federation—in alliance with two other organizations, the Computer Entertainment Supplier’s Association (CESA) and the Japan Online Gaming Association (JOGA).

The initiative driving this consolidation, however, actually came from the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC), which advised the disparate esports groups that they needed to unite if Japan were to make an effective application for Japanese esports involvement in the Olympics. Indeed, the united JeSU is now able to participate in the Esports Liaison Group (ELG) which is discussing the prospects for adding esports to the Olympics in future years.

Meanwhile, JeSU has been moving forward with its efforts to both expand and professionalize Japan’s esports community.

At present, JeSU has designated official representatives of their organization in 22 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, and they expect to reach 30 within a few months, after screening various local applicant bodies.

In an exclusive interview with Akihabara News, JeSU’s Director of the International Committee Akihito Furusawa, who also runs his own esports production company called RIZeST, explained that one element that makes JeSU unique among the various national esports organizations around the world is the fact that it brings together both the professional athletes’ organization with the technology firms that produce many of the popular competitive games, the holders of the IP.

Furusawa also explains that JeSU’s most important role to date has been the establishment of a licensing system for professional esports athletes. So far, more than two hundred licenses have been issued to many of Japan’s most talented esports competitors.

In fact, it was this licensing system that created the most controversy around JeSU. The initial reaction from Japan’s pre-existing community of gamers and esports athletes was one of deep suspicion. Many were worried that big companies were swooping into the field with the intent of shutting down the freedom of the gamers and taking all of the benefits for themselves. The most notable critic was the respected esports athlete Yusuke Momochi, who spoke for many when he declared that the community’s voice wasn’t being heard by JeSU and that that gamers were being disrespected.

Furusawa acknowledges that JeSU initially failed to take the time that was needed to communicate with the players’ communities. “We didn’t have enough discussion,” he concludes.

However, during the course of last year JeSU engaged in a more intensive discussion with the skeptics and reassured them that the organization’s role was not to limit anyone’s freedom, but rather to support and strengthen Japan’s esports community. By December 2019, these efforts bore fruit when leading critic Yusuke Momochi himself agreed to become a licensed player under JeSU’s system.

In the meantime, JeSU has been conducting the lower profile but important work of professionalizing its licensees, educating these often very young athletes how to conduct themselves with the media, how to pay their taxes, and basically how to behave as esports professionals.

In this context, another challenge that JeSU is still facing are difficulties with Japanese government regulation of esports, which have several aspects that obstruct its development.

The most knotty of these unresolved issues regards the prize money given to winners of esports tournaments. Large prize awards (over ¥100,000) have been deemed to violate advertising laws, and there are also questions about how players should receive their money and report it for taxation purposes. JeSU’s licensing system was intended to help resolve this matter, but it is not clear if the government authorities are entirely on board with its proposed solutions.

One area in which JeSU has enjoyed smoother sailing is the expansion and promotion of Japanese esports internationally. It has joined two groups, the International Esports Federation (IESF), established in 2008, and the much newer Global Esports Federation (GEF), established last December. In both cases, Furusawa explains, JeSU’s objective is to “maximize opportunities for Japanese players” in joining international tournaments, as well to give additional exposure for Japanese IP.

Both JeSU and the wider Japanese esports community are still in their infancy from an institutional point of view. While esports cafes have existed in Japan for about a decade, there are still very few of them. Most larger scale venues, like the multi-purpose esports facility that NTT is building in Akihabara, have yet to open.

Nevertheless, JeSU members, as well as independent outfits like JCG, PlayBrain, and Furusawa’s own RIZeST, are all gearing up to put Japanese esports on the map, both nationally and internationally.

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