March 22, 2018

Talking to the "Pro Gamer Couple" Momochi and Chocoblanka about esports as a job and the severe reality of money

I saw an interesting article about Momochi and Chocoblanka. I decided to translate it into English. I'm just doing this on my own, and even (gasp!) hotlinking the images, so that might disappear at some point. Any mistakes are mine, please refer to the original article to see it formatted better.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money! Talking to the "Pro Gamer Couple" Momochi and Chocoblanka about esports as a job and the severe reality of money

Recently more attention has been drawn to the vocation of "Professtional Gamers" - people who fly around the world, take part in game tournaments, and win prize money. Japan is still a developing country when it comes to the world of the Professional games scene, but slowly the word "esports", meaning to compete using video games, has slowly started to penetrate into the vernacular. At the start of 2018 a professional esports group was formed and started to issue professional licenses. You might think "it's just games" but over the years the scale of esports activities has grown, and now prize money can range from hundreds of thousands of dollars up to millions of dollars at some tournaments.

While the scene is expanding, the truth is that not many people know about the actual conditions of what being a professional gamer is like. There are many questoins like: what does it really mean to be a professional gamer, how does one become a pro gamer, what difficulties does a pro gamer face, how much does a pro gamer make? We have an honest discussion with "Momochi" and "ChocoBlanka", the "Pro Gamer couple" who burst onto the scene in 2014 and 2015 as world champions.

1 To become a pro gamer requires "tournament results" and "business activities"

Thank you for coming today. You are both professional gamers are your job, but can you talk to us about what that actually means?

Momochi For me, my main work is to be active as a player of the "Street Fighter V" Fighting Game, which means I participate in overseas tournaments, and win prize money.

ChocoBlanka (Choco from here on) We are also part of Team Echo Fox, and receive a monthly salary from them, so you can also say that we are salaried employees.

How does one go about getting the title of "Pro Gamer"?

Momochi The actual definition of a Pro Gamer is still under debate but, generally if you are sponsored by a team or a corporation you are called a "Pro Gamer".

You said earlier that you are active as a fighting game player, but does that mean there are different pros for each game?

Momochi Yes, that's right. There are people that are pro "Hearthstone" or "Shadowverse" trading card game players, or First Person Shooter games called FPSs. It is very similar to how there is a large group of "professional athletes" and within that there are "Pro Baseball players" and also "Soccer players" and so on.

I see. So, can you tell us the details about how you two became pro gamers?

Choco The first step was getting an email from the owner of the first pro sports team that we joined, but prior to that we went to overseas tournaments at our own expense, we wrote a blog in English targeting the foreign market, and we also approached multiple peripheral manufacturers and had discussions about whether they would sponsor us.

You got results overseas, and also took part in business negotiations. What sort of results did you achieve domestically?

Momochi I won some domestic tournaments. Now people are saying that the competition is stronger overseas, but at the time the level was higher in Japan than overseas. At that time I thought I was good enough to be a world champion.


You said that you negotiated with multiple companies in order to become a pro gamer, but could you tell me about how many companies that was?

Momochi There were multiple teams that we wanted to be a part of, and so we worked hard to make a strong case to join them. So you could say that we had limited the field to some degree… About five companies I think.

I see. So you did work for them, and then they said "Please join us", right?

Momochi Well, actually, we didn't really do any business at all, and they just asked us. (laughs).

Wow, really?

Momochi The team that we joined was an American team called "Evil Geniuses", and while they had a fighting games group, there didn't have any Japanese players on their team.

Choco Evil Geniuses is a team with a storied history, and their first American fighting games player was "Justin Wong" so … We didn't even dream of thinking that we could join them, and so we didn't even try to approach them.

That's amazing that you would get an offer from a team you didn't even approach! In 2017 you left Evil Geniuses and moved to Echo Fox, can you tell me about that?

Choco They also approached us. We don't just do things are players, but we also hold events, and make contributions to the fighting games community as a whole, and the owner of Echo Fox values that. This is a team that only just formed in 2015, and they approached us saying "We would like to work together and grow together with you", so we were negotiating with both teams…

Momochi We really love the Evil Geniuses team but, at that time when Echo Fox came calling, it was right at the time of contract renewals, and we thought from a timing point of view it was right. It was the result of many things taken all together.

Do you see a difference in the standing of pro gamers domestically and internationally?

