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CS:GO au pays du Soleil Levant

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After going for a little trip in South Africa, we started thinking that it would be a shame to stop here while so many other countries and regions of the world that we hardly ever see on Counter-Strike are worth taking a look at.

sz-absolute-logo

This time - and because the Asia Minor starts today - we chose to go to Japan to meet the number one Japanese team and the only one currently playing at a professional level: SZ Absolute. The team's captain Koji "Laz" Ushida kindly agreed to answer to all our questions and tell us more about the team, and about CS:GO's situation in the land of the Rising Sun.

Overall, esports in Japan are what we'd call a paradox: why are video game tournaments not popular in the land of video games itself? In case you didn't know, not only Counter-Strike, but the whole esport environment is meeting difficulties to thrive in Japan, even more if you compare it to its Asian neighbours like South Korea or China. The main reason to this lies in the Japanese legislation: in order to fight against gambling, the Japanese gouvernment issued a law a few years ago called "Act against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations" that limits cash prizes for tournaments held in the country to 100,000 yens, around 760€, or 890$. No wonder that both players and organizations have a hard time getting involved.

But there is still hope, as the three main esports associations of the county (JeSPA, JOGA and JeSF) merged at the beginning of 2018 to form JeSU (Japan esport Union) with the objective of helping esports growth in Japan and finding solutions despite the law. Thus, the first initiative of this new organization was to create a "pro license" - a way to bypass the law by giving a special status to professional players, allowing them to win more money from tournaments.

However, for those who were already booking a round trip for Tokyo in order to attend the first Japanese DreamHack, we have bad news: this pro license does not concern CS:GO. Actually, it doesn't even concern any of the most popular esport games in the world, as the current eligible titles are Street Fighter V, Tekken 7, Winning Eleven 2018, Call of Duty: WWII, Puzzle & Dragons and Monster Strike. A small step, all things considered, that might not help the growth of Valve's FPS for now.

To sum up, CS:GO has a pretty short history in Japan. The teams we could see during the years 2015-2016 are now disbanded, and most of their players have become anonymous once again. Among them, SZ Absolute's captain Laz is an exception, as he has been playing under the same tag since it was created in 2015. He's never left the scene all these years, but hardly ever managed to reach the top of the Asian scene. Let's hope that their participation in the Asia Minor will allow them to take it to the next level.

 

First of all, could you introduce your team?

Laz : Hello everyone, we are SCARZ Absolute, a Japanese CSGO team. Originally, Absolute was a team created in 2015, but since March 2017, the organization SCARZ - which manages many teams on different games - allowed us to go professional. Apart from me, all the current members of the team have changed from what started in 2015, but the current lineup has been the same since January 2017.

sz-absolute-japanese-teampoem, t4k3j, barce, Laz and crow - SZ Absolute's players since January 2017

Is CS:GO popular in Japan? Do you have an important community?

Unfortunately, CS:GO isn’t popular in Japan. To give you a concrete example, there is currently only one japanese team besides us that enters tournaments regularly. There seems to be a great community of casual players, but they do not participate in tournaments, so it’s hard to tell how many of them there are.

Many versions of Counter-Strike were realised in Asia, among which Counter-Strike Online 2, published by Nexon. A beta version of the game apparead in Japan last year, how is it? Does it have as much, or even more success than CS:GO?

This version wasn’t the last bit popular in Japan, and because of this lack of popularity, they quickly closed the server. 

What about CS’ former versions, 1.6 and Source, were they popular during the 2000s’?

I myself started playing in 2010, so I don’t know much about this period, but these versions were also not very popular. It seems that most of the current CS:GO players in Japan never played on the former versions, so in terms of number of players, Global Offensive is probably the most popular of all. 

Do you also have third party service providers to play CS:GO, such as FACEIT or ESEA? Or something exclusively for Japan?

 There is no specific system in Japan, but we have access to Asian FACEIT and ESEA servers. We can also play on a Chinese platform called 5ewin, the system itself is pretty great, but the servers are too far from us and the ping is too high, so it’s not very comfortable to use it.

When Perfect World arrived in China and forced the Chinese players to play CS:GO on its own server, did it have any impact on you and the Asian scene overall?

 It didn’t affect us at all. The only thing we noticed is that recently, Chinese players are overall becoming better and better, but I’m not sure if this is related to Perfect World at all.

Where is CS:GO in the whole Japanese esports’ ecosystem? Is it popular compared to other famous games like League of Legends, or fighting games like Street Fighter, Tekken, etc.?

LoL and fighting games a pretty popular in Japan, and in comparison, CS:GO really isn’t. In terms of number of players, but also regarding the whole public and organizational support that pro players receive, we are really far behind. For example, there’s a dedicated Japanese national league for League of Legends, and big tournaments are regularly organized on the game, while CS:GO has nothing of that sort. Fighting games can also allow some people to make a living out of it. On CS so far, we’re the only players that have ever managed to go full-time.  

