A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about how PUBG brought me back to the weightless joy of youth. The same day that story ran, APEX LEGENDS released to explosive, largely positive reactions. Clearly, the battle royale genre might not be on the way out quite yet. By taking the best elements of fellow BRs and mixing in refreshing solutions to problems like partial squad deaths and communication with silent teammates, APEX has earned the attention of huge swaths of the battle royale community, including former PUBG streamers DrDisrespect, shroud, and summit1g. Whether APEX becomes the kingslayer of FORTNITE or fizzles out after this intense burst of release hype remains to be seen, but what we know for sure is that battle royales have joined the ranks of MOBAs and TDMs as a premiere eSports genre.
The highest level of PUBG competition is the National PUBG League hosted by OGN, one of the oldest and largest eSports production organizations currently operating. They’ve previously produced huge events for immensely popular eSports games like LEAGUE OF LEGENDS and STARCRAFT. Now, they’re hosting the largest competitive PUBG events in the world, culminating in their Global Championship event in November. I recently attended an NPL Phase 1 tournament and got a chance to speak with players and shoutcasters about what competing in PUBG is like and where they think the game and the genre are headed.
The tournaments take place in the OGN Super Arena in Manhattan Beach, and years of production experience show through the impressive stage setup. Each team gets their own slick station with individual displays showing their health and current weapon. Multiple camera rigs capture pregame interviews and caster discussions before smoothly transitioning to movie theatre-sized screens to display the matches.
“OGN’s on the cutting edge of showcasing battle royale gameplay, and so they’re really pushing the limits and trying new things,” said Rachel “Seltzer” Quirico, the sideline shoutcaster for the tournament. “They’re involving Action Replay, they’ve got map streams. They’re doing a lot of very cool things that are giving them different ways to show the game. Because they’re willing to experiment, I think they’re going to be the key innovators in the space.”
The first thing I wanted to know was why these players were choosing to focus on PUBG when their skillset could be applied to any FPS game. After all, only one team can win each tournament and earn the big bucks. Streamers, on the other hand, can earn consistent income by pandering to the Twitch audience and picking up whatever the most popular game at the time is. So what was it about PUBG that made these guys want to grind it all day every day?
“PUBG has aspects that other games lack as far as gun mechanics and movement,” said Philip “DTreats” Ross from PlayerOne Esports. “A lot of modern games are third person, and the pace doesn’t match the old-school shooters. This game feels more like Call of Duty, which is what I used to play. [PUBG] felt like a good transition.”
“PUBG has the best chance at being a good eSport. The other [battle royales], the gameplay isn’t as competitive. There’s too many ‘fun’ aspects to them. In APEX, the guns don’t really have any recoil. They kind of just feel easy to use. It’s not as fun,” said Wolfgang “wo1f” Braun from Endemic.
Most agreed that PUBG is the most realistic shooter experience available, with accurate gun mechanics and a focus on careful positioning over flashy plays. This slower, more strategy-focused gameplay style contrasts with the cartoonish wackiness of other titles in the genre.
“It comes down to the military sim-style,” said Matt “Matryn” Oates, one of the shoutcasters for the tournament. “We usually don’t like to use that term too much, but as far as comparison to the other battle royales, [they’re] a lot more of twitch-style shooters where it’s more about aim and how fast you can move. In PUBG, it’s more about how you move, and I think that’s a big factor. A lot of military strategy comes into play.”
Seth “Woo1y” Little from Simplicity expanded on this importance of location. “For me, I’ve always been into hardcore positional games. PUBG fits into that category as a positional shooter. The gunplay is really fun, and it’s different than other battle royales. Like in H1Z1, you could jump out of cars and jump around. [PUBG] is less arcade-y. It’s more tactical. I’d put it on the same level as Rainbow Six or some of the older Battlefield games.”
Getting to the OGN World Arena is no small task for both players and casters. It requires significant time investment to get good enough to intelligently discuss the game, let alone play it. Considering how quickly most games rise and fall in popularity, I was curious if there was an aspect of PUBG that provided a sense of career stability.