Momochi I think that the environment is much better for players overseas, but the scene is growing here domestically as well, and so the gap between the two has shrunk a bit. Still, the two of us both have always belonged to a foreign team, and often go to overseas tournaments, so from that perspective you almost have to say that we are foreign pro gamers (laughs).

Choco But Japanese companies that will sponsor people have recently been on the rise here as well.

I think the domestic pro gamer environment has changed a lot in the past few years, what do you think of the current domestic environment?

Choco The number of companies that are interested and have started to participate has increased. The Nissin Food Group company was a main sponsor of "EVO Japan", a large scale tournament. I think bringing in more companies that are not directly related to gaming and garnering their interest is an important part of how the scene will continue to develop.

2 Prize money for Pro Gamers continue to increase every year

Let's talk about a Pro Gamer's income. First, how much do you make from prize money at tournaments?

Momochi It differs depending on the scale of the tournament, but the international tournaments on the Pro Tour usually have prize money of about $10,000 USD. [Translator Note: He's giving numbers in yen, I'm just doing the lazy 100yen/1USD conversion.] Those are held at about the pace of one a week. The sponsoring team covers travel expenses, and I attend tens of tournaments a year.

Also, some key tournaments have prize money of $50,000 or $100,000, and the final world championship tournament is about $300,000. Every year that amount goes up too. I won world championships at the end of the year in 2014 and the summer of 2015, and in 2014 the prize money was between $40,000 and $50,000.

At the time, that much prize money was unthinkable and I was very happy, but about 30 seconds later the announcer said "We're doing this again next year! And the prize money will be $500,000!" (laughs.) In 2013 the world championship prize money was about $6,000 so thinking about that, I made almost ten times as much, I thought "Thank God I didn't win last year!", but of course the winner in the next year had it even better.

So it really feels like you are getting 100% of the prize money yourself.

Momochi It depends on the team, but in our case we do get 100% of the prize money.

How much prize money did you acquire in 2017?

Momochi Lemme think, how much was it? I didn't really win all that much but … about $40,000 I think. My world championships from 2014 and 2015 was closer to $100,000 though.

It's obvious that if you don't win, you won't get prize money, but that's a very difficult situation, isn't it?

Momochi Yes, that's true. If you want prize money, you need to win. If you don't win, in the worst case you won't even be able to make $10,000. You can't say that "We'll live off the prize money". Right now we are receiving a salary from our sponsor, but if instead we had to "live off of our winnings" then we wouldn't be able to eat.

You two also run "Shinobism", a company that runs gaming events. Are you trying to make a living by running a company?

Momochi That is our long term goal. Of course, we have our prize winnings and salary from being pro gamers, but about a year after we became pro gamers we started to think about "What will we have left behind after retiring from being pro gamers?" From there we started to engage in activities to improve the community, and formed a company.

Shinobism: We connect "games" and "people".

Choco Of course, the main premise is that we do these things because we like doing them. We like running events, and Momochi likes to teach people and he wanted to try to train new players.

Momochi I wanted to have a second career outside of "playing games". It might be better to think about that kind of thing after retiring, but that would be a bit late, and you never know when your job as a pro gamer might end.

So you thought back when you first became a pro gamer that your future would be tough.

Momochi As a pro gamer, there is always the chance that you might stop being able to win, or what if suddenly people stopped holding tournaments, or it wasn't possible for prize money to be given out. In that case, your self worth, and job itself will suddenly disappear. And there would be nothing that we could do about that on our own, so I really thought that we needed to do something that we could exert control over.

Have you thought about retiring?

Momochi Sometimes. I thought that I could put more effort into running events, or once I stop being as effective as a player concentrate more on raising up the next generation of players. We've had discussions between the two of us about how "it's about time".

Choco I've also thought "I think I should retire" before. Especially right when we first started our company and I just wasn't able to do both things, and sometimes people would tell me "Don't you think you should retire?" I think my existence as a pro gamer is different from other pro gamers, I'm in a unique position. I stand out more than others, and a lot of people have negative opinions. But, finally my main character has come out in SFV, and I really feel like I want to take on that challenge again now.

How is it that your position is unique?

Choco Back when I first became a pro player, there was a big gap between my performance and the top male pro players. When we were first approached to become professional players, I even told the owner "I'm not very strong in the game". But even so owner told me "There are things that only you are able to do", and so I became a pro.


