It was 2am in early September. Yuichiro Takahashi was in his room eating a Crunky chocolate bar, listening to the RWBY soundtrack and staring at the English sentences on his monitor. If anything might help change the Super Smash Bros. Melee scene in Japan, perhaps this would. He pressed publish.
The title of the blog post was “The Current Status of Melee in Japan.” It read, “Hello, my name is Yuichiro ‘Watch’ Takahashi. I’m a Japanese Super Smash Bros. Melee player living in Tokyo and I’m struggling to make the Japanese Melee community bigger.”
Takahashi, better known by his gaming handle “Watch,” reckons that there are about 200 active Melee players in Japan who regularly join and watch tournaments. Considering that the game was released in 2001 on the GameCube, that’s not too shabby. But considering that this is Japan and that 2,350 people competed in Melee in last year’s Evo, it is.
Super Smash Bros. Melee has found an extended life in esports, with the game’s solid mechanics living well beyond the GameCube era. “Japan made this game, yet the number of people who are into it as a spectator sport is totally different than in the US,” Watch told me later that month in Tokyo. “That made me wonder, why aren’t people in Japan as excited by this game?”
“There are several things holding back Melee in Japan,” Watch says in Japanese. “One is this country’s laws, and the other is Japanese culture.”
I had met Watch at one of the best coffee shops in Tokyo, but he told me he doesn’t drink coffee. When he speaks, he’s incredibly polite, and suddenly, I feel very rude for not asking. “It’s okay, I’ll have the darjeeling,” he said, and I ordered the house blend. Only a few years out of college, Watch is chatty and outgoing. I just met the guy, but I found him incredibly easy to talk to.
The waiter put down a pot of darjeeling tea and lit a candle underneath it. Watch lifted the lid and took a whiff. “It smells great.”
“In many tournaments overseas, such as Evo, entry fees are collected and redistributed as prize money,” wrote Watch in his blog post. But in Japan, doing such would be considered gambling and is, thus, illegal. “Providing cash as a reward is illegal even for one yen,” wrote Watch.
Meaning? Prizes must be put up by a third party, typically, but not always, sponsors. Even that isn’t as simple as it sounds, because if a game company sponsors a tournament, they could be violating the country’s Act Against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations, which was enacted to “prevent inducement of customers by means of unjustifiable premiums and misleading representations.” Here, “premiums” means “any article, money or other kinds of economic gain which are given as means of inducement of customers, irrespective of whether a direct or indirect method is employed.” That’s why a game company might benefit from sponsoring the tournament, thereby inducing customers and violating the act.
“If it weren’t for that law, we could hold as many big-prize events as we like,” former Famitsu editor Hirokazu Hamamura told Nikkei this summer. Hamamura is now president of newly-established game company Gzbrain and is working to expand Japan’s esports scene by trying to figure out ways to work within these legal parameters.
The act puts a 100,000 yen ($878) cap on events that promote products, which games are considered to be under the Japanese legal interpretation. Compare this to the cumulative $1.6 million offered in Melee tournaments last year in the United States alone (Sweden had another $352,000), and it’s a pittance.
The small prize pools in Japan means that people who might play or enter tournaments don’t. This leads to small tournaments and smaller audiences watching them. That in turn leads to fewer new players appearing. This impacts the size of the scene, something that Watch is acutely aware of.
“But what about boxing or golf?” I say to Watch as I stir milk into my coffee. “Those have cash prizes that are much higher.”
“Video games have a randomized or element of chance in them,” Watch replies. “Under Japanese law, they’re not considered skill based, but luck based.” In short, esports are not a sport in the eyes of the Japanese government. This is why Hamamura and Gzbrain are trying to create a licensing system in Japan for professional players, akin to the one for shogi (Japanese chess) players, that would allow for larger prize purses. It’s unclear if this will actually happen and if so, what it would mean for visiting foreign players.
Watch is now dedicating himself full time to BattleGateWay, the country’s leading Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament. With it doesn’t compare in size or participation with international Melee tournaments, BattleGateWay does hold regular competitions and is keen to help grow the scene. “I got the offer to join as the person in charge of the international section for the tournament, because I speak English,” says Watch, who studied abroad in Washington State. BattleGateWay has a prize, but “it’s not a huge prize,” Watch concedes. “There’s this guy called Murabito, and since he’s not playing Melee, he thought about what he could do for the scene here. That’s why he’s been paying for the tournament’s prize money.”
