Forget muscles of steel. The hottest new sport globally requires quick fingers and a screen. eSports–essentially competitive videogaming–has taken off, especially in North America, China and South Korea. Japan’s antigambling laws stymied tournaments–until recently. In February the Japanese eSports Union, a merger of the country’s three largest eSports organizations, began issuing licenses to pro gamers to bypass the country’s strict laws.
Young fans who grew up playing games online are willing to spend up to $100 or more to watch gaming competitions in person. They also splash out on special computer-gaming gear for their desktops. The eSports industry pulled in approximately $650 million in revenue worldwide in 2017, according to market research firm Newzoo. By 2020 that could surge to $1.4 billion. More than half of eSports’ most ardent fans are in the Asia-Pacific region, and eSports will be an official sport at the 2022 Asian Games to be held in Hangzhou, China.
Videogame developer Konami–founded by Kagemasa Kozuki (No. 37 on our list)–partnered with eSports firm eFootball.Pro last year to create a professional competition using Konami’s football game series. In February, Konami was one of five developers to award licensed professional gamers cash for the first time at an official Japanese eSports tournament, before a reported crowd of 72,000 people.
Cygames, a subsidiary of Susumu Fujita’s (No. 36 on our list) game maker CyberAgent, partnered with California-based eSports firm Next Generation Esports last year to run an eSports competition in North America.
Kenzo Tsujimoto, an up-and-comer worth almost $400 million, founded and chairs game firm Capcom, whose Street Fighter-branded games have been popular in eSports competitions outside of Japan. Tsujimoto announced that 2018 will be “eSports year one” for Japan. Other companies likely to pile on to the eSports craze include Yasuhiro Fukushima‘s (No. 29 on our list) game maker Square Enix, as well as powerhouses like Nintendo and Sony.
“Japan’s inherent gaming culture provides the perfect conditions for the successful development of eSports, now that obstacles to its growth have been lifted by the government,” says Jurre Pannekeet, senior market analyst at Newzoo.