TSUKUBA, Ibaraki Prefecture--Although some computer gamers may be embarrassed by being viewed as “athletes,” Takanori Imai doesn’t mind instead being thought of as a martial artist.

Imai, 27, was representing Ibaraki Prefecture in the first video game competition held during the National Sports Festival, fostering the social momentum toward accepting computer games as e-sports in Japan.

“Video game players need to quickly decide whether to make small attacks or large ones to respond to the opponents’ moves,” Imai said. “We are the same as martial artists because we have to make judgments instantly just like them.

“Video games make my brain work up a sweat and become really exhausted. Playing games can be considered as a form of sports except that it does not require drastic body movements.”

A total of 600 representatives of all 47 prefectures showed off their controller handling skills in the e-sports event, dreaming of the day when the athletic meet will serve as a national contest like the annual National High School Baseball Championship at Koshien Stadium.

On Oct. 6, participants competed in the “Puyo Puyo” puzzle game series at the International Congress Center here. When slime-like red and yellow “puyo” tiles were seen piled up successively on the huge screen, the reporter shouted, “They are piled high in an L shape in the way known as ‘the universe.’ ”


Imai, one of the representatives of Ibaraki Prefecture in the adult division, played a match against a player from Hiroshima Prefecture. While staring at the monitor, Imai continued piling puyo up quickly without hesitation.

In the game, the tiles disappear when four puyo of the same color are connected. If many tiles are deleted at one time, one can block the opponent’s performance. After winning the match, Imai sighed deeply and looked relaxed.

Imai, who designs and develops electronics at a company in Tsukuba Mirai, Ibaraki Prefecture, started playing “Puyo Puyo” when he was 4 years old.

Although he belonged to a table tennis club at junior high school, Imai was not good at sports. Imai did not join any clubs in high school and played the online version of “Puyo Puyo” every day after returning home from school.

Imai now competes with other players on the Internet two or three times a week after work. The footage of his playing “Puyo Puyo” is aired on a video streaming site, while he earns income by participating in competitions and other events.

Despite his exceptional skills as a “professional gamer,” Imai lost in the second round in the final tournament in the National Sports Festival. A player from Osaka Prefecture won the tournament, in which there were 48 competitors.

At the athletic meet in Ibaraki Prefecture, “Puyo Puyo,” along with the “Gran Turismo” auto race game series and the “Winning Eleven” soccer game title, were adopted for the e-sports competition.

Tomoaki Yamanaka, 26, who won the “Gran Turismo” event as a representative of Tochigi Prefecture, has competed in many “races” while working as a company employee at the same time.

Yamanaka said he “drives” at least 10 minutes a day no matter how busy he is, because he becomes desensitized unless he manipulates the wheel each day. Yamanaka also said he does not play other titles.

“How we are treated now is unbelievable, considering that we were seen as just game buffs in the past,” said Yamanaka with a smile. “To tell the truth, I am embarrassed at being treated like an athlete.”


The term e-sports is used to describe competitive games using electronics as one of sports. It is widely accepted in the United States and South Korea, and the first e-sports demonstration event was held at the quadrennial Asian Games in Jakarta in 2018.

A video game competition is planned to be introduced as a formal event at the Asian Games scheduled for 2022 in Hangzhou, China.

In Japan, e-sports have also spreading so rapidly that 15,000 people competed in the qualifying rounds of the National Sports Festival organized across the nation, according to Ibaraki Prefecture.

The prefectural government initially thought of dubbing the e-sports competition “an exhibition match” to emphasize the sports aspect of video games. But the Japan Sport Association, which co-organizes the festival, rejected the plan, arguing that it “has yet to decide whether video games should be viewed as sports.”

For that reason, the latest event was held as “a cultural program” offered by the prefectural government.

“Discussions will be held from now on over such topics as how the issue of video game addiction should be dealt with in connection with e-sports and whether e-sports can be regarded as exercise though players need not drastically move their entire bodies,” said an official of the Japan Sport Association.

The comment is in line with a decision made by the World Health Organization (WHO) in May that refers to video-gaming addiction as a disorder when playing games for prolonged periods has negative effects on other daily activities.

Despite some negative factors, e-sports are expected to increase further in popularity, taking into account the fact that video game competitions are also included in the 2020 Kagoshima National Sports Festival and 2021 Mie National Sports Festival.

“The momentum will grow toward accepting video games as sports because an e-sports event was held during the long-established national athletic meet,” said Akinori Nakamura, a professor of the content industry study at Ritsumeikan University’s College of Image Arts and Sciences.