“Is he rich or something?” I ask, thinking the guy ponies up the full 100,000 yen.
“No, he’s normal,” Watch replies. “He just felt like he could do that and if helped changed something for our scene, then that would be great. He’s a really nice guy.”
In early October, I reached out to Murabito via email, asking how much he’s fronting for the prize money.
“I’ve only put up the cash prize money twice,” Murabito, who works as a systems engineer, replied. “Since I’m keeping in mind the effect on the community as well as Japanese law, I only put up 10,000 yen ($87), so it’s not that difficult [for me to pay].” That’s not a huge amount of cash, but with Watch and other organizers hoping to hold BattleGateWay tournaments on a more regular basis, so that that frequency could increase.
Watch tells me, “A big turning point for me was when I was in college and joined a manga and video game type club,” It was 2010, and Watch was one of the 40 members of Nihon University’s “Youth Culture Society of Manga Research” club, which met on campus in a room the members had filled with manga, anime, and video games. Hooked up to the communal TV was a silver GameCube. One afternoon, another member known as Yasao had brought a copy of Super Smash Bros. Melee from home. “He said, ‘Let’s play Smash Bros.,’” recalls Watch. “I’d play it before, of course, but only as a party game.” The classmate started pulling wavedash and other techniques Watch had never seen. “It became a completely different game,” he recalls. “He beat the crap out of me.” Stunned and shocked, Watch was hooked.
Every Friday, Watch left school and headed directly to his friend’s place to practice and get better at playing with Ice Climbers. Until Monday morning, they would play Melee, only venturing outside to get rice balls at the local convenience store. “After a year of practicing, the four best players in the club thought we’d gotten really good and wanted to enter a tournament,” says Watch. The country’s biggest tournaments, still nowhere as big as the North American scene, seemed improbable, but a local college one? “We thought if we went, we could maybe even win the whole thing.” After a year of intense practice, they were confident that they had the win locked up. “We thought we had it in the bag.”
The unthinkable happened. They lost. “We were shocked,” says Watch. “All these players were better than us.” The loss only strengthened Watch’s resolve, and he threw himself into practicing more. In June 2014, he entered BattleGateWay for the first time, winning a handful of matches. Watch might have thought he was getting good, but two years later, a trip to America would show him firsthand what good at Melee really meant.
August in Chantilly, Virginia was blistering. The Dulles Expo Center was more than a refuge from the heat; it was a gathering place for the best Melee players on Earth. Watch was in town to play in the second Super Smash Con. “I was eliminated and didn’t even make it out of the pool,” he says. But he was inspired, rather than disheartened. “The number of people watching was completely different—like the number of spectators you’d see at a soccer match. I was totally surprised at how many people went to see this—even more than I was the first time my college buddy whooped me at Super Smash Bros. Melee that first time.”
The famous players Watch saw were amazing. The no-name players he saw were amazing. Everyone was faster than he was, and they knew their character more deeply than he did. “That made me realize that even the mid-level players in America are better than the majority of the top players in Japan. Before, I knew they were good, but I didn’t know they were this good. That made me realize why Japanese players weren’t as good. And more than that, it made me wonder why the scene in Japan wasn’t as vibrant.”
“The infrastructure wasn’t there,” I suggest.
“Exactly,” he replies, adjusting his glasses. “We also need to change the way people here think about Melee. Once people can see what the scene could be and that companies can make money, they’ll change the way they think.” Then, Watch believes, the scene will snowball, and more players will pick up the game competitively.
“I want to make the scene bigger,” he says, switching to English, before switching back to Japanese. “That’s the feeling I had. I wonder what I needed to do to make that happen.”
There was one important difference: In the US, Nintendo of America supports—or, at least, acknowledges—the Melee scene. In Japan, Nintendo does not. As previously mentioned, the Act Against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations ties Nintendo’s hands, seeming to legally prevent the company from directing sponsoring tournaments. But even on a grassroots level, Nintendo isn’t actively supporting Japan’s scene.
(Kotaku reached out to Nintendo for comment about the Melee situation in Japan, but did not hear back prior to publication.)
Nintendo won’t allow its hardware to be put in Japanese shops and stores for customers to play, even if the owner isn’t charging money. This applies to full games and not Nintendo approved in-store demo units. Nintendo’s policy is that allowing its games and hardware to be put in places of business for commercial purposes, even if the owner isn’t asking customers to pay to use the hardware, would require the approval of all its shareholders.
