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DetonatioN Gaming: Japan's Vanguard

“If we fail to establish Japanese eSports here and now, there is no future for the scene.”

These words seem strange when taken in isolation. After all, the history of competitive gaming in Japan stretches back decades and fighting game legend Daigo Umehara is a strong contender for “greatest eSports player of all time.” But the seriousness in Nobuyuki “LGraN” Umezaki's voice is unmistakable. The manager and CEO of Japan's largest competitive gaming team, DetonatioN Gaming, Umezaki and his colleagues stand at the forefront of a cultural undertaking years in the making. Japanese eSports is about to explode, and DetonatioN are the ones at ground zero.

From failure's ashes

Umezaki's career began as a Counter-Strike player. At almost thirty years old, he was already long past the point at which most players have hung up their mice for good. And yet, he still had one thing left he dreamed of accomplishing: competing against the rest of the world at an international tournament. Enter DetonatioN, a team put together with the goal of reaching the world stage. In December of 2012, that goal became a reality as his team managed to qualify for the World Cyber Games in China. Finally, a chance to take on the world was in his grasp.

The world was cold and unforgiving. DetonatioN was crushed. “We were last place,” Umezaki remembers, “We were laughed at by teams from other countries, saying 'Oh what, so they've got eSports in Japan too?'” Devastated but determined, Umezaki was ready to refocus and try again next year. But one of the corporate representatives who traveled with him had another idea. “You're getting on in years, so in order to continue operating in this industry you should move over to the management side. There aren't nearly enough people there.” he told him. Taking that advice to heart, Umezaki resolved to build a team that would be able to face the world in his place. At the end of December, he officially retired as a player.

Lighting the fuse

His decision meant diving into uncharted territory. “To be perfectly honest, Japanese eSports had zero trust from local companies,” he relates. PC gaming is a completely different market than the arcade and console centered world of fighting games, and Japan's limited success and market penetration in the former made pro team sponsorship a tough sell. Even in the latter, only a precious few players were able to make their living off gaming. Umezaki began cold-calling companies he had a hunch would be interested, and luckily GIGABYTE took him up on the idea. That was the chance he needed.

“That sponsorship gave us the ability to start thinking about building new teams, in games like LoL and StarCraft. And if the teams increase in number, we're able to reach the LoL community, or the StarCraft community as well. At the time, being only a Counter-Strike team was as good as a death sentence. There was no promotional value. And by bringing in new teams, we could show ourselves as much larger to sponsors – allowing us to gather more. That allows us to attract even better people to our team. We aimed to keep that circle going.”

DetonatioN wasn't the only team in Japan to try and get off the ground, but they certainly found the most success. Umezaki credits that to two things: the way he defines “professional,” and his personal experience. “I'm always thinking about how I can get our players to succeed on the world stage, and how they can make a living. At first it was that passion that I showed to companies,” he explains, “The second is the fact that I started out working in business. If I can brag a bit, I was a top salesman. So to put it simply, I was a player so I understand the players' feelings. And I worked in the corporate world, so I understand the companies' feelings. And I know the fans' feelings. So I'm very good at communicating between them and created a lot of connections. I think that's what separates us from other teams. Just look at them – they're made up of very young people with little real-world experience.”

These new sponsorships allowed DetonatioN to grow beyond Counter-Strike to support new games. The first game they added was League of Legends, creating a team called DetonatioN FocusMe. They kept adding games from there, and by the end of 2014 DetonatioN had brought on players in World of Tanks, StarCraft II, Super Smash Brothers, Battlefield 4, and even a second League of Legends team. While all of their teams had some measure of success, it was FocusMe that brought the team to the world stage once again.

Set to explode

Japan has always had a fairly large underground League of Legends playerbase, in spite of not having a server of their own. It wasn't unheard of for a Japanese player to reach the upper echelons of the North American solo queue rankings, but a truly competitive Japanese team had yet to form out of their small online tournaments. At the end of 2013, the League of Legends Japan League (LJL) was formed as the Japanese answer to the foreign LCS – a way for the top Japanese talent to compete in a real league. DetonatioN FocusMe was one of the teams that competed in their inaugural season. And they came in dead last.

