Shinzo Abe's Party Wants Japan Ready for Video Games in Olympics

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Attendees play Activision Blizzard's Overwatch computer game at the AOC Open esports event in Tokyo last July.
Attendees play Activision Blizzard's Overwatch computer game at the AOC Open esports event in Tokyo last July.  Credit: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

Japan's ruling party wants to legalize professional gaming tournaments, joining a groundswell that started last summer amid speculation that video games will become an Olympic medal sport by 2024.

Arcane laws meant to stop illegal gambling have prevented paid video game tournaments in Japan, stunting the domestic market even as esports has become a multibillion-dollar global industry. Over the past few months, negotiations between four esports groups and Japan's consumer protection agency have yielded a workaround to exempt professional gamers from the rules.

Takeo Kawamura, a lawmaker from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, said the ruling party might be willing to go further, by amending laws to ensure people's rights to earn a living playing games. The goal, he said, is to remove impediments and make it possible to win Olympic medals someday.

"If we need more legal wiggle room to hold tournaments, we can use a special law or other provisions as needed," Kawamura said in an interview this week. "Once we have a gold medalist like, say, Daichi Suzuki, then people will begin to see" that video games are a sport, he said, referring to the celebrated Japanese swimmer.

Competitive gaming is still finding its footing in Japan, but globally it's already a huge business. By 2020, total revenue from esports will reach $5 billion annually, almost as much as the world's biggest soccer league today, according to market researcher Activate. Tournaments in China and South Korea routinely draw tens of thousands of spectators.

Japan is quickly laying the groundwork to catch up. At the Olympic committee's urging, the four esports industry groups announced in September that they're merging to lobby more effectively for paid gaming. In November, lawmakers from both the LDP and the opposition formed a coalition supporting esports, with Kawamura as its chairman. Then the following month, the industry announced plans to start issuing licenses to exempt professionals from gambling laws, similar to Japan's approach to professional golf, baseball and tennis players.

Japan's first video game tournament to make use of the new licenses will be held Feb. 9 to 11 at the Makuhari Messe convention center near Tokyo. Konami Holdings Corp., Mixi Inc. and three other local companies will supply the game titles. Prizes have yet to be announced.

Competitive gaming is gaining more legitimacy by being included in international sporting events. This summer's Asian Games in Jakarta will hold exhibition esports tournaments alongside swimming, soccer, and track and field. At the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, video games will be a medal sport. Organizers of the 2024 Paris Olympics say they're also open to the idea.

Esports won't be part of Tokyo's 2020 summer games, but Kawamura said Japan's Olympic Committee and the Tokyo city government have signed off on holding huge tournaments in the runup to the games.

"We want to hold an international tournament as soon as possible," he said. "If esports becomes an Olympic medal sport, we must field a strong Japanese team."

-- Bloomberg News

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