Hokkaido, a pioneer in esports, draws fans and pro teams

With the rapidly growing popularity of esports, more and more people are watching tournaments and matches online, expanding the size of the market.

Hokkaido is no exception to the boom, with professional teams sprouting up one after another in anticipation of further growth and the Hokkaido Esports Festival — a major event (organized by the Hokkaido Esports Association whose members include the Hokkaido Shimbun) — recently hosting its second annual gathering.

A student pro

Sota Muratsubaki, 22, a second-year student at Hokkaido High-Technology College in the city of Eniwa, joined pro esports team Northeption last year and has competed in the country’s top pro league. He received an annual pay of ¥3.5 million from NTT Docomo Inc., the organizer of the league.

Sota Muratsubaki, a professional esports player, speaks at his home in Eniwa, Hokkaido.

“Good teamwork is the most important thing, and you also need a strong mentality. In that sense, it’s no different from physical sports,” says Muratsubaki, who was a high school baseball player and, having participated in the Northern Hokkaido Baseball Tournament from his school in Asahikawa, knows a thing or two about teamwork.

In the pro league, Muratsubaki’s team took part in an online shooting game that involved 5-on-5 indoor battles. The game involves players communicating with each other to carry out battle strategies and fight flexibly. Each team took part in 14 matches between March and September last year, and his team placed seventh out of eight teams.

Having joined the team in the middle of the season, Muratsubaki realized he wasn’t up to the level of the league. “I wasn’t able to play as good as I thought I would,” he said. To improve his skills, he now practices for eight to 12 hours a day.

Muratsubaki first encountered esports when he started watching them in his spare time after graduating from high school while striving to become a firefighter. He was immediately fascinated by esports and enrolled in Hokkaido High-Technology College so that he could pursue a career as a professional gamer or an IT engineer.

The venue he competes in for the professional league is his own apartment in Eniwa. With a fiber-optic cable and a computer, he can participate in the league with Japan’s top players from anywhere, which is a unique feature of esports.

Cross-industry interests

The pro team Northeption, of which Muratsubaki is a member, was established in 2019 by Kazuhiro Owa, 45, president of Sapporo Bike Ashiba Co., a scaffolding company in Sapporo.

“There is no guarantee that our main business will continue to expand in five to 10 years. I was looking for something to expand our business on and I found esports as a growing industry,” Owa said.

Currently, the company has business contracts with 15 people, including players and video distributors, for four esports game titles. The company has also hired five people to act as team managers.

The team’s income sources include tournament prize money, sponsorship, sales of original goods and sales of PCs made in collaboration with gaming PC brands.

“To be honest, we were out of pocket by a lot at first. Now, merchandise sales are growing, and we’re finally in the black on our balance sheet,” Owa said.

Once the esports business starts to contribute to the company’s group profit, Owa wants to make esports one of the career tracks for his employees. “We can use this as a way to help our employees develop their careers by transferring them from their main jobs.”

Besides Owa’s company, Levanga Hokkaido, a professional basketball team, and Koshido, a Sapporo-based real estate company, are also running professional esports teams in Hokkaido.

Koshido, which also fields drivers to compete in actual car races, established a professional esports racing team called Koshido Eracing in 2020. Last March, the company opened a hotel in Sapporo targeting esports fans.

The hotel is equipped with high-performance PCs and racing game controllers with steering wheels and gas pedals in the rooms. With a reservation, professional players from the team will teach the guests how to play, and some people living far away are booking the hotel for that purpose, the company says.

Motoharu Sato, 46, president of the company, said, “It is difficult for an esports team to turn a profit on its own, but we want to boost the entire subculture, including esports, and make it profitable.” The company has created an official mascot wearing the team’s racing suit and opened an official YouTube channel featuring the character. The company plans to promote esports and the hotel on the channel.

A pioneer

Outside of Tokyo, Hokkaido is one of the pioneers of esports in Japan, along with Osaka and Toyama prefectures, says Masaru Kawahara, 43, a lecturer at the Department of Information and Media at Hokkaido Information University.

Behind the success of esports in Hokkaido are various promotional activities and institutions that gamers can take advantage of, such as the Hokkaido Esports Festival and other events, the Hokkaido Esports Association, and esports courses offered at vocational schools, Kawahara said.

The esports market is growing rapidly in Japan as a whole, even during the coronavirus pandemic, he said, adding that the key to further growth will be to increase the number of fans.

“To achieve this, it will be important to improve the environment by increasing the number of multifunctional PCs at educational institutions and promoting activities for children,” he said.

Ever-expanding market

According to game information outlet Famitsu, the esports market size in Japan was ¥6.68 billion in 2020 and it is expected to grow to ¥18.4 billion in 2024. The number of domestic fans who watch tournaments online or watch video streams of professional gamers playing on their own is expected to more than double to 14.61 million in 2024 from 6.86 million in 2020.

Esports are spreading rapidly around the world as well, with about 130 million players worldwide, which is more players than two sporting mainstays like tennis or baseball can muster.

The bigger the tournament, the bigger the prize money. The prize money earned by top Japanese professionals when they win the world championships is about ¥110 million. Some of the top overseas professionals earn more than ¥600 million a year by distributing videos of themselves playing, in addition to the prize money from tournaments.

