DetonatioN FocusMe's quest for a League of Legends World Championship group stage appearance has been postponed.
Nevertheless, they are not going home empty-handed: DFM nearly survived a strong Group C in the play-in stage. After decisively beating Splyce, DFM pushed Isurus Gaming to the brink, but they bowed out after 60 intense minutes and were eliminated.
Although they did not replicate their performance in 2018, where they qualified to the play-in bracket stage in easier circumstances, DFM's head coach, Kazuta "Kazu" Suzuki, is convinced of DFM's progress. "We didn't succeed this time around," he said. "But we're growing every split and every year."
And growing they are. After all, DFM's growth mirrored the Japanese scene's, which Kazu joined in its infancy. In 2014 he was determined to become a League of Legends professional. That desire drove him to join Ozone Rampage, located 6,000 miles away from his native Paris, France.
The early wave of Japanese League of Legends competitors did so vocationally, in adverse playing conditions. Indeed, they often played on North American or Oceanic servers with latency between 100 and 200ms, a far cry from Europe's latency, between 7 and 40ms. Their earnings could not sustain a living on their own; the top team pocketed JP¥ 100,000 ($935.70) per tournament, which was as much as they could under Japan's strict gambling laws. Once split among players, that sum was, as Kazu put it, "ridiculous; just enough to have a dinner for six." Gaming houses were also a brand new concept, with Rascal Jester taking initiative, but that alone would not be enough to professionalize the scene.
"Living in a gaming house does not make you a pro player. That's semi-pro at best," Kazu said. "It's about having a salary, and being able to tell people that you earn a living by playing the game and participating in tournaments in Japan."
DetonatioN FocusMe became the first professional Japanese gaming organization in the League scene in 2015, as they started providing salary to their players and staff.
"After Ozone Rampage, I went there to become a professional," he said. "I am one of the first few pros in Japan."
Their timing was impeccable: the LJL expanded to six teams in 2015; Riot Games' direct involvement led to the prize pool doubling, the participation of the best Japanese team in the League of Legends World Championship qualifiers, and the emergence of a dedicated Japanese server one year later.
The audience's demand for competitive League of Legends also increased from the early days, when 50 people filled Akihabara's e-Sports SQUARE.
"[Back then,] the big final was broadcast to a live audience of 200 people. After that, we filled bigger stadiums, 3,000 people," Kazu said. "Things slowed down a bit since then, but the latest final featured 2,800 people in the audience. It's still growing."
However, Japan's level of play had limits inherent to a growing scene, where its nascent infrastructure was far behind major regions. In the 2015 international wildcard qualifier, DetonatioN FocusMe struggled to make an impact. But that struggle outlined what needed doing: beyond five players, coaching and strategizing were necessary.
"It's exactly the way Europe took shape early on," Kazu said. "You had five players, but no coach. When I first joined DetonatioN FocusMe, I was a support, but I was also the team leader when it came to strategies and drafting. I thought: If there are better players to take over the support spot, I would like to move to a staff position-because that's what I wanted from the get go."
His wish was granted in 2016, when an unexpected wave of Korean imports arrived in Japan, elevating the level of play in the region. DFM signed two imports in the jungle and support position, allowing him to focus on his team's level of play. Competition proved fierce with the now-defunct Rampage, creating a local rivalry which, in turn, increased the level of play.
However, the top-heavy prize pool remained an issue. Outside of a yearly grand final prize of $9,357 to split amongst the team, income beyond salary was relatively non-existent, making the tenure of a middle-of-the-pack team tenuous when they qualify from the Challenger Series.
The Act Against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations, a law passed in the 1980's to counter yakuza influence on gambling, also included digital entertainment through video poker, adding to the ambiguity of esports in Japan. Despite that, several attempts were made at promoting it in that setting, with federations attempting to do away with that image. None were as effective on their own; so, they united in 2018 under the Japanese eSports Union (JeSU) umbrella.
JeSU unified four federations and received government backing. As it grew, it gathered game publishers and tournament organizers in the same space, providing licenses for tournaments and players. Those licenses allowed tournaments to offer more than $ 935.70, and for players to earn a sum beyond that as 'compensation for work.' In addition, as long as teams and players did not pay a registration fee, leagues were allowed to operate.
This, in turn, allowed Riot Games to raise their prize money to $93,570 for first place, and successfully deploy a partnership model mimicking the franchising forays in Europe, China and North America. A new wave of sponsors emerged, each one as massive as the one preceding them.
"Nowadays, we have [All Nippon Airways] and other big sponsors that mainstream audiences [in Japan] know. It's still growing: AXIZ is led by a member of Nippon TV (NTV). Sponsors are getting bigger."
All that is left for Japan is to make a dent in the World Championship. Given their yearly improvement, a group stage qualification would not be an odd sight within a handful of years. Should Japan grow its infrastructure to be on par with Korea's, and should Japanese talent match with Korea's mechanically, it is only a matter of time.
For now, Kazu's focus is on the present, so that a Worlds group stage qualification turns from mirage into reality.
"I've experienced this growth first-hand, and I might keep experiencing it. I will continue to push DFM as far as we can go, to reach our dream," Kazu said.