This time, however, there was more to the story. The team came back together, made adjustments, and took home the 2014 Spring championship. And the 2014 Summer championship. Then the 2014 Grand Championship, held live at Tokyo Game Show in front of a huge crowd. At that same show, Riot Games announced their plans to formally open a Japanese server. With that announcement came the expansion of the LJL, and promised the winner of the 2015 season a chance to compete at the International Wild Card tournament: a path to the World Championship stage and the millions of screaming fans that came with it. For Umezaki and his team, this was an opportunity impossible to ignore.

So going into 2015, Umezaki took the plunge: he announced that FocusMe would become the first full-time, fully salaried pro-gaming team in Japan and moved them into a gaming house just outside of Tokyo. And that got them noticed. Media requests started pouring in from all over. FocusMe started appearing on television and in the newspaper. The word “eSports,” unheard of in Umezaki's Counter-Strike days, started to pop up all over the place. Meanwhile, FocusMe crushed the competition in 2015's first season and headed off to Turkey to compete with teams from all over the world.

And yet again, they came in dead last. Only able to take home a single win, their results were little different than Umezaki's own. Even back home, the local fans brutally mocked them online for their failures – a compilation of their worst plays at the tournament has more views than the matches themselves. However, the mainstream reaction couldn't have been more different. Whether because the Japanese server was on its way or because the international eSports scene had become too large to ignore, things were different now. Internet trolls be damned, FocusMe came home as the shining stars of Japanese eSports.

Fanning the flames

FocusMe returned to an LJL full of teams attempting to follow in their footsteps, establishing gaming houses and moving to go full time. They were even dethroned temporarily, losing the Season 2 finals to rivals Rampage before taking revenge at the Grand Championship. They competed abroad again that summer, and took wins over both Oceania and Southeast Asia before their elimination. Their players, particularly mid-laner Kyohei “Ceros” Yoshida, attracted international attention for their skill, and excitement began to mount for their next try in 2016.

I'd turn that around to say that if we fail to establish Japanese eSports here and now, there is no future for the scene.

Nobuyuki “LGraN” Umezaki

The scene around them, meanwhile, continued to grow in size and investment. Japanese media giants like Kadokawa began to announce eSports initiatives, ranging from massive Puzzle and Dragons tournaments to the establishment of an “eSports major” at the Tokyo School of Anime – where Umezaki appears as a lecturer. Japanese companies had finally begun to see the potential, and the culture had slowly started to take hold. Umezaki began taking an even more active role in helping it along, establishing eSports consulting company Sun-Gence where he assists organizations in their approach to the industry and introduces them to talent.

Umezaki and his colleagues have their chance. As eSports continues to grow worldwide, the excitement and energy we've seen all over the world has finally made its way to Japan. Now it's a question of keeping it going. “I'd turn that around to say that if we fail to establish Japanese eSports here and now,” Umezaki responded when asked about their scene's future, “there is no future for the scene.” With all of the money and energy being poured in at this moment, that critical eSports culture has to blossom. The idea of “pro-gaming” has just barely taken root in the Japanese public consciousness, and it has to be raised carefully. “I plan to succeed, and that success will make it easier to move into other games from here. Because Korea had StarCraft, they could easily move on to League. It's the same. If we're able to make that culture happen, we'll be okay no matter what.”

But if they were to fail – if after all this time and energy Japanese eSports is unable to find its audience, the fans die out, and the games never catch on – Umezaki sees a bleak future for Japan. “I feel like it'll be an Olympic competition in a few years,” he cautioned, “If at that point everyone in the world besides Japan is competing, we'll think 'Why aren't we doing this? S***, we need to be doing this.' It'll be just like before.”

Blowing open the door

With the Japanese League of Legends server enters closed beta this week, Umezaki remains confident in the game's potential to capture the general audience even in spite of its late arrival. “It's going to be big. I think we've been a big part of it, but LoL is a game all kinds of people can enjoy: even if you don't play, it's fun to watch. One of the executives at our sponsor Nidek – he's around 50 years old, and he's hooked on eSports. And I got a pretty important person at another company so interested in eSports that he told me he wants to quit his job and start a team.” The 2016 LJL, now fully overseen by Japan's local Riot office, opened live in Akihabara, Tokyo to a massive crowd. Viewership is double what it was this time last year, and the level of play isn't even comparable.

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