This policy has far reaching effects. Because of it, game shops cannot have get-togethers for Melee (or any other Nintendo game, for that matter) like they do in other countries, making it difficult to introduce new players to the game and help ensure the scene is healthy and active. Nintendo’s stance on this issue also hinders video game bars, which try to get around this issue by only providing consoles and letting customers bring their own games for play. Even this is a gray area.
Before devoting himself fulltime to the Japanese Smash Bros. scene, Watch worked full time in wholesales. Actually, he worked more than full time. “Because of Japanese work culture, people don’t have time to practice [Melee] as much,” Watch says, switching to fluent English, with an excellent American accent. I get the feeling he doesn’t want nearby patrons to understand what we’re saying. “It was so crazy. One month, I worked 26 days, from 7am to 11pm.”
“Really?” I reply in English. “That’s illegal.”
“There is a law, but that one isn’t working,” says Watch.
“The government needs to worry less about esports and more about work conditions.”
“If you work for a long time, people think that’s a great thing in Japan,” says Watch. “But in America or Europe, if you finish your work and it’s high quality and you’ve done it in less time you can leave. But in Japan, you can’t. It looks like you’re not giving 100 percent to the job. In Japan, people think working a long time, even a long time for free, is good. It’s illegal. It’s not good. Not every company is like this, but there are lots of companies like this.”
Long hours for low wages mean that many prospective Melee players don’t have the time or energy to devote themselves to a game. Even those players who are able to make time for practicing have trouble getting time off for international tournaments.
Employees in Japan have days off, but few people actually take them. Instead, people tend to only take vacations on national holidays when everybody is off. If anything, this is to give the appearance that they are team players and are always working hard.
Masaya “Amsa” Chikamoto is Japan’s only Melee pro. He’s quickly become a fan favorite for kicking ass with Yoshi, a lower tier character most would never choose. “I first played Yoshi’s Island as a kid, and since then, I’ve always like Yoshi,” Amsa tells me. Whether it was Mario Kart or Mario Party, whenever Yoshi would appear in Nintendo games, Amsa would pick him.
“I like Yoshi’s combos in Melee,” he says. Playing at high level with Yoshi requires not only requires a deep knowledge of what the character can do but also expert technical abilities. Choosing Yoshi doesn’t make anything easier for Amsa, and I can see how someone playing as Yoshi in Melee would be fighting a necessary uphill battle to expand the local Melee scene.
Amsa and Watch desperately wanted Melee to be in next year’s Evo Japan. When it wasn’t among the announced titles, they were saddened and shocked.
Super Smash Bros. 4, however, did make the roster.
On Twitter, Amsa apologized for Melee not coming to Evo Japan, and that they would have to try harder on their own to develop the local scene. This is why whenever Amsa can, he mentions local Melee tournaments when he’s playing in streams and on Twitter. It’s building a community, one person at a time.
(Kotaku reached out to Evo for comment on why Melee was not included in Evo Japan, but was not given a specific reason.)
Days after having coffee with Watch, I meet up with Amsa and Watch at the Tokyo Game Show, near the Twitch booth. Amsa is decked out in his pro-gaming VG BootCamp team uniform. “Do you have some sort of event?” I ask.
“Nope, he replies with a wide grin. He’s upbeat and affable. “I’m just excited to check out the Twitch booth.” He is also probably excited to quit his IT job that month and focus on Melee full time. “I’m so busy,” Amsa suddenly says in English, giving me another big smile and a thumbs up.
I’ve finished my coffee, and Watch has downed a pot of darjeeling. I feel like everything is stacked against the Japanese Melee community: the culture, the laws, and corporate Japan. But I admire the love Watch, Murabito and Amsa have for the game and the local scene. It’s more than just passion, but a sense of responsibility, almost duty.
“My life has definitely changed because of Melee,” Amsa tells me later via chat. “It’s been a communication tool for me that goes beyond language and has allowed me to expand my horizons. I am going to continue to work as a Smash Bros. Melee evangelist for this scene.”
I look around the cafe. It’s dated, with interior design that smacks of the Showa Era’s post-war years. Japan embraced coffee before the war, but the drink and proper cafes weren’t hits at first. With time, the country came around and appreciated real coffee and the culture surrounding it, creating its own distinctly Japanese culture in the process. I tell Watch that the same will happen with esports and Melee in Japan.
“I sure hope so,” he says, adding that while they’re waiting for an HD re-release of Melee, they’ll be doing everything to help the community grow and expand. It’ll be their toughest and most important fight yet.