PLAYERUNKNOWN’s BATTLEGROUNDS is both obnoxiously capped and the best selling game on Steam right now, with Korean developers Bluehole claiming the title sold its first million copies just 16 days after launching onto Steam’s Early Access program.
The game is already a success, but could it find itself joining the pantheon of esports greats?
The battle royale genre is ripe for it. The entire genre takes its name from the Japanese manga/film of the same name, a twisted dystopian vision that pitches classrooms full of Japanese children into a fight to the death. The film was a clear inspiration on the Hunger Games, and if you imagine that movie but with dustbin lids and school uniforms, you’re most of the way there.
The premise of the recently released Battlegrounds and it’s ilk are simple: 100 people parachute down to earth, entering a Thunderdome the size of a small island. Soon, a rolling electrical fog will roll across the island, forcing players to contest an ever smaller area until eventually, just a single player, pair or team will emerge the victor.
H1Z1 currently has 120,000 players concurrently on Steam
One of the genres real strengths for players is that it accelerates the now-popular survival genre by having its entire core loop in 30 minutes. You scavenge, you fight, you die and then you load into another server to do it all again. For those viewing it, it’s strong because it naturally generates conflict and has the added benefit of being simple to understand for the most casual of watchers.
In solo play, one player dropping with 99 other competitors that are all looking out for themselves, is complete chaos. In the Duo and Team modes though, Battlegrounds shines. It’s brutal, with lightning fast firefights and tense standoffs, as the drama plays out against the approaching fog.
H1Z1’s King of the Kill mode, itself a known force in the battle royale genre, recently leapt into the murky esports water with a huge $300,000 tournament that’s seen several teams invest in teams for the tournament. Esports organisations Cloud9, NRG Esports and even Steve Aoki’s esports outfit Rogue, are all putting teams together for the event. This isn’t their first tournament either, with developers Daybreak Entertainment handing out nearly $450,000 over the course of their 2015 and 2016 invitational events.
Questions are already being asked about whether H1Z1, and by extension, the genre, can be considered an esport, and with the battle royale genre so reliant on RNG-based scavenging, it’s a lot more luck based than standard sports it’s a valid question. However, it’s not yet been seen whether or not this RNG basis could hurt its prospects in the long term.
Mostly I’m just bragging because I got seven kills last night
Why is an RNG bad for esports? Well, RNG stands for random number generator, and it adds an element of chance to games. Chance is bad in sports, because it is often expected that each competitive game gives those competing an equal chance of victory. Here however, the randomised drops would be akin to each team in a game of football having to roll a dice to see how many players they could field, or if everyone on your favourite Counter-Strike team had to play every round with random weapons.
Chance is unpredictable and unpredictability is often viewed as a very negative thing when it comes to competitive events offering the chance for teams to run hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money.
On the flip side, esports has a significant literacy issue, with many complex titles requiring you to have a working knowledge of how to play them to enjoy a few casual matches.
Battlegrounds is much simpler: you fall to earth, you get your gun, and you try to survive. The firefights are compelling because the stakes are clear: the winner is the only one that gets to walk away.
Battlegrounds already has 100k concurrent players after a month in Early Access
In the case of Battlegrounds, it’s also been embraced by the esports community. Panky, popular personality and Rainbow Six Siege commentator, is signed up as Battlegrounds’ esports program manager, which opens the door for future events. Meanwhile, several figures from across the competitive first-person-shooter scene have embraced the game.
There is the support there for the genre to develop strong esports possibilities, and the most influential games in the genre, H1Z1 and Battlegrounds are both very successful on Twitch, showing that people want to watch these face-offs.
What needs to be established now is whether viewers want to attend events or come together to watch professional players scavenge through a desolate island before fighting to the death, or whether they’re happier at home watching their favourite Twitch stars doing it instead.
The biggest challenge is whether or not games in the genre will ever be able to shake off the chance-based aspects of the game, or the heartbreaking moment for viewers, sponsors and event organisers alike when a fan=favourite player is killed seconds into a 30-minute match because he attacked someone clutching an automatic shotgun armed with just a frying pan.