After yokozuna Hakuho entered the sumo ring at Makuhari Messe convention center in Chiba's Mihama Ward, a giant video display behind the dohyo sparkled with the live action, and the screen began to light up with a string of comments ranging from "Let's go!" to "Cool!"
This was Niconico Chokaigi 3, the annual fan event organized by video-sharing website Niconico Douga (Niconico).
Held April 26 and 27, this year's conference combined the staid, traditional world of Japan's ancient sport with the younger hip online generation.
A familiar feature of Niconico is that viewers watching live broadcasts can use computers and other devices to post whatever comments they want.
The sumo matches and tournament-related events at Makuhari Messe, much like those on a sumo tour of the country, were produced in a space bustling with attendees, including plenty of girls in cosplay outfits.
Nearby booths featuring traditional board games go and shogi generated a buzz, as professional players squared off not against one another--but against a computer.
During a typical sumo tour, the action in the ring is the main event. But at Niconico Chokaigi 3, the matches took place concurrently with nearby anime and cosplay events, creating a din of noise and a carnival-like atmosphere.
"I was nervous, because it was our first tour that was mixed with lots of other things," said stablemaster Kitajin, who works in the Japan Sumo Association's tour department. "But unlike tournaments with a lot of older spectators, we had young people stopping to watch. The mood wasn't solemn at all, but I think it was a success in terms of popularizing the sport."
The relationship between Niconico and the JSA goes back to 2011. That was the year Niconico provided a live broadcast of the entire May technical examination tournament, which public broadcaster Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) declined to show due to the match-fixing scandal, among other reasons.
"We can't get the broadcast rights for a regular tournament," said Seiji Sugimoto, the president of Niwango Inc., the company that runs Niconico. "So we sought opportunities for events.
"Content with dedicated followers has value in that it attracts people. That is especially so for traditional culture that has been around for a long time. It may seem like a niche, but it has hidden potential."
Of traditional culture, shogi, a Japanese board game similar to chess, has been the biggest hit on Niconico. The "Denosen" (electronic king battle), in which professional shogi players face off against a computer, has a "man vs. machine" narrative to it. The tournament's popularity increases every year. More than 630,000 viewers accessed the final game of the third Denosen this year.
"It simultaneously made the young recognize the game of shogi itself while raising the recognition of players," said Daisuke Katagami, Japan Shogi Association director and sixth-dan (rank) player, of shogi's exposure on Niconico.
A number of shogi players whose unique characters draw attention in cyber space are experiencing more media opportunities, as in the case of ninth-dan player Hifumi Kato, who appears on variety shows broadcast on commercial TV stations.
"Niconico's comment feature lowered the bar for discussing shogi," Kato said. "Unless you are well-versed in the game, it's hard to ask a question at events like shogi demonstrations.
"With Niconico, viewers can talk and ask questions about topics within their range of interests, like snacks players eat during games and their players' personalities."
Sumo and shogi have something in common: While the broadcast time for each is relatively long, the action that determines the winner of a match occurs quickly. That long wait time encourages viewers to fill the downtime with conversation.
Yoshiharu Habu, currently a holder of three shogi titles, likened live broadcasts on Niconico to a game of shogi played on a bench in the street.
Niwango's Sugimoto added that the recent sumo event was "like a street TV broadcast" harkening back to when tournaments were shown in public via TVs on street corners in Japan.
"Everyone gathers, and people who don't know much about the sport awaken to its appeal as they listen to other people shouting to the wrestlers," Sugimoto said. "There must be more traditional culture like that out there."
Since last year, Niconico has also been broadcasting "Ogura Hyakunin Isshu" traditional competitive karuta game, and rakugo, a form of comedic storytelling.
The third Niconico Chokaigi drew a record 124,966 attendees over two days. Many were between the ages of 10 and 29. Other than sumo, this year's highlights included exhibits, such as of the submersible research vehicle Shinkai 6500 and the giant isopod, a deep sea creature.
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