Until the beginning of 2018, Japanese laws were forbidding high cash prizes for tournaments, which greatly hindered the growth of esports in the country. Do you think this had an impact on the development of CS:GO’s scene?

I’m not sure, but I don’t think this is related.

Did the new “pro licence” - which allows players with a special status to earn more money from winning tournaments -  improve the situation?

Unfortunately, this licence doesn’t concern us CS:GO players, so it didn’t change anything for us. And I don’t know if this will actually improve the popularity of esports or not. 

Are you currently making a living out of the game?

We’ve recently been able to become full-time and get something close to a salary. But as I said before, if you’re not a pro player on LoL or on fighting games, this is nearly impossible to achieve.

We often talk about the lack of “FPS culture” in Korea, where esports are so popular. Is it the same situation in Japan?

It’s the same in Japan, FPS games don’t have large communities. Because of that, there’s also a lack of online viewers and fans, so basically, people won’t usually know who we are. 

Your team often represents Japan during Asian tournaments or international qualifiers, are your the number one team in your country? Do you have serious national rivals?

We are indeed the number one team in Japan. From time to time, another Japanese team will appear and compete with us, but they systematically end up splitting or sabotaging themselves with too many roster changes.

What are Japanese teams lacking to reach the same level as the Chinese teams?

Chinese players are the strongest in Asia, and I think that in Japan, we’re mostly lacking a good environment to improve in. We always train with a ping between 60 and 80 on pug and scrim servers, and we need more motivated players. Most of them won’t commit to spending many hours on the game to reach a pro level.   

Your team is also often playing in Asian qualifiers for big tournaments, so how would you compare yourself to other strong teams of your regions, such as Tyloo or MVP PK?

I think that there is currently a great difference of level between them and us - in terms of individual level, but also team play and efficiency.

Where would you place yourself in the current Asian ranking? Would you say top 10, or even top 5?

It depends on the period. According to the website csgo2asia, that makes its own ranking, we’re currently in 6th position, but I don’t think that’s very accurate.

Do you sometimes practice with stronger Asian teams in order to improve?

Yes, we do practice with them on a regular basis, and I’m thankful that they’re willing to help us improve.

Do you also take inspiration from top European and American teams? If yes, which ones?

Some of us don’t, but I myself spend a lot of time watching what other teams do. I mainly watch the top world teams, such as fnatic, SK (MiRB), FaZe, Astralis, Na’Vi, or Virtus Pro. I always try to learn more from them, even the little things. When I don’t have to practice with my team, I sometimes spend a whole day watching and analyzing replays of Tier 1 matches. 

Have you ever thought about moving to Europe or America for a given period of time in order to improve?

We have thought and discussed about it, but we all agreed to say that we had to reach the top in Asia first before aiming higher.

Do you think Asian teams in general will one day catch up with the rest of the CS scene?

I don’t know. If we look at CS’ history until now and how it has evolved in Asia, I would say that it seems pretty difficult. But I want to believe that Tyloo and MVP PK can do it. 

You recently entered the first season of the ESL Pro League APAC. How did you get this opportunity? Did you make any special preparation for the tournament?

One of the Chinese teams that was to participate had some visa problems and surrendered their place to us. It happened only three days before the tournament itself, so we didn’t have time to prepare for it especially.

You also played at the WESG finals this year. Could you come back a bit on this experience? Was it your first time participating in such a bit event?

It was an amazing experience. The WESG finals allowed us to meet and face the best teams in the world, so this was a very exceptional and very important tournament for us. It was our first time participating in such a high-level tournament.

During the WESG, you faced Cloud9 and fnatic. You lost big time against C9, 1-16, but showed a very decent performance against fnatic, losing 14-16. Could you come back on this last match? What were you thinking while facing these legendary teams?

During these games, I was always looking for the best way for us to retain as many information as possible and improve. Actually, after we lost against C9, I gathered my teammates and told them what each of us had to do to be better, and it kind of showed in the next match against fnatic.

Many huge CS tournaments, with important cash prizes, are being organized in China. Could this also happen in Japan in the near future? Are associations and organisations - like CESA, JOGA, etc. - ready to take the challenge?

I don’t really know, but these associations don’t seem to care much about CS:GO, actually, so I don’t think that more tournaments will be held for this game.

What do the Japanese public opinion and public authorities think of Counter-Strike? In France, the game is often labelled as “too violent” and carries a bad image. Is it the same in Japan?

Again, I don’t really know. CS:GO was never popular to start with, so I’m not even sure whether the violence of the game has ever been discussed or not.

Overall, how are esports perceived in Japan? Is the scene growing, or is it still very marginal?

Esports don’t carry a good image in Japan, but I think things are starting to change little by little.

Last words?

Thank you for contacting us and having interest in knowing more about us, we’re really grateful. I am personally a really big fan of shox and kennyS, so I will keep following their career in the future!

A big thanks to Laz for taking time to answer our (many) questions, and to LordBaguette for the banner!

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