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Battle royale blurs the line between entertainment and esports

Battle royale games took over by becoming something new

Apex Legends had an enormous launch, and it is currently one of the most-viewed games on Twitch, with many top Fortnite streamers currently playing Apex. Fortnite has generally been at the top of the list since reaching its height, a rise that unseated League of Legends, which had previously been the most-viewed game on the platform.

Although the battle royale genre was a blip on everyone’s radars a few years ago, it’s now dominant, with many popular streamers jumping into the action. That means that the next step is making the competition official, right? That’s been the rhythm in gaming for a while now: Get the buzz, get the players, get the competition, and then become an esport.

But the success of games like Fortnite and Apex shows that multiplayer titles can garner widespread viewership without the competitive infrastructure that underpins esports. And in fact they might have found something better for long-term survival.

What is an esport?

Let’s get this definition out of the way first, especially since it’s kind of a squishy word.

Esports pit the best players against each other and force skilled players to beat each other if they want to continue improving the level of play. Battle royale games allow skilled players to demonstrate dominance in entertaining ways, but may not foster a competitive environment that encourages gameplay refinement to the same degree.

There are crossovers to these two approaches, of course. PUBG players like to seek out and play against other top-tier PUBG players, especially in communities outside of the US. But for the purpose of this article, we’ll be thinking of games like League of Legends, StarCraft 2, and Dota 2 as “traditional esports,” with a focus on finding the best players to compete against each other.

2018 League of Legends World Championship - Finals
Esports focus on finding the absolute best, and rewarding them for their commitment
Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

That doesn’t mean that certain battle royale games don’t also have ladders, or that certain entrenched esports games don’t offer more casual ways to play. Instead, each game focuses on one of two ways to develop talent, broadly speaking, both of which we’ll discuss in this piece.

But battle royale games aren’t esports, and despite Epic’s plans to build out Fortnite’s competitive scene, battle royale games aren’t likely to become esports to the degree in which Epic Games would probably like. Fortnite just isn’t currently built that way, although Fortnite has gone through large shifts in focus before.

Battle royale games find different skills in the best players using different methods than traditional esports, and remove the focus from pure strategy or skill. Let’s dig into why that happens, and why the best League of Legends player is likely to more skilled in their respective game than the best Fortnite player.

How esports games grow skill

Esports like League of Legends, Overwatch, and Dota 2 organize their competitive modes around ranked ladders, which players are encouraged to climb. But most won’t get very far, and that’s by design.

More than two thirds of League of Legends players are relegated to the iron, bronze, or silver divisions of the game’s ranked ladder. This is the lowest, most popular end of the competitive scene in terms of player count.

Twenty percent of players get into a gold division, eight percent get into platinum, and two percent make it to diamond. Above that are the master, grandmaster, and challenger tiers. These three tiers combined comprise only one half of one percent of all ranked players.

League of Legends College Championship
Esports competitions focus on pure skill and mastery
Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

That means that there are as many divisions for the top half percent of League players as there are for the bottom 70 percent. But those divisions are meaningful; the game’s skill cap is high enough that a player at the 99.9th percentile can meaningfully outperform a player who is at the 99.5th percentile. And that difference means everything in the competitive scene.

The players who compete in the LCS professional league can reach the top of the ladder, perform under immense pressure in front of huge audiences, translate their superlative solo-queue mechanics into highly coordinated team play, and are willing to play about 18 hours a day to keep their skills up. Riot Games spends a lot of time and energy selling players on the idea that they can climb that ladder to earn riches and glory. Blizzard sells a very similar dream through the “path to pro” system baked into Overwatch.

League of Legends’ ladder is defined by the ELO rating system. You get points by winning a match, and you lose points by not winning. The system puts you in games with players who have similar point totals and should, therefore, be close to your skill level. You will continue to climb the ladder as long as you win more matches than you lose.

Players eventually end up in a position where they win about as many games as they lose, and their ELO score stabilizes. They will stay there in that place unless, as Riot’s marketing exhorts them to do, they play a ton of League and get better so they can continue to climb. But it takes untold hours of practice to get even a little better at the higher levels, to the point that you have to treat the time commitment as a job, and a demanding one, if you want to be competitive.

But the system is designed to match players with opponents who have similar levels of skill, whether they’re just starting out or have been playing for years. One of the fundamental premises of esports is that evenly matched games provide the best experience for everyone involved. This is both an assumption that drives the game’s design and a statement of values expressed by the people who control them.

How battle royale games grow skill

Battle royale games do not consider player skill when populating their lobbies, outside of certain special event modes and tournaments in Fortnite. The best Fortnite players in the world can be put into the same game as someone playing for the first time. Players are matched randomly, although connection speed may also come into play, which means that the best players will rarely bump into each other inside the game.

Tyler “Ninja” Blevins is the most popular Fortnite streamer. He’s also a highly skilled player who competed in Halo Major League Gaming events before he moved onto streaming, and his generalized first-person shooter skills are strong enough that he was able to transition into Apex Legends and immediately play it at a very high level. He’s disciplined, smart, and successful.

Ninja during Doritos Bowl at TwitchCon 2018
Ninja’s rise to fame is as much about personality as raw skill
Robert Reiners/Getty Images

But how good is he, really? Fans debate this question across dozens of threads on Fortnite subreddits, but there’s no clear answer. Blevins isn’t playing against elite players every night; he’s playing against regular schmucks like you and me.

And while League can sort the Masters from the Grandmasters from the Challengers because it makes them play each other all the time, they would all look like gods if they were stomping on regular players. They’re just never given a chance to do so unless they begin a new account and start at the bottom, but they won’t stay there long if they’re playing at their best.

So esports games usually rely on skill-based matchmaking, and battle royale games default to mostly random matchmaking. It’s a bigger difference than it may sound