3 My husband tells me "You have no talent"

You two got married in 2015. The "Pro Gamer Couple" so to speak. Did you actually meet through games?

Choco Back when I was working as a part-time job at an arcade, I used to run some of the fighting game tournaments. Momochi took part in the tournament, and from that point we started to become friends.

So as a gamer couple, do you ever get in arguments about games, or make up with each other through games?

Choco Momochi is a real stoic, and when we play games together he tells me stuff like "You have no talent, you should quit", and that just is really …

That's so cruel!

Choco I'm sure that he gets just as mad when I say "I want to get stronger", but then he says things like "If you want to get stronger, why don't you think about the game, and do it!" …

Momochi No, you say "I want to get stronger, teach me", so I teach you something, and then you just say "Huh…" (laughs). I mean, I feel like I teach you things when you ask, so why do you feel like that.

Choco Momochi can really easily say things [Translator note: I think more like he can easily analyze the game and talk about strategy etc.] but for me, I have to struggle with each tactic and piece of tech. When he just spouts out ten things all at once, I'm just like "Ugh, this is impossible…!" (laughs).

Momochi and Chocoblanka

I think maybe Momochi knows about the harsh realities of being a top player

Choco Well, I don't think it is much different from how normal couples fight. If I win, I win, and then he gets sullen. (laughs)

Yeah, I guess that really is the same. (laughs)

Momochi I don't know about that … (laughs). I do feel like we aren't any different from the couples around us though. It's like when you're playing Momotaro Dentetsu and the God of Poverty gets in your way, and you're like "hey! hey!". [Translator note: I don't know what this is about, and I'm not going to run down that rabbit hole.]

By the way, when did you both start playing video games?

Choco Actually, I only started playing fighting games recently with "Street Fighter IV". Well, I say recently but it has been 10 years now (laughs). Video games themselves though, I've been playing those since I was a child.

Momochi My first game was "Mario" on the Nintendo. That is when my memory of being a child starts. So it's like, I was born and then bam, there's "Mario". (laughs). I've been playing Fighting Games since I was about 10 years old, I really loved when I was playing and I beat middle school kids or high school kids on the other end of the machine. I just couldn't get enough of it.

Have you been winning tournaments since then…?

Momochi Not really. All of that came much later. I grew up way out in the countryside, so our fighting game community was very small. When I became the best at our local arcade, I thought "Am I the best?" but when I went to the arcade at the next town over there was someone stronger, so… And that happened over and over.

4 Before becoming a pro gamer, he played games as much as a pro

Are there things that you are happy that you have been able to do as a pro gamer?

Choco I'm really happy that I've been able to make friends with people all over the world. I've always been interested in foreign countries, but I was able to go overseas because of games, and I've made friends in all sorts of countries. Of course it's lots of fun when you can meet your friends, but even when you can't they help out with all sorts of things, and I'm really glad that I have lots of friends like that.

I see. Momochi, what about you?

Momochi Things I'm happy about… Um, let's see…

…Uh, you have to think about that? (laughs)

Momochi Yeah… (laughs). Before becoming a pro gamer I played games as much as a pro would, so actually my life hasn't changed all that much. But I thought that I wouldn't be able to make a living by continuing to play games that I like, so I'm glad that I have been able to keep living like this… I guess I can say that, right? (laughs). I don't know what things will be like in 10 years though.

On the other hand, can you tell me about things that have been difficult as a pro gamer?

Momochi In my case, sometimes I've felt like I hate games. I had always been playing for fun up until now, but now this isn't a game, and I have to play games even when that isn't something that I would like to do.

So if you don't get results…

Momochi Ah, yeah that's happened. When I lose at a tournament, sometimes I really think "I really should quit". I think it is the same in sports too, where even though you have practiced a lot it doesn't necessarily mean that you will win. I've won when I didn't feel confident, which is surprising to me, and there are times when I've put in tons of work, gone to a tournament, just gotten completely beat up, and felt worthless. Well, in the end I still am playing video games though.

Normally how much practice do you do?

Momochi Before a tournament I'll practice when I'm not eating or sleeping, and it can easily go over 10 hours a day. I don't have a fixed schedule, so I can decide how to use time on my own but you do improve the more you practice, so I feel like "I have to do it".

