Japanese players embraced Nintendo’s colorful, team-based squid shooter Splatoon with open arms (or tentacles) in 2015. Featuring half-squid, half-human creatures who can swim through the ink that blasts from their guns, Splatoon is a fast paced and accessible game making a mark on Japanese esports.
Following its release in May, the game moved over 800,000 copies across the country and boosted Wii U sales. Japanese players are spending more and more time with these squids, too. In fact, many U.S. Splatoon players now express dread at facing off against competitors from across the Pacific because they are just too good to beat.
“I play Splatoon almost everyday,” admitted a Japanese player known as Ryo. “I can’t stop thinking about how to play on each stage or figuring out strategies for each weapon in my spare time.”
Now, Nintendo hopes to catapult Splatoon into the world of competitive gaming, by holding a series of tournaments dubbed the Splatoon Koshien (in reference to a famous Japanese summer baseball tournament.) Beginning this past September, they’ve already held competitions across the archipelago, leading up to the grand finals set for this January’s Niconico Tokaigi (“game party”).
The stakes are high for players: the Splatoon squad that wins will take home approximately one million dollars. But for a country that has been slow to embrace esports, it could also popularize a hobby usually thought of as niche.
Unlike other Asian countries, Japan has not fostered an avid esports community that regularly tunes into broadcasts of League of Legends tournaments and the like. The Japanese competitive gaming scene has centered mostly on console games, while esports elsewhere moved to PC titles. Existing tournaments tend to be smaller affairs held in arcades rather than big stadiums like LA’s Staples Center.
But Splatoon fostered an active community in Japan from the get-go. It’s an online community that player Nemu Nemu said flourished through a few small fan-organized tournaments prior to Nintendo’s official Splatoon Koshien. “I often Tweet to find people who I can play with and build my strategies from those experiences,” Nemu Nemu explained.
The announcement of Splatoon Koshien prompted extra excitement in the community, with players such as Nemu Nemu scrambling to find a team. He hooked up with a player named Mochi to join a team called YumeiiroBWI for the Kinki area competition in Osaka.
Ryo and his squad Ika Se No Gorilla’s origin sounds like a story worthy of a coming-of-age movie. “I grew up with our leader Shamoji, but I met our other members, Pushu and Amane, online. They’re the people I’ve always played the game with since I started.”
Despite feeling like they weren’t “skilled” enough to win, YumeiiroBWI entered the Tokai tourney held in Nagoya’s Hisaya Odori Park on October 11th.
To an extent, the excitement over Splatoon Koshien is helping to legitimize competitive gaming as a whole in Japan. Japanese esports needed a fun and accessible title that both avid players and non-players alike could enjoy watching.
“Splatoon’s game world is poppy and bright, I never feel unhappy while playing,” Nemu Nemu said, highlighting the game’s potential to become the country’s most popular esport. The rules of Splatoon are also much easier for casual spectators to pick up on, especially when compared to the complexity of a game like League of Legends.
Of course, there are roadblocks in Splatoon’s journey to becoming a legitimate esport. Many point to the game’s lack of a voice chat, which makes it hard for team members to communicate, as well as the lack of a designated “spectator mode” for broadcasting tournaments.
But so far the Splatoon Koshien events, which are part of a larger tour with competitions for other games, have been held in more public and popular spaces, attracting solid crowds.
“The audience was so fired up, it felt like a festival,” Nemu Nemu said of the Osaka stop.
Japanese video site Niconico livestreamed some of the tournaments too, such as the Nagoya competition, helping to spread the burgeoning esport to even more viewers. Ryo, accustomed to online battles, initially felt overwhelmed by the live setting. “There was something, an energy, you can’t experience unless you’re at the actual venue.”
And, like all good competitions, Splatoon Koshien has had plenty of dramatic showdowns so far. Nemu Nemu’s team, which he joined specifically because he believed they had the best chance to take first place, has been challenged by equally strong outfits. They even lost a match.
“But we followed the strategies we trained with, and knew the worst thing we could do was become rushed and frustrated,” he explained. YumeiiroBWI went on to take first place in that competition.
Ryo and Ika Se No Gorilla’s run ended up being even more thrilling. “To be honest, we didn’t really have a strategy, beyond ‘let’s win,’” he said with a laugh. “We had moments where we struggled in every game.”
But they managed to squeak through anyway, landing in the final game. There, they took advantage of a Splatoon rule where, by covering more of the stage in their ink, they eked out a win at the Tokai regional championship.
Both Nemu Nemu and Ryo’s teams are headed to the grand finals in Tokyo at the end of January. Both say they are practicing and preparing to compete in front of larger crowds than ever before.
Considering just how many people already love the game, Splatoon’s future as a competitive game looks bright. “I think there’s a big chance for Splatoon to become a popular esport,” Ryo said. “It has tons of users, the title is famous enough, and you can have fun and get excited by both playing and watching.”
Paint splatter image via Womb Gallery
Online play and Drawing images via Kana Natsuno