“The genre itself has stabilized, it’s not going anywhere. It creates a really good environment for the casual gamer’s growth. I’m a dad, I had a job before this, and I got addicted because [I’d have] an hour-and-a-half of free time a night when I can play with my friends,” said Steve “Toffees” Pierce, an analyst for the tournament. “There’s no downtime with battle royales. You drop with the guys and you fight, and you’re either putting in work or you’re re-queueing for the next one, and that makes the most out of my time. In traditional games, you would die and sit there and watch, or you get stuck for 45 minutes with toxic players. Now, it’s GG, go next.”
“Battle royale games are very different from other games. You can sit there and play because every game is different,” said Sean “Miccoy” Linn of Ghost Gaming. “You learn something new every game. You can put thousands of hours into it and still learn new things about the game. Compare that to LEAGUE, CS:GO, or Starcraft, where after about 2,000 hours, you should know everything about them.”
“What makes PUBG different to me is its tactical nature. For some people, it’s not as fun to watch, but for me, there’s just a lot more to it. It’s kind of like chess, very methodical,” said Alec “Czechshooter” Hobizal from Simplicity.
But while PUBG is their day job, these people love new game experiences as much as anyone. Just about everyone I talked to had sunk several hours into APEX, and many felt that the recoil-less gun mechanics were too easy for their liking. PUBG’s mechanics offer what these players consider a superior competitive experience, as well as a more compelling viewer experience.
“I think APEX has done a terrific job of learning the lessons of games past, PUBG included,” said Derek “WTFmoses” Moseley, another shoutcaster for the tournament. “But at the same time, you have to look at what keeps people engaged. For battle royales in general, it’s about telling a story. I think PUBG is very good at that story arc. Fortnite has struggled with that in the past, and I think APEX will have some similar issues.”
“[APEX] is definitely not my style, I would say. I’m more of a cerebral kind of player. I like strategizing, and I’m not all about the shooting, per se. But if you’re looking for a fast-paced, shooting-focused kind of game, then APEX would definitely be the game for you,” said Quinn “Xanth” Marchicelli, the coach for PlayerOne eSports.
That said, most agreed that APEX is a fun, fast-paced game that might be a better fit for a different style of player. They see APEX less as a competitor and more as a fun diversion that offers a reprieve from their daily grind.
“We play PUBG competitively. It’s our job. So it’s nice to relax and play a casual game of battle royale,” said Linn.
“It feels like COD: BLACKOUT and OVERWATCH mixed together, but with more polished mechanics. It’s honestly really fun. I could see it being a big eSport in the future,” said Alec “Czechshooter” Hobizal.
“We saw a tweet from PUBG that said ‘congratulations, you put together a very good game,’ and APEX responded with ‘we stand on the shoulders of giants.’ I think battle royale games respect each other and are challenging each other to get better,” said Steve “Toffees” Pierce.
Battle royale games typically base themselves around an FPS experience, making the transition easy for veterans of games like Counter Strike and Battlefield. But we’re also starting to see the fluidity of battle royale in games like TETRIS 99, a funky little project that turns the iconic puzzle game into a ruthless competition. While not everyone was familiar with the game, they were all excited about battle royale’s potential for horizontal expansion.
“I think there’s been commentary for a while now that the genre’s been getting oversaturated. Probably from now on, if any game comes out as a battle royale, it’ll have to do something pretty different to catch people’s eyes,” said Marchichelli.
“I’m a huge fan of [the genre] branching out. Tetris was a complete 90 from what we’ve seen before. I’m a huge fan of all the options opening up and seeing what it can really become. I could see a VR battle royale being next, something like Sims or VR chat adding in a MINECRAFT version or a BR version could easily blow up,” said Ross.
“I think it’s a great addition into the scene, even though it’s not necessarily what you would imagine to be a battle royale. Once you start looking at it like that, it opens up so many different doors. We might soon see MMO mixes coming into battle royale to a certain degree. A fleshed-out, persistent world battle royale would be amazing,” said Oates.
Team Tempo Storm, winners of NPL Phase 1
As eSports continue to expand into the mainstream and becomes a more commonplace pastime, PUBG eSports and battle royales will expand as well. Whether the spectator experience becomes focused on live event broadcasts like traditional sports or a more constant, interactive experience like streaming, it’s clear that watching games has never been more popular and battle royales are among the best games to watch. Shoutcaster Mike “Porosaurus” Navarro summed it up best:
“Battle royale is such a great foundation for an eSport, right? Everybody goes in, one team leaves. What else could you ask for?”