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PUBG hits 30M sold on PC, but player counts are down

Concurrent players dip while the number of cheaters banned is only going up

An armed and armored woman stand on a ridge overlooking a city in a desert in Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds. PUBG Corp.
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the smash hit multiplayer survival game, has sold more than 30 million copies on PC, according to SteamSpy, which tracks public data to extrapolate sales and ownership information for Steam games.

But data provided by Steam’s own API seems to indicate that the number of active players has sharply decreased. So where are the players going? And what does this mean for the game’s future?

First, let’s step back and get some perspective. The 30 million copies sold number — which doesn’t include sales on Xbox One — is remarkable considering that the game was launched into Steam Early Access on March 23, 2017. PUBG isn’t even a year old yet, and the game only launched its 1.0 version on Dec. 21. So, all things considered, Battlegrounds isn’t doing too shabby, considering that its sales have yet to show signs of a plateau.

A graph showing 30,119,884 owners of Battlegrounds. That total was below 22 million as of November 15.
The number of accounts which own PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds as collated by SteamSpy from Steam’s own raw data set.

Furthermore, the game continues to occupy the top slot as the most-played game on Steam. According to SteamCharts, which is also fed by Steam’s own data, it blew past Dota 2 in August and never looked back.

It’s mid-morning here on a Thursday in the United States. Many people are either at work or at school, and there are still more than 1.6 million people playing Battlegrounds. The game is a global success, with more than 1.1 billion hours played. And that’s just on PC.

A chart showing 1.6 million players currently playing Battlegrounds. The next closest game is Dota 2 with 779,000 players. SteamCharts

But there’s one chart in particular that is giving analysts pause, and that’s the peak concurrent number of players that log in to play the game every day. You can see it illustrated best at SteamDB which, again, draws from Steam’s own data set.

A roughly bell-shaped curve with a height of more than 3 million in mid-January. Today it’s closer to 2.2 million. SteamDB

Battlegrounds reached its peak for concurrent players in mid-January when, according to SteamDB, 3,257,248 players showed up to chase each other around. As of yesterday the peak was only 2,177,418. Figures differ between platforms, of course. SteamCharts puts the peak at 3,140,580 and yesterday’s numbers closer to 2.15 million, but they’re going in the same direction.

So where did all those players go?

Well, it’s possible people are growing tired of the game. Maybe the influx of newer users, excited by the 1.0 version and the attention it’s been receiving in the press and on social media, have drifted away. Maybe competing products, like the free-to-play battle royale-style mode in Epic Games’ Fortnite is luring people away. That game isn’t on Steam, so there’s no apples-to-apples way to make a comparison.

Or, the developers at PUBG Corp. could be driving a certain portion of their playerbase away on purpose. I’m talking about cheaters.

The amount of cheating in Battlegrounds is nearly as remarkable as its skyrocketing sales figures. In January alone, anti-cheat provider BattleEye banned more than a million players, or roughly one player ever 2.56 seconds. January’s figure put the total banned, according to BattleEye’s own self-reported figures, at over 2.5 million.

If the rate at which BattleEye is banning people continues to increase through February, you can expect close to four million players to have been banned by the end of this month.

That’s more than 13 percent of all the copies of the game that have been sold on Steam.

Cheating is a drain on revenue in online games because it ruins the experience and chases away paying customers. The problem is especially bad on PC. That’s why companies like Epic have taken to suing the people who create and promote those cheats, even if they’re minors. And that’s why PUBG Corp. is working with the Chinese government to arrest cheaters overseas.

Therefore, it’s entirely possible that the dip in active players we’re seeing on Steam isn’t evidence that Battlegrounds is losing the interest of players, or that it needs to iterate its way out of a tailspin. It’s still the number one game on Steam. On the contrary, that dip may well be evidence that PUBG Corp. is doing the right thing and cracking down on those who are ruining the experience for others.

It’s just that there’s so damn many of them.