Top e-Sports players traded digital blows at a show in Tokyo Thursday as laggard Japan moves to up its game in the booming spectator draw now worth billions of dollars annually.
Scantily clad women hawking games and virtual reality operators will also compete for the attention of some 250,000 mostly male visitors expected to turn up at the four-day Tokyo Game Show, which kicked off Thursday.
But e-Sports – multiplayer computer games played in front of spectators – took centre stage for the first time at the annual event, as the best of the best faced off in games like Street Fighter V and on virtual battlegrounds.
They may not have household names like Ronaldo or Beckham quite yet, but e-Sport champions are winning superstar status these days with hundreds of millions of people around the world jumping into the action.
Top players can make millions in prize money alone from tournaments played at packed stadiums in front of up to 50,000 spectators.
They’ll be a full medal sport at the 2022 Asian Games in China, while the newly minted Asian e-Sports Federation president Kenneth Fok is shooting for a spot at the Olympics.
Despite their soaring popularity in North America and parts of Asia, e-Sports are only now taking off in Japan, home to videogame heavyweights Sony and Nintendo.
Operating restrictions on public gaming and prize money limits have held back growth in the videogame-crazy nation, but top billing at the Tokyo show could punt eSports to the next level, industry insiders said.
“I hope Japanese people will eventually see that winning prize money and making a living out of this as a pro is just as great as being a tennis player like (Kei) Nishikori or other professionals,” said Taichi Shibuki, chairman of game company JPPVR.
“Not many people here even know the word e-Sports. But this (show) could drastically change things.”
Unlike traditional separations for gender and physical disabilities, e-Sports can be played under “equal conditions”, he added.
“It doesn’t matter if you are a man, a woman, young or old, or if you’re physically disabled,” Shibuki said.
“It’s a field where everyone can compete with an equal shot.”
The Tokyo show will host more than 600 exhibitors with everything from virtual romance and digital puzzles to shoot-em-up games and role-playing adventures on offer.