Death comes quickly in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and it’s often senseless. There’s no fanfare, just the boom of gunfire and your body hitting the ground in a dirty building, or quiet woodland.
Players dig it, with an average of 200,000 concurrent players and around 3m copies sold. However, it’s also incredibly popular on Twitch, at the time of writing (1pm BST on a Tuesday afternoon) it’s the third most popular game on the website with 65,964 viewers. This puts it just behind the heavy hitters Dota 2 and League of Legends, and above Hearthstone, Overwatch, CS:GO and even the recently released Tekken 7.
But why is it so popular? I spent three days watching Battlegrounds streams in the name of research.
For a game to be successful as an esport it needs to capture the attention of players, but also spectators. Battlegrounds has managed this in a way that the other games on the list, something that the aforementioned games, with their massive marketing budgets and established competitive scenes providing both events and high-profile streamers to draw in audiences, haven’t managed.
Battlegrounds brings drama, and a healthy slice of human interest. The combo is what makes the game so exciting to watch, regardless of any streamers individual skill-level. Each game is threaded through with strong emotional moments: the elation of finding a particular rare piece of kit, the nerves as footsteps creep into view, or the relief after a successful firefight. Each match is like a short-form drama, with narratives emerging in each round: “This is the round in which Patrick hid in a hut for 5 minutes”, “This is the round where BreaK found an 8x scope and nothing to put it on till the final 10” or the most enduring narrative “here’s where the squad I was watching died in a heartbreaking way in the final ten,so close to victory they could taste it.”
Like a good box-set, it’s hard not to get drawn in when you see the expression on people’s faces as they’re surprised by a jeep full of hostiles, or discover an airdrop falling from the sky above to ruin their perfect hiding spot. Over the course of thirty minutes you’ll take each step of the journey with your chosen streamer, during which you’ll find out a little bit about them.
The human side is a compelling draw. It’s hard for anyone to remain completely composed in the chaos that occurs after you drop 100 people on an island and task them with slaying each other, and so we see flashes of real personality.
Sometimes that expresses itself as bitterness, with one player screaming “I’d rather die than hide in a fuckboy shack” after a death, referring to the tiny sheds dotted around the game’s countryside that are reviled by the game’s community. Sometimes it’s laughter or a “can’t believe we died there”, and occasionally you’ll catch a dose of pure misery, a third place finish where a critical misplay costs the streamer a win. They’ll know it, you’ll know it, and the anguish is palpable.
In the background, there’s a slow tension. When boots hit the ground in the first 60 seconds of the match, there’s no tension, just an eagerness as you split up and try to acquire gear and defend your landing zone from anyone else unfortunate enough to land nearby.
This initial scuffles are difficult, but then the tension starts to ratchet as players have a good chunk of gear and don’t necessarily want to use it. These quiet moments let the personality shine through, not unlike the middle stage of a thriller or horror movie. The quiet looting of a barn is PlayerUnknown’s equivalent to Aliens’ Operations scene and, much like in Aliens, it often ends in a panicked firefight in which your favourite character gets killed.
Providing everyone doesn’t die there though, you enter the final stages. A top ten finish and a tightness in the chest not just of those of you watching, but everyone playing too. Because the game is so open-ended, with no right or wrong choices, every streamer has their own preferred style of play, and it’s incredibly engaging.
It’s easy to see why Battlegrounds is so successful as a Twitch game, but tougher to see a way that developers can emulate that success. Battleground’s growing tension, mixed with the human angle, make for compelling viewing.
Ultimately though, Battlegrounds isn’t a spectator sport about winning or losing, but a series of narrative arcs, most of which end only with a bullet.