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Esports organizations are betting on the untested Apex Legends

It’s a risky — but potentially rewarding — investment

Apex Legends - Bloodhound’s concept art Respawn Entertainment/Electronic Arts
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

Apex Legends has had a wildly successful launch. While it’s unquestionably a successful battle royale and a free-to-play smash for Respawn Entertainment and Electronic Arts, that doesn’t necessarily translate into longer-term staying power. Can Apex Legends sustain a successful esports ecosystem? That’s a big question with a uncertain answer, but organizations are already assembling teams to take to the game, even though it’s not clear what Apex Legends might look like in six months or a year.

Among the organizations getting into the game is Sentinels, the organization that owns the Overwatch League franchise Los Angeles Gladiators, and Gen.G, a Korean multi-gaming team. Gen.G also have an Overwatch presence; they own the Seoul Dynasty, as well as a League of Legends team and a Fortnite squad, and have a presence in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.

They’re now betting that their success can carry over to Apex Legends, a game that is untested and unproven — but full of potential.

Apex Legends - Caustic, Lifeline, and Mirage with unique skins Image: Respawn Entertainment/Electronic Arts

Meet the legends

“We have a pretty good discretionary eye when it comes to a good battle royale game,” says Nathan Stanz, general manager of the Gen.G Apex Legends team. “We started looking at who the good players were, and how to get involved.”

Gen.G decided on three former Overwatch talents: Chris “Grimreality” Schaefer, Ted “silkthread” Wang, and Tim “Dummy” Olson. Dummy also has a history in Team Fortress 2. While these players — especially Wang and Schaefer, thanks to their time in the Overwatch League — come with a built-in fan base, they’re also skilled players who can compete in a new title.

Scouting in Apex Legends is a challenging task. There’s no competitive ladder, replays, or universally agreed-upon rule set for tournaments. That means that any Apex Legends roster is inherently a gamble: Will these players’ highlights translate into a high-pressure, competitive match? There are also few tournaments for Apex at the moment. FACEIT and T1 are hosting an invitational, and there’s a Twitch Rivals tournament. There is no league, no franchising, and no proven infrastructure. What exists of Apex Legends’ esports scene is scattered and decentralized, and often consists of brutal displays of spectacle over competitive and strategic matches.

Gen.G are betting on this being the best entry point for the organization. It’s not unheard of for organizations to enter esports early and establish a position before the price of entry goes up. Organizations saw success by getting in early on Rainbow Six Siege, and they have been rewarded by seeing it bloom into a successful esport. Then again, Apex Legends isn’t there yet, and the success of a free-to-play game is tenuous.

While the new character Octane has been generally well received, some fans find the first battle pass and the related grind to be a frustrating addition. This early in the game’s lifespan, with such fierce competition, it’s a major risk to enter a title competitively. Gen.G are aware of this risk; their players moved to Apex Legends after they burned out on the Overwatch grind, disliked the game’s competitive evolution, and no longer enjoyed the prospect of playing the game for hours each day.

Apex Legends - Pathfinder uses its grapple Respawn Entertainment/Electronic Arts

From launch to esports

Gen.G are entering competitively, with the intention to be No. 1, according to Stanz. Despite the popularity and gregarious personalities of its players, this isn’t a stream team. Gen.G are investing in housing, a sports psychologist, and everything their players need to focus full time on Apex Legends.

Uncertainty aside, Apex Legends does have strong potential to become an esport. It’s a game that allows for big, flashy, highlight-reel plays. The success of Fortnite and PUBG has led to advances in how we spectate battle royales as a whole, and Apex Legends’ characters lead to fun moments. Wraith tunneling someone off the side of the map, a perfect Pathfinder zipline, or Bangalore calling in a devastating air strike are all dramatic, visually exciting moments.

Schafer, Wang, and Olson all agree that the game is punishing and mechanically exacting — and that’s why they love it. While titles like Fortnite have been criticized for suddenly introducing powerful items that warp the competitive landscape, Apex Legends is much more centered around the moment where two squads meet. When I ask what they most want from Respawn’s future updates, the players hope that they keep the game at the same level instead of appealing to new players or a more casual fanbase.

The list of features that Respawn needs to pursue in order to become truly competitive is long: custom games, practice modes, anti-cheat measures, and rankings among them. But Stanz thinks that Apex Legends could succeed over Fortnite by pursuing that angle over social experiences and concerts.

Apex Legends - Bangalore attacks Wraith Respawn Entertainment/Electronic Arts

A downscaled dynamic

Apex Legends has an interesting place in the field of esports thanks to its three-person squad size. Titles like StarCraft 2 are centered around one-on-one combat; League of Legends and Overwatch have larger five- to six-person squads.

Larger games tend to have more fan appeal simply because there are more personalities for any given viewer to connect with, and the interactions within teams make for good content and outreach. Solo games have very clear and distinct personalities, with one person’s rise (or fall) being entirely attributable to their own efforts.

A three-person squad brings some of those strengths together. Shot-calling in the game is collaborative. On Gen.G, Olson plays a supportive role and admits that he isn’t “the biggest talent on the team,” but he enables his teammates with map position callouts and big picture decisions. Schafer and Wang, by comparison, focus on micro-plays and the intricacies of each team fight.

All three members of Gen.G’s Apex Legends team intend to take time to grow their brand, alongside preparing for upcoming tournaments. Streaming is a common way for players to prepare a potential safety net. Wang in particular has built a fan base due to his time on the Los Angeles Valiant, and later, the Gladiators in the Overwatch League.

“I think my fan base is one of the reasons I love esports so much,” says Wang. “They encapsulate everything that I think is amazing about it, how inclusive it is and how supportive they are. Honestly, it’s amazing. It’s unconditional support from them. When I switched games, a lot of them followed me along.”

If Apex Legends can’t survive as an esport, then it must be a spectacle — something so entertaining that it can build these communities for streamers and players. Either way, Gen.G are making a gamble, and it’s up to Respawn — and luck — to help that ecosystem grow and pay off.

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