The Bemani Pro League Is AAAwkward

So according to what I imagine to be the news reports, it turns out that because of Japan’s declining population and demographic crisis, the Japanese government has begun offering their excess housing and rental space to any person or company that wishes to create a highly unnecessary pro gaming venture, and so the Bemani Pro League was born.

It is not just that “e-Sports” have proven themselves the highly-effective advertising campaign which can be disguised as a form of company goodwill, but videogame developers have correctly recognized that some of their most talented players are dedicated to a fault, spending so much time pressing the buttons in the correct order, they have effectively wasted their lives, and with no Plan B available, they can be coerced into pressing those buttons in front of live studio audiences for the amusement of others.

Gone are the more innocent days when South Korean multinationals turned StarCraft into a seventy-hour-a-week minimum-wage job, so that the nation’s best players could furiously produce the optimal number of workers in front of live stadium audiences. They have now been replaced with Japanese multinationals who pay the nation’s best rhythm game players with arcade swipe cards that they are expected to purchase their credits with.

So inside of what was once a laundromat disguised as a Yakuza front – you read that correctly – these athletes perform their trade and craft through the long-running Beatmania series, the figurehead of the so-called “Bemani” rhythm videogame lineup, where players simulate the thrill and glory of being a disc jockey. Though we should add, the whole format seems to suggest that if Konami can make enough money with the venture to purchase the competitors lunch, then later competitions will include Soundstep, Beatbox Ultra, and other rhythm videogames that don’t exist and whose names I just made up.

We should also note that these developments are probably surprising to those who were unaware that Konami is still a thing, remembering that the last time the company registered on the videogame radar, they were cancelling promising projects and removing the body parts of Hideo Kojima from the Konami offices at gunpoint. But after years of bizarre forays into fitness parlors and pachinko machines, the corporate types at Konami reached into a hat featuring pieces of paper with words scrawled across them, and out came “e-Sports” and “rhythm games”.

So we can proudly announce that the tradition of Konami holding people at gunpoint seems to continue at these events, as highly unenthusiastic Japanese salarypersons introduce us to the men – and yes, they’re all men – who will compete to press the plastic buttons slightly more accurately than everyone else. And make no mistake about it, “slightly more accurately” is absolutely the appropriate phrase.

The presentation of the information on the screen is a tacit admission that this was an absolutely terrible idea, and with absolutely nothing interesting happening in the game itself, the largest infobox, and quite literally the center of attention, is a score meter that…tracks the score meters of our competitors, the Twin Towers unfolding in all their glory, tapping into the lucrative market for individuals who watch financial news networks to cheer for the number at the bottom of the screen that tells you how the stock market is doing.

And during this high-octane action, the Japanese commentators talk about something, Lord knows what they could possibly be talking about. These proceedings occasionally include a “V-Tuber”, or “Virtual Tuber”, for short, the perfect companion for an audience that hasn’t talked to real people in years and have forgotten what they look like. While I am barred by the courts from translating Japanese into English, I imagine their dialogue something like the baseball announcers who will desperately talk about anything other than the baseball game, perhaps asking what the former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been up to.

But nevermind one of Japan’s greatest living statesmen, because there is always the question of why you could be watching someone else play a videogame when you could be doing it yourself, so let’s explain why rhythm videogames take this artform to another level.  And on this particular topic, I speak from an expert perspective, since I am the person who plays Dance Dance Revolution at a mediocre restaurant disguised as an arcade, where you get the huge crowds, and then those huge crowds disappear, no matter how loudly you hit the buttons or how many articles of clothing you take off.

And this is because the thing that makes sports and other competitions interesting to watch is the direct interactions between the players, the idea that you are attempting to outwit and outperform another skilled and capable human, or even a team of humans, where you are attempting to advance a ball or perhaps even a hamster down the field so that you can kick it through the uprights, while the defending team must retrieve the hamster so that they can sacrifice it to their gods.

Or let’s put it this way, there is a reason that slam dunks in basketball games occupy sports headlines and become wildfire on social media, but slam dunk contests have become blase affairs where exploding rims do not even register. It’s not about the moves, it’s about using the moves to overcome skilled humans and meaningful resistance, a back-and-forth struggle which leads to the moment where one adult rises on another, leaping high into the air and forcing the orange rubber ball into the metal toy ring.

So whether it is a slam dunk contest, a footrace, a round of Tetris, or a well-played match in Beatmania, the result is not so much a sport as much as it is a circus, a struggle with no struggle, and once you have seen someone perform a single backflip, the new standard and expectation of excellence has been set. Now the performer must do two backflips, or perhaps a frontflip, because the spectator has already seen a backflip, and one backflip is no longer enough.

Which takes us back to the Bemani Pro League, and by the time they have gotten to the Lightning Round, where one of the contestants performs the slam dunk by leaping over the Beatmania cabinet, I can’t even be arsed to care, I want him to jump over an entire line of Gunslinger Stratos cabinets, perhaps even the eight-cabinet layout made famous by Daytona U.S.A.  As a member of the viewing public who is watching this event for free on his computer, I demand more for my money.

Or perhaps I am wrong about everything, maybe the appeal of the Bemani Pro League is the tension of two skilled competitors going neck-a-neck, that even if they are not directly competing against each other, we know a single mistake could be the difference between victory and defeat. It reminds me of the time that I saw a cat get into a fight with its reflection in the mirror, it was an incredibly even match, an opponent that seemed to match every hiss and snarl, both sides eventually agreeing to let their disagreements go, and simultaneously throwing up on the floor.

So as I watched the participants effortlessly decimate the on-screen notation, registering “Perfect” after “Perfect” on the path to the prettiest possible letter grades, I could only ask out loud, “Who the hell is the audience for this?” According to the YouTube score counter, these events get tens-of-thousands of views, which is tens-of-thousands more views than one would expect, though we need to remember that YouTube is a platform where test videos with no apparent purpose can get millions of views, achieving far more interest than anything in the Bemani Pro League, or my website, for that matter.

And at the moment I realized this, my consternation and grumbling sounds were drowned out by musical performances from the DJs who have presumably supplied music for these games, demonstrating their mastery of full-fledged sound boards as part of this paid advertisement for Konami rhythm games, and helping to highlight the obvious problem with pretty much every rhythm videogame which is neither in the vein of Dance Dance Revolution or directly modeled on an actual real-world instrument, which is that you are playing a simplified version of the real thing.

“Why don’t you play a real sound board, you fucking simpleton?”, I screamed at the electronic representations of the players that were on my computer monitor, parroting the line of thought that someone skilled at Guitar Hero should learn to play a real instrument, while conveniently ignoring that I cannot personally play a real instrument or operate any device that is specifically designed to produce music, other than my armpits.

The purpose of the comment, however, was not to produce rational commentary that could hold to scrutiny. It was to justify and validate the contempt and resentment that I have for a class of videogame players who possess skills which I secretly desire but will never be able to achieve, subjecting Konami’s venture and its participants to scorn and fury that will reach my readers, on the path to personal loneliness and my eventual self-exile from society.

And in this moment, we can declare that the Bemani Pro League is a resounding success, a love letter and celebration of a genre that no one plays anymore and that would not have been cutting-edge if it had been released in the nineteenth century, produced by a company that hasn’t cared about the videogame business in over a decade. The twenty-first century remains a fascinating and troubling place. I desire more of it.