Colorful, busy arcades dot Tokyo’s streets, leaking light and noise into busy pedestrian byways. Gaming is an inseparable part of the city, just as the legacies of Konami, Sega, Sony, and many other Japanese companies have left an indelible imprint on the wider gaming world.
Yet esports has somehow missed Japan until now. In a country where console and mobile gaming reign over PCs, “esport” has only recently become a recognized term. It’s in this exciting but uncertain time that five fresh faces have been thrust into the limelight: rising Japanese Call of Duty stars Rush Gaming.
Feel the Rush
Rush had an early edge in the Japanese esports arena. In 2016, when Call of Duty changed its primary platform from the Xbox to the PlayStation, popular CoD player and YouTube streamer HASESHIN predicted that the franchise's move from Microsoft’s platform to that of home-grown Sony would spark a wave of interest in Japanese pro gaming. He created an esports team within his clan and began inviting players who caught his eye.
This clever bet was rooted in the knowledge that Japanese brands and platforms like Sony dominate in their home country, and it paid off. Rush Gaming was born and soon began winning competitions both locally and throughout Asia. Now, three years later, Rush's five rising stars—Takeshi "WinRed" Ozawa, Shogo “Luke" Aso, Hibiki "Gorou" Shibata, Keiji "Vebra" Ibusuki, and Tatsuyuki "Hunt" Yasagawa—are living their dream along with the team’s co-founder, Aoi “GreedZz” Kobayashi.
Inside Japan, Rush has quickly gained notoriety as a top Call of Duty team with a Tokyo practice HQ and even their own esports clothing line. But outside the country, the esports world is only now becoming familiar with these five new faces—and the fact of Japanese players rising to the global professional level at all.
Rush Gaming team members (L to R): Hunt, Gorou, Vebra, WinRed, and Luke
Ranging in age from 19 to 23, Rush’s players each have their own complementary strengths. There's veteran SMGer WinRed, with his unshakable optimism; fresh-faced rifler Luke, who became the ace of the team with his extraordinary character control skill; former high-school-baseball-player-turned-SMGer Hunt, the brotherly leader who always says what needs to be said; sharp-witted rifler Gorou, a board game fanatic who's always plotting the next move; and strategic young rifler Vebra, the brains behind S&D missions.
Many on Rush Gaming's bench are new to pro-level play, but seriousness is a common thread running through the team. Even Vebra, the youngest at just 19 years old, spends countless hours researching strategies. His bubbly personality entertains everyone, especially when he starts singing and dancing to Latin music. But team CEO Ulara Nishitani also says the team’s high win rate with various S&D districts is thanks to Vebra’s research. She says he’s an innovator who watches pro US teams, scribbles strategies in his notebook, and later brings these back to share with the team.
Fight to survive
Rising to the pro esports ranks is hard enough anywhere in the world. But in Japan, where there isn't yet a pro scene with many sponsors and paid opportunities, Nishitani says you have to be among the best of the best—and enjoy popularity as a player—to earn any living at all. In other countries where esports is more recognized, pro players can just focus on their gaming, thanks to big salaries and competition winnings. Japanese players don’t have that luxury. Individual players fight for recognition, but also mere survival—the right to earn money doing what they love.
After an esports gaming area made an appearance at the 2018 Tokyo Game Show, and as the Tokyo government is set to sponsor a 2019 esports event, pro gaming is finally starting to catch on in the country. But winning a Japanese championship still doesn’t pay the bills—it "pretty much means nothing," says Nishitani, other than getting your name out there.
The team celebrates a recent victory
According to EsportsEarnings.com, Japan doesn’t even make it into the top 23 countries for Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 winnings (and the bottom-ranked country in the list garnered just $400). Even a top Japanese team like Rush has only made 5,000,000 Japanese yen ($47,160 USD) in lifetime winnings from one paid tournament—not nearly enough for five players to live off in three years.
To earn a living gaming professionally in Japan, “they've got to be popular, they've got to have audiences, they've got to do YouTube,” says Nishitani. Pro gaming is a big balancing act between two or more careers.
For Luke, this means juggling full-time school with pro gaming and streaming. Scrims go from nine at night to two in the morning, but Luke often keeps practicing until 5 or 6 AM. After an hour or two of sleep, he’s off to school, where naps between classes get him through the day. “I don’t think I’m balancing,” admits Luke. “I’m focusing solely on this game career, so I don’t think my lifestyle is healthy.” But he’s so passionate that it isn’t an issue, at least not yet. And despite this hectic schedule, or perhaps because of it, Luke is one of just two Rush players who can live off his streaming income alone.
Bring on the big leagues
After falling short at the CWL Anaheim and Miami qualifiers and substituting their previous IGL due to medical issues, Rush has hit some setbacks, but they aren't discouraged. "In a way, it was an important thing to happen for the team," says Luke, of GreedZz's substitution. "We all realized that every team member must be on top of everything and be a better player with much more research and practice strategically."
They're focusing more than ever on both individual and team skills. After turning heads with first place wins at the CWL Las Vegas 2018 Japan National Qualifier, CWL Fort Worth 2019 Japan National Qualifier, and CWL London 2019 Japan National Qualifier, they’ve shown the world they’re the top Japanese CoD team. Now it’s just a matter of proving their mettle on the global stage.
Rush have their sights on ranking in North America’s top 16 CoD teams this season. “That may not sound like crazy goals to you guys,” says Nishitani, but it would be groundbreaking in Japan. “No one has done it before. Practicing and playing in Japan and being top 16 in North America is extremely difficult.” She means that the local practice pool is extremely limited. Players have huge ping times if they want to compete against anyone outside the country, so they’re limited to playing against Japanese talent except when they’re in global competitions. The more exposure they can get to teams from outside Japan, such as in competitions, the better.
Members of the team practice on the ASUS VG245H console gaming monitor
Meeting these big goals also means having equipment to practice and play at a pro level. Console gaming demands fast response times, low input lag, and smooth gameplay. Many players don't realize that normal TVs or PC monitors aren't tuned for console gaming.
Luke says his previous display had issues with ghosting and washed-out colors. Since he’s started using the ASUS VG245H monitor, which our engineers designed specifically for use with console gaming, he’s noticed truer colors, smoother gameplay, and crisper graphics. His favorite feature of the display is its “Trace Free” mode, which minimizes ghosting and keeps visuals sharp during fast-paced action—a necessity for nailing those SMG headshots. Want to replicate his settings for success? Luke sets his VG245H's brightness at 100, contrast at 80, saturation at 50, sharpness at 100, and Trace Free to 80 for sharp, clear graphics that pop off the screen. The display comes with a capable stand with height, tilt, and swivel adjustments, but Luke has adopted a wall-mounted VESA monitor arm for the most flexibility in a small space.
A global mission
Esports are finally gaining recognition in Japan, but it's not an easy life or path ahead as Rush Gaming paves their own way. Even pro sports are difficult here, and "esport is even more difficult," cautions Nishitani. But she sees how the team has won over fans with their determination and vulnerability, like the time when Luke choked up on-stream after a heartbreaking loss.
Whether they’re practicing or playing, Rush Gaming demonstrate respect, optimism, humility, and resolve, both for each other and the game. They may not yet have the financial support that players in other countries do, but they have more than enough passion, and they’re resolved to make history by launching Japanese esports into the global arena, one mission, game, and tournament at a time.