Licensed to Play: How Japan’s Pro Gaming Licenses Are Affecting Asia’s FGC

Zeku and Akuma fighting.

The newly revised Capcom Pro Tour follows the company’s recent statement declaring 2018 as “year one” of eSports for their competitive titles. They aren’t alone in this attempt, either: the Japanese eSports Union (JeSU) has likewise doubled endeavors to get Japan’s eSports ball rolling. JeSU is making moves to skirt around the country’s strict gambling laws, which affect winners’ payouts for esports tournaments. Currently, these laws protect against “unjustifiable premiums and misleading representations,” capping all cash prizes at 100,000 yen ($895).

To remedy this, several esports groups seek to separate professional players from the fodder by providing them with official licenses in the hopes that it will legitimize competition in the eyes of the law. However, top players are raising a fair question to the issue: What makes a gamer a “professional?”

“Why does a newly formed, specialized group have the right to ‘define what a pro gamer is?’”

This powerful question, raised by Echo Fox|Momochi, comes in response these new developments and challenges the merit of these licenses. “I think the fact that we are even respected as professionals is because of the power of the ‘community’ and ‘all of the players,’” Momochi stated in his op-ed on the matter. “Therefore, to ignore the people who one-by-one built up the value of a ‘pro gamer’ in Japan, decide on the ‘License System’ in some unknown conference room, then come out and arbitrarily make an announcement to the community and players … I feel like this way of doing things is in no way sincere, and it is difficult to feel any sort of affection for games or the people involved.”

The limitations of esports licenses

The Japanese Esports Union recently published a statement outlining the requirements of projected gaming professionals, which maintained that those deserving of the licenses must possess a “self-awareness of being a professional, demonstrate sportsmanship when playing, be dedicated to outstanding results in JESU-officially recognized titles, and contribute to the development of domestic esports.” It is no wonder that some players are confused at their definition.

This ambiguous classification could outline anyone passionate about competitive gaming, as well as potentially derail the efforts of up-and-coming players by restricting the talent pool to a handful of already well-known esports personalities. “…There are many players who are not professionals but are just as strong as the pro-gamers,” Momochi stated. “Thinking like this, there is a likelihood that this this system will just create an ambiguous boundary between the groups.”

The point of question in tournament payouts lies within Japan’s views on company sponsorship. Game companies themselves are limited from directly contributing to prize pools, as their monetary involvement could be construed as a means of advertisement. Entry fees are likewise hindered from contributing to earnings, as this could be considered gambling. This leaves winnings to the devices of outside sponsors, who have already provided several million yen for various events.

However, licensing might not provide a complete answer to the country’s esports problem: currently, the licenses are available for a limited list of games, including Street Fighter V, Tekken 7, Winning Eleven 2018, Call of Duty: WWII, Puzzle & Dragons, and Monster Strike. Furthermore, these licenses are only good for two years, and holders must sign a written pledge as well as complete a training course. Combined with JESU’s vague definition of pro-gamers, this program appears to further limit an already restricted industry in the name of legitimacy.

Asia’s shared esports regulations

Japan isn’t the only Asian country to place strict regulations on its esports environment. The Philippines were recently in the news for a similar licensing initiative, wherein ‘professional’ players must register to compete for cash, whether they are citizens of the island nation or not. However, the Philippines’ and Japan’s definitions of “pro” spark an intriguing difference: players looking to compete in the Philippines must provide solid proof of membership with a professional esports organization, while JeSU’s classification only requires players demonstrate an “awareness” of being a professional.

In the Philippines’ case, sponsors recommend esports athletes to the union based on their tournament performance or contributions to their respective scenes. While Japan’s system appears to be largely based on merit and the opinion of sponsoring companies, the Philippines Games and Amusement Board necessitates involvement with professional teams. However, this is only true for their major tournaments: Those with prize pools under 10,000 pesos are not considered “professional” events, and thus do not fall under the GAB’s jurisdiction, allowing anyone to compete.

Fighting for the FGC’s philosophy

Despite these countries’ regulations, competitive gaming continues to thrive in the region and will even make an appearance in the 2022 Asian Games. With esports set to become a $1.5 billion industry by 2020, its involvement in major sporting competitions is expected to grow across the world. Tournaments in Japan have already provided generous winnings when all the right conditions are met: Toukaigi, a recent fighting game event, promised the equivalent of $18,000 to its SFV first place contender — more than two times the winnings for Evo Japan.

These massive sign boards could further kick-start Asia’s esports development by providing some form of legitimacy to an industry that is still searching for societal acceptance. The contrast in its treatment between the East and West is still glaring, however prize pools range in the millions for titles like DoTA, as seen in last year’s International in Seattle. This is a stark contrast to the recent debacle seen at Toukaigi: Due to legal concerns, the tournament initially withheld the winners’ funds.

These concerns actually fell under Japanese morality law, wherein the defining barrier between esports and legality lies. This concept, called Fueiho, intends to keep local communities in good standing, and was also responsible for the switch in venues at Evo Japan. Although it appears that JeSU is listening to concerns and is willing to work with the community, anxieties still abound that Japan will see more invitational tournaments than open-entry competitions, and the CPT’s newest format is doing little to allay this fear.

The spirit of the FGC lies in the belief that anyone can enter a tournament with an equal chance to win. It’s no secret that players who lack travel opportunities can still prove to be silent killers in pools. Therein rests Momochi’s argument against Japan’s classification of gaming professionals: it limits the chances of those who lack exposure points. This view led him to decline an esports license, as well as create the subsequent publication of his views on the matter. After all, his school, “Shinobism,” offers newcomers the chance to “get good,” and become those hidden sharks in the pools’ murky waters.

This isn’t the first time that morality and gaming have gone head-to-head. Public opinion and video games haven’t always mixed perfectly, but, against the odds, it has managed to blossom into a massive outfit. Japan’s cultural views on esports aren’t likely to change overnight, but with the effort of dedicated community members like Momochi, it just might shift for the positive. “ … this current state of industry in this country shows that the one-sided way of doing things has led to, ‘esports in Japan not flourishing,’” he expressed. “Therefore, I am hoping that both parties can meet halfway, and together we can create a brighter future.”