M.League: Here in the Paradise Garage

By Andrew Smith

Here in the Paradise Garage there’s a crowd of about 300 people behind me, cheering and clapping inflatable thundersticks together furiously. There are three people on the stage ahead of us bantering about the personalities playing. The atmosphere is tense, the action is fast, and one team is breaking out and pushing ahead.

This is not the old mahjong. This is mahjong reinventing itself: it’s faster, it’s slicker, there are teams and team supporters’ clubs, there’s glitz and glamour, and the players are wearing the merchandised sports kit styled on global soccer.

It hasn’t just appeared from nowhere. But it has been catalysed by an ambitious promoter and a big chunk of sponsorship. It’s taken some of its lead from the Japanese Pro Mahjong League: there’s no alcohol, and no smoking during play. Gambling is illegal in Japan, so nominally no one gambles anyway: in practice there’s a lot of low-level gambling which is pragmatically ignored. Some of the top mahjong players earn some kind of income in mahjong parlours; most will also have a routine day job. But they’re not paid by their mahjong professional association, even though they’re top of their field in a nationally-popular pastime: quite the reverse, they’ll pay a monthly or annual fee in order to be a member of a professional mahjong organisation. All except for the 21 players in the seven teams of the M.League. They’re salaried players, playing for big prize money. In exchange, they give up the right to earn in parlours. One way to look at it is to see it as the start of what we would call the “professionalization” of the game.

There’s team kits in team colours, with the player’s name across the back, and the sponsors’ logos across the front. And there are top-notch sponsors. That might seem obvious, for a game played by millions in the country, that sponsors would be attracted to it. But historically, mahjong in Japan has had quite a problem with its reputation. At its core, it was a gambling game. That means addictions, big money, and the involvement of organised crime. Not the sort of thing a sponsor wants to be associated with. So the willingness of seven sponsors to badge their kit is a positive step forward: efforts put in by JPML and the World Riichi Championship to clean up the game, and the image of the game, are working.

Games are screened several times a week by the online broadcaster Abema, which also sponsors one of the teams. Viewers need a Japanese IP address to view these games; some viewers from outside Japan who are foxy with the use of proxies, or VPNs, watch the games from outside Japan. Friday’s games have a live audience who are in a separate studio in the same building, and tickets are sold out for months ahead. That’s Paradise Garage, a concrete box that’s sound-proofed from the playing studio.

Our concrete-box studio is split into four seating areas, one for each team’s supporters. Cheers go up for each riichi, and for hands won and lost: there are people walking around geeing up the crowd to cheer at the end of each hand, but they don’t need much encouragement. Another glass of beer or two is enough to get the cheers louder and more sincere, and the crowd know what they’re looking at: when a rival player draws their player’s winning tile, there’s half the room sucking its teeth at what’s coming next, and the cheers build up the moment that tile heads to the discard pile.

Maehara Yudai is playing for Konami MFC—he’s had a bad 10 games on aggregate so far, and is deep in negative points. Kondi Seiichi is representing Sega Sammy Phoenix, and is also fairly deeply negative, as is Katsumata Kenji of Ex Furinkazan. OI Takaharu is with Shibuya Abemas, and is storming it at +274.5 from 7 games. Abemas are top of the league at the start of today’s play, and we’re about a third of the way through the season—each team has played 25-30 games out of the 80 they’ll have played in total. This time Abemas will take 2nd, and Maehara takes first, having led since South-1 when he scored a dealer mangan thanks to his riichi-only hand hitting triple ura-dora. The Konami corner of Paradise Garage is a bristling surface of red thundersticks.

The next game is the same four teams, but the teams don’t have to keep the same nominated player. But having just had a fantastic game, Maehara’s back to play the second game too. Yumi Uotani comes out for Sega Sammy Phoenix, and our commentators later in the game will spend some time discussing whether her sometimes placing her hand on the side of her face when she thinks is a “tell”—an unconscious signal of how her hand is progressing. Yoshihiro Matsumoto comes out for Abemas. Like his team-mate, he’s having a good season. Nikaido Aki comes out for Ex Furinkazan, and her sister Rumi sits next to us in the VIP area. Oh, I didn’t mention, did I? Our amazing host has got us VIP seats for all this. We’re right in front of the giant screen showing the game, just a few metres from the commentators. Later, our VIP seats will mean we get VIP photo opportunities with this evening’s players, too.

At the end of south four we’re on turn 15, and Aki is well down in 4th place but has reached tempai and riichi’d with the previous discard. It’s a good hand, but it’s not a great hand. Then she draws a red five and that, plus the ippatsu tsumo, is enough to give her a solid third. It’s a great final tile for a great game, and her sister Rumi is ecstatic. Aki keeps her unemotional game face on. And Abemas win yet another game, taking them back to the top of the league, with a decent lead.

But let’s rewind to earlier in the game. I’m watching every draw, wondering what I’d do. The pro does what I’d do well over half the time, and that’s encouraging. But sometimes they just do something that I can’t immediately understand. When I review the video afterwards, then after a few minutes thinking about it, I can see what’s going on. Usually.

We’re halfway through the wall, so mid-hand. One player has just reached tempai; it’s a big hand, it has a yaku, and so they’re staying quiet—no riichi, just silent waiting. The pace of play is fast, tiles are drawn and discarded in a second or two. The next player draws, and they’ve just drawn the previous player’s winning tile. There is nothing I can see to indicate that they should suspect that the player on their left is in tempai, nor that this tile is dangerous. In the crowd, we know it is, we see all. And the moment they see it, they hesitate, hand in mid-air, and they think for a few seconds. And then they add it to their hand, and make a safe discard, breaking up a run, and somehow they’ve avoided dealing into the silent, deadly tempai. I know what I’ve just seen, but short of actual telepathy, I’m not sure how it can have happened. Maybe any sufficiently advanced mahjong skill is indistinguishable from magic.

I turn to Gemma, mystified. “It’s a different game when they play it,” she says.

It is.

It’s all a different game. The mahjong I play is a shadow of this. And this is not the old mahjong. It’s big, it’s bold, it’s fun, and at the end of the evening, when we’re getting our photos taken with the pros, I’m elated and rather hoarse from all the cheering.

A night out at M.League is a remarkable night. If you get chance, just do it.

You can find some games, and highlights, on the official youtube channel https://www.youtube.com/c/m-league