The Cult Of Kaz Hirai
20th Feb 2013 | 09:40
It was almost as though the PlayStation Meeting video invite, which Sony published online on Jan 31, had some kind of subliminal message encoded within it. It was as though, somewhere between the video's shapes and sounds, a message lied, feeding into our subconscious minds the thought that Kaz Hirai will save us all.
Because ever since January 31, amid crazed anticipation for the PlayStation 4 showcase, internet forums have stopped publishing unflattering photos of the Sony chief executive and have chosen instead to depict him as a sort of modern-day Moses.
Animated GIFs of the executive now pepper game forums around the world. Most often they superimpose Hirai's face over a particularly dramatic movie scene that appears to have been plucked randomly out from decades of cinema, from Citizen Kane to Total Recall.
Right now, Kaz Hirai is the man... but he wasn't always.
Hirai's career at Sony is the archetypal success story. Having joined PlayStation Japan in 1995, he became one of the key businessmen responsible for the promotion of the new PlayStation brand. His sweeping marketing strategies were seen as vital in making PlayStation a household name. Born in Japan but relaxed when speaking English, Hirai's cultural fluency with both the east and west made him a key executive for an increasingly globalised business.
His climb to the top was unusually fast. On November 30, 2006, Hirai replaced Ken Kutaragi as president of Sony Computer Entertainment, with a mission to re-establish the business as a profit-first venture. Five years later he was elected chairman of the whole Sony operation.
But he is also responsible for some of Sony's most epic calamities, not least of which being his magnificent performance at E3 2006.
It's Ridge Racer!
On that fateful day in May, trapped audience members cringed as Hirai tried to excite them by parading Ridge Racer (by then twelve years old) on the PSP. "It's Ridge Racer!" he enthused. "Riiiiiiidge Racer!"
Blunder followed blunder, such as when the executive began a rambling, 49-word sentence with the phrase "simply put", or when he declared Sony was "certainly not interested in gimmicks" before demonstrations of VR cards, copy-cat motion control tech and the PSP employed as a $200 rear-view mirror.
Most popular of all is that phrase "five hundred and ninety-nine US dollars", which is today repeated like a Hare Krishna mantra, as if the speaker cannot believe what is being said.
Image credit: DecoyOctopus, NeoGAF
It was perhaps Hirai's deep-rooted association with PlayStation 3 that made him the poster-boy for everything the company did wrong. The E3 conference was just the beginning of an onslaught of controversies at Sony, such as when Kutaragi insisted people would work the extra hours to buy the machine. Or when the European release was delayed by four months, or the eventual removal of PS2 backwards compatibility, or Sony's insistence that removing rumble from the Sixaxis controller was a stylistic choice (it was a legal obligation).
In 2006 it seemed that everything Sony touched would fall apart. And amid the outrage, an image surfaced: It was Kaz Hirai, grinning wildly, holding his hand up and signalling the number "three" with his fingers. It perfectly captured that distant, nonchalant attitude that had swept across PlayStation.
Image credit: Graphics Horse, NeoGAF
Not that he didn't deserve it. Hirai had a habit of making controversial statements designed to get people talking about Sony's products. When the firm was preparing to launch the PSP, Hirai was asked if it was Sony's answer to Nintendo's handhelds. His reply: "Here's how we view the world. PSP will elevate portable entertainment out of the handheld gaming ghetto and Sony is the only company that can do it. We happily accept this challenge and, dare I say it, the baton has been passed."
Hirai's love of bold statements paid off during the PlayStation and PS2 era when the company could do no wrong. Not this time. His infamous statement that "the next generation doesn't start until we say it does" - a metaphorical finger flicked at rival Microsoft, who had already released its next-gen Xbox 360 the year before - would have worked only if the PS3 wasn't a colossal, exorbitant mess.
Even when his house of cards came falling down, Hirai remained self-assured and defiant. When asked about the PS3's initially poor sales compared to the Xbox 360 and Wii, he replied: "This is not meant in terms of numbers, or who's got the biggest install base, or who's selling most in any particular week or month, but I'd like to think that we continue official leadership in this industry."
