Japan's Masaya 'aMSa' Chikamoto eyes a future in North America

Unable to make a living in esports in Japan coupled with a desire to compete more regularly against the best in the world, Masaya "aMSa" Chikamoto, second from the left, is considering leaving his home country for the Smash hotbed of North America. Getty Images

Once again, he had succumbed to a god. Echo Fox's Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman had knocked VG Bootcamp's Masaya "aMSa" Chikamoto down to the Super Smash Bros. Melee loser's bracket at Battle of BC in Vancouver, Canada, earlier this month. To make it into the top eight, aMSa next had to get through Jack "Crush" Hoyt, the best player from New England.

The set ultimately came down to a Game 5, and Crush secured an early lead. AMSa, with a 2-stock deficit, looked down at his controller, looked back up toward the screen and got to work.

He finally got a grab and turned it into a quick stock, putting himself on the board. But Crush countered with another kill, leaving aMSa on his final stock to Crush's three.

AMSa refused to give up and turned on the pressure. He chewed off Crush's second stock. That's also when the crowd started chanting aMSa's name. He used that energy to eat Crush's third stock, evening up the match.

"It might happen," commentator Oscar "Lovage" Nilsson said. Crush quickly went on the defensive. But aMSa didn't care and continued to aggressively look for openings. Eventually he found one and pushed Crush offstage. As Crush was trying to recover, aMSa used a move that launched his famous Yoshi downward like a missile, hitting Crush and launching him offstage.

"What! No. That is not a thing," yelled commentator Kristopher "Toph" Aldenderfer as fans rushed the stage, jumping on aMSa.

AMSa ultimately didn't win Battle of BC, exiting the tournament in a respectable seventh place. But as aMSa boarded a plane back for Japan, he knew he would return to Vancouver but with a one-way ticket in hand.

AMSa has been the face of Japanese Super Smash Bros. Melee for the past five years. He's loved by fans for his continued use of Yoshi, Mario's dinosaur companion, in the face of a highly optimized metagame. It's his positive personality, competitive spirit and technical ability that have made him a fan favorite.

But aMSa wants to be more than just popular among fans. He wants to be the best in the world.

As aMSa wakes up for another long workday as a computer engineer in Tokyo, he knows he can't continue to live in his home country if he wants to achieve his dream. The level of competition is too weak in Japan and the environment isn't yet welcoming for esports.

For aMSa to have any shot at being competitive with the top 10 in the world, he would need to regularly compete with the best in North America. And Japan is one massive roadblock for an aspiring Melee player.

"I'm famous by Melee, but if I take time, after two or three years, it will be too late to move to other countries. So now is the time to move," said aMSa, 25.

Discussing his future at Game Bar in Tokyo, at which aMSa was hosting a bi-weekly Melee event, aMSa dished on all the frustrations he's had working in Japan and his desire to live elsewhere.

AMSa has had it with the Japanese work environment. It's not a knock against his current employer, but the culture in general. Young workers are expected to stay for long hours for substandard pay, aMsa says. The pay scale in Japan is heavily weighted on age. The longer an employee has stayed with the company, regardless of their contribution or output, he is rewarded with a more generous salary. At 25 years old, aMSa says he is making between $20,000 and $30,000. And in a city as expensive as Tokyo, with the average rent between $750 and $1,200, it's simply not enough.

That's why the draw of North America is so strong. A person with aMSa's engineering background can not only make more money -- the average salary in Canada for a computer engineer is roughly $47,000 -- the work demands are also less rigorous.

"Many young people are losing interest in working in traditional 'salaryman' positions," said Patricia Maclachlan, associate professor in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, with a focus on Japan. As players such as aMSa see people from other countries less bombarded with the pressures of work, it's only natural they become frustrated and disillusioned with the current Japanese work environment.

"Social norms and structures tend to value conformity, which makes it hard for alternative movements to take route and flourish," Dr. Maclachlan said.

Of course, the United States is also an option for aMSa, with California arguably being the healthiest region for Melee in the world. But because of America's strict and difficult immigration system, aMSa says it might be easier to go to Canada.

It's odd to think that Japan, the country that brought us Mario, Donkey Kong and Street Fighter, would be uninviting to esports. While South Korea, China and, slowly, the United States have warmed up to the idea of a full-time, competitive gamer, it's something that's still seen as childish in Japan.

Beyond the cultural barriers, another culprit could be the strict anti-gambling laws in Japan. Because gambling is illegal, hosting a local tournament with a $10 entrance fee and then distributing that money to the winner is considered gambling. For that reason, many Japanese players play for pride, or to prove they're the best. Japanese players have become accustomed to the lack of tournament winnings, and going to a tournament with a prize pool would be unusual.

Without any economic incentives, it's hard to make a career out of competitive gaming in Japan. That's why many of the top Japanese players, such as Yusuke "Momochi" Momochi (Street Fighter, Echo Fox), Yuta "Abadango" Kawamura (Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Luminosity Gaming) or Daigo Umehara (Street Fighter, Red Bull/Twitch/Cygames Beast) are sponsored by Western organizations. While there are some Japanese esports organizations, all are small by comparison.

It was only 10 or so years ago that Japanese players such as Ryota "CaptainJack" Yoshida and Bombsoldier were fighting alongside top American players in competitive Melee. But as esports has allowed top players such as Cloud9's Joseph "Mang0" Marquez and Team Liquid's Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma to compete full time, Japanese players are left at a major disadvantage.

AMSa knows he can beat the best. He says it with confidence. When asked if he could ever beat Mew2King, he gave an emphatic "yes."

And perhaps a move to North America is the best way he can prove it.