Japanese esports players hone skills with top South Korean team

Riki Sameshima had one all-pervasive ambition when he traveled to South Korea: to become a world-class esports professional representing Japan, the country of his birth. Since arriving in September, he has slept only a few hours a day and trains for hours on end.

The 22-year-old Osaka Prefecture native competes in the popular online battle arena game “League of Legends” under a training program launched between South Korea’s most famous esports team, T1, and the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks baseball team in Japan.

“I was just so excited to come here and actually watch (how South Korea’s T1 players operate) since they play at such a high level,” Sameshima said.

T1, formally known as SK Telecom CS T1 Co., is an esports team bankrolled by SK Telecom Co., South Korea’s largest mobile operator, and counts Lee Sang-hyuk — who is known as Faker in the gaming sphere and is one of the world’s most talented League of Legends players — as one of its members.

Taiki Shimazaki came to South Korea with Sameshima and the 24-year-old Yokohama native also has tremendous respect for Faker and his team’s training regimen, as T1 has won several world championships.

Four Japanese players have traveled to Seoul to train, while one of their teammates is participating in the program remotely from Japan.

Their day starts when they wake up around noon. Training commences at 1 p.m. and runs eight to nine hours — or longer depending on how the players feel.

A T1 official said team members usually train late at night to easily adjust their biorhythms to account for the time differences when playing in international competitions.

T1’s facility has rooms filled with computers, a gym, a cafeteria and several lounges, all for the sole purpose of providing the players with everything they need to excel.

“There probably isn’t any esports team in Japan that offers such facilities like a gym where you can work out, and a cafeteria,” Sameshima said. “I think South Korea is really ahead of the times in managing the players.”

The Japanese pair agree the best part about training in South Korea is learning how to control their mental state to prevent nerves from ruining their performance.

According to Sameshima, a round of League of Legends lasts about 30 minutes on average but can extend to an hour, meaning players need the ability to maintain a high level of concentration.

Esports gained traction In South Korea after the StarCraft strategy game became a huge hit in 1998. The sport subsequently drew strong support from the government, which was seeking ways to boost the economy in the wake of the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

In August, the government signaled its readiness to be more gamer-friendly when it abolished a decade-old ban on those under 16 playing online games on PCs from midnight to 6 a.m. The law was implemented due to concerns about teenage game addiction, but due to a loophole it did not apply to apps on mobile phones, an increasingly popular way of gaming among young people.

Esports recently grabbed media attention after being chosen as an official medal sport for the first time in the 2022 Asian Games, which will be hosted in Hangzhou, China.

Sameshima said that compared with esports worldwide, he feels awareness of esports in Japan is still relatively limited.

“When they hear the word esports, many Japanese would ask, ‘Is that really a sport?’” he said. “I hope to be able to help more Japanese understand this industry.”

Though the joint training program with the Hawks is slated to end this month, T1 is eager to work with Japanese esports teams in the future.

“Japan is home to console game (makers) and is one of the best gaming markets in the world,” a T1 representative said, adding that the company hopes to continue playing a role in improving the industry in cooperation with several Japanese esports teams.

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