Image credit: santi_yo, NeoGAF
When developers started claiming that it was difficult to program on the PlayStation 3, Hirai, of course, boldly stated it was deliberate: "We don't provide the 'easy to program for' console that [developers] want, because 'easy to program for' means that anybody will be able to take advantage of pretty much what the hardware can do, so then the question is what do you do for the rest of the nine-and-a-half years?"
From hero to zero to hero
Today the PlayStation 3 is in a very different position. Having recovered from its calamitous first few years it's now very much an equal to the Xbox 360 in terms of sales and popularity, outselling it in Japan and most of Europe. Meanwhile, while Microsoft continues to flood its premium Xbox service with adverts, Sony continues to bolster its PlayStation Plus reward programme with free game deals.
The world loves an underdog story, and PlayStation had been so irrevocably trodden on that those who condemned it want to see that moment of redemption. Now, with the PlayStation 4 reveal mere hours away, Hirai has emerged as an unlikely hero among the games community.
His worship is nowhere more obvious than on the gaming forum NeoGAF and its PlayStation Meeting thread, which currently carries over 13,000 posts. Initially filled with the habitual declarations of enthusiasm and animated 'hype' GIFs of people in various states of intense excitement, over time the thread has slowly become something of a Hirai shrine.
"Kaz is a pretty cool guy", says 'iMax', one of the NeoGAF thread's contributors.
Image credit: iMax, NeoGAF
"He's very important to the Sony business and ultimately serves as the figurehead of the brand, just as much as Don and Reggie do with Microsoft and Nintendo. There's a strong yearning in the thread to get some sort of acknowledgement from Hirai that he's seen the thread and I think that certainly helps to bolster creativity," he told CVG.
"His popularity online has always been pretty strong but I'm sure it's been accelerated by the increased popularity of meme sharing and social networking, along with the prominence associated with his new position at Sony. And Ridge Racer, of course."
Indeed, Kaz's promotion in 2012 to chief executive of the entire Sony Corporation saw his stock rise among the community. Here was a man whose business was games that now had the entire Sony Corporation in the palm of his hand.
Image credit: Liamario, NeoGAF
One of us
"Unlike some other public faces of gaming companies that are either clumsy or insincere, Kaz feels like he's completely genuine," said Tusken77, another of the thread's regulars who created a series of movie images with Hirai superimposed.
"Of course, being there from the early days and every step of the way with the PlayStation brand only strengthens his credibility. A man in a very powerful position, but also 'one of us'. He's grown alongside PlayStation. He's passionate and understands the hardcore gamer."
Juancho9, another NeoGAF member, added: "We really know nothing about the guy, but I think he's been smart in being vocal and active in at the very least looking like he's interested in what gamers actually want in their video game systems."
Image credit: weige, NeoGAF
Crucially, in recent times Hirai has adopted another characteristic that's endeared him more to the gaming public - modesty.
Whereas before his brash claims were almost as if part of his brain could not compute criticism, today Hirai is happy to accept responsibility for mistakes. Following the PSN hack scandal in which around 77 million PlayStation customers' personal details were stolen, Hirai offered a profound apology and lengthy bow - a symbol of deep regret and humility in Japan.
"He stood his ground during the infamous PSN hacking, when I think a lesser man would have quit," NeoGAF member Farrow told CVG.
Fellow forumite Tusken77 added: "His journey with PlayStation, the connection to the core gamer, his fun personality, and the respect shown with the deep bow during the PSN hack apology press conference are some of the reasons why his popularity continues to grow".
On Wednesday, Sony will reveal to the world the PlayStation 4 console and it's almost a foregone conclusion who will be chosen to stand on stage and show the system off.
With PlayStation Vita in urgent need of support and Sony's financial records showing a loss of nearly $10 billion in the past four years, PlayStation 4 is arguably the most important hardware release, gaming or otherwise, in Sony's history. Hirai is the man who must spearhead the resurgence.
Can he pull it off? NeoGAF user Liamario put it best: "I think Hirai and Sony have been greatly humbled as of late, and I think he deserves a chance to prove himself".
Image credit: whitehawk, NeoGAF