Momochi and Chocoblanka

5 As a pro gamer, how do you handle your work / life balance?

Momochi …We just don't have any private life at all. If we aren't playing a game, we are doing something for our company…

Choco Right, we don't have any personal time. Even when we aren't going to tournaments, we take part in other events, and we also stream over the net. But we do enjoy doing those things, so we can relax a bit.

So if you two wanted to go to a movie, or a date…

Choco Impossible. That last time I think we went on an actual date was in 2014 when we went to Disneyland.

Momochi No way, we've done more than that!

Choco Ah, that's right, when we got married the team said "Go with him" and we went together to a tournament in France that Momochi entered and did some sightseeing.

Momochi Well, in that case I was going for the tournament, so it wasn't a personal thing… Oh yeah, I go overseas like 20 times a year but I never get a chance to go sightseeing. I get to the hotel, start training, go to the tournament, and then come home. That's it. In the worst case, I come back without even sleeping.

But if you wanted to take time for sightseeing, you could do it, right?

Momochi I could. But that is time that I could be using to train. And anyway, going sightseeing before a tournament doesn't feel right. I guess I could go sightseeing after the tournament but… I normally feel like "I you don't win the tournament, you lose" and it would be hard to go sightseeing feeling like that.

6 They want a changing of the guard and new stars to emerge

Momochi, you are training students, but why did you start doing that while you are still an active player?

Momochi While it is true that I enjoy teaching, right now in Japan Pro Gamers are mostly all over 30 years old. And I'm worried about that, you could say almost scared…

Local arcades are slowly starting to disappear, and young players don't have a chance to start playing fighting games and if the fighting game community population declines that will have a big impact on us.

Choco In tournaments overseas, young players are starting to win more and more. The 2017 Capcom Cup held in America was won by Mena from the Dominican Republic, and he's only 18 years old. So at 18 years old he received $300,000 in prize money, and when you change that into Dominican currency it is about 10 times as much. So about three million dollars in Japan.

That's an unbelievable amount of money…!

Momochi That's the dream, a young player gets more money that you would see if you worked a whole lifetime! I would like to see more young players be active in Japan too.

Are young players better at fighting games?

Momochi That's a difficult question. Reaction speed is better for younger people but, the experience that you get and hunches from long years of play are important too. Also, at tournaments it is hard to show your actual ability, but as you gain more experience you can improve with that too and it is a strong benefit. Even with strong young players, they often can be crushed by the pressure and lose. Even then, if you look at the global scale, there are young players that are active, so on that scale you can see that the changing of the guard is coming. I just want to see more young players active in Japan too.

Momochi and Chocoblanka

What do you want the Japanese Pro Gamer World to look like in the future?

Choco It's banal, but I really would like to see it grow more and more. I don't just mean by outward appearances, but also to see those communities that were born out of the dimly lit arcades that never saw the light of day be treated well, and have new companies and ventures enter this world and grow together. I'd also like to see a new generation, and see a new star born from their ranks.

Momochi I don't know how it will change, but I'm excited for it… I want to see how far we can take it, and I want to aim to be the best in the world. [Translator note: I believe he's talking about Japanese Pro Gaming, but could also be talking about himself.] I'd also like to see the students we've trained become more active and leave their mark.

Are you ok with your standing as a player falling if the new generation takes over?

Momochi In the future, when players reach their mid to late 30s, and start to think "younger players are coming up, and I'm at my limit" I think they should be able to make a contribution in a different form. But, I'm not sure, but I might be able to keep on in the same role I'm in now in my 40s and 50s, and I think that's also an attractive quality about being a player. So, basically I'm saying that I'm still trying to win.

Reporting, writing: Ikkou Photography: Sekiguchi Kayo

Interview subjects:
Momochi-san. Pro Gamer for "Echo Fox". Representative of Shinobism Ltd. Winner of the Ultra Street Fighter IV World Championship Capcom Cup 2014, acquired the title of World Champion. The next year in 2015 won the Evolution Ultra Street Fighter IV tournament, thus winning two World Championships in a row. Twitter: momochi212
ChocoBlanka-san. Pro Gamer for "Echo Fox". Representative of Shinobism Ltd. First female Pro Gamer in Japan. She has appeared in various media, and works to grow the Gamer Community through many activities. Twitter: ChocoBlanka


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