According to a 2021 survey by Sony Life Insurance Co., professional gamer came second after YouTuber as a future dream job among male junior high school students. These choices came ahead of corporate executives and entrepreneurs, which placed third, and professional athletes, which came in sixth.

“Children watch YouTube more than TV, which probably means that they are more familiar with professional esports players who broadcast their videos,” Kawahara of Hokkaido Information University said.

The International Olympic Committee has considered adding esports to the Olympics as it can no longer ignore the rapidly expanding market. At its general meeting in March last year, the IOC changed its direction from its focus on the danger of addiction to a possible adoption of “physical virtual sports” that involve physical activities in online competition.

Masashi Abe, a gold medalist at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics and chairman of the Hokkaido Esports Association, said, “There is a good chance that esports will be adopted in the Olympics in the future.” Esports has been officially adopted by the Asian Games to be held in China in September.

Hokuto Sakamoto, a student at Sapporo College of Design & Technology, discusses his dream of starting a business in esports.

High hurdles

In 2017, Hokkaido High-Technology College became the first school in Hokkaido to introduce an esports major course. The school invested about ¥20 million in facilities, including the renovation of rooms dedicated to esports, the installation of high-performance PCs and special chairs for the games.

In addition to gaming, the school offers classes on programming, simple game creation, basic graphic design, proposal creation and presentation, and internships at companies to prepare students for careers in the IT industry.

A total of 27 students have graduated since the launch of the esports major, and there are 41 students currently in their first and second years. Of these, Muratsubaki of Northeption is the first professional gamer who is able to live solely on his income from esports.

The hurdles are high for aspiring students to become professional players, but more and more young people are applying for the school with the dream of one day becoming a star player.

Daichi Maruko, 20, a second-year student at the school, was one such youngster aspiring to become a pro. When he was a high school student in Chitose, he joined an amateur esports team.

“I got nervous at tournaments and thought I wasn’t fit for this,” he said. Hoping to utilize his skills and knowledge acquired during his two years at college, he will start working in April at a company in Saitama Prefecture that supports the opening of esports facilities.

“In the future, I would like to run an esports facility in Chitose,” he said, adding that he plans to focus on promoting esports.

Hokuto Sakamoto, 24, a third-year student at Sapporo Collage of Design & Technology, learned about esports in his second year of high school. He played for a professional team for about six months when he was a second-year student at Hokkai-Gakuen University but left the team after the division he belonged to was disbanded.

Wanting to eventually start a business in the field of esports, Sakamoto quit the university in his third year, and enrolled in Sapporo Collage of Design & Technology in 2019 as one of the first students in its newly established esports professional gamer course.

This spring, Sakamoto will join a company in Sapporo that operates programming courses for students from elementary to high school. He will work as an esports instructor at an after-school facility for elementary and junior high school students. The facility will be equipped with several high-performance computers, and Sakamoto will be helping children learn teamwork and other skills through esports.

“I want to hold esports tournaments at the facility and let the students manage some of the tournaments,” he said. “In the future, I would like to manage an esports team and run a restaurant where fans can get together.”

Tomohiko Shirasaka, head of the mental health department at Teine Keijinkai Hospital in Sapporo, speaks about gaming disorder.

When discussing whether to adopt esports in the Olympics, the issue of addiction came up. In 2019, the World Health Organization recognized “gaming disorder” as a new form of addiction, akin to addictions to alcohol, drugs and gambling, and officially added it to its list of addictions this year.

Gaming disorder as defined by the WHO includes:

1. Impaired control over gaming.
2. Increasing priority given to gaming over other interests and daily activities.
3. Continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.
4. Significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
All of these have to be evident for at least 12 months to receive an official diagnosis.

Is there a risk that esports may lead to addiction? Takanobu Matsuzaki, 48, head of the psychiatry department at Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center, said some of his patients who were aspiring to become professional esports players became unable to stop playing games.

“However, when I meet professional esports players, I find that they are able to control their gaming time very well. In other words, if you cannot control your gaming time, you cannot become a professional player,” he said.

“It won’t do any good if you take away a game console from a person who has become addicted, and at this point, no effective medicine has been developed,” Matsuzaki said. “That’s why it’s important to prevent people from becoming addicted.”

He pointed out that rules must be made within a family, such as when and where to play games and what takes priority in life, before giving gaming devices, including smartphones and computers, to children.

Tomohiko Shirasaka, 44, head of the mental health department at Teine Keijinkai Hospital in Sapporo, says that in order to prevent addiction, “the later the better” is a good rule of thumb when considering giving children electronic devices.

According to Shirasaka, the younger a child is given an electronic device, the more likely the child is to develop an internet addiction or gaming disorder.

Shirasaka warns that smartphones can easily become a gateway to addiction because of their easy access to the internet and portability. He recommends that parents look up the “18-point contract” or a set of 18 rules that was made by an American mother when she bought her child their first smartphone.

“It’s all about digital literacy. You can find it on the internet, so I hope you will find it useful,” he said.

Some excerpts from the 18-point contract are:

・ I will always know the password.
・ If it rings, answer it. It is a phone. Do not ever ignore a phone call if the screen reads “Mom” or “Dad.”
・ Do not text, email, or say anything through this device you would not say in person.
・ Leave your phone home sometimes and feel safe and secure in that decision.
・ You will mess up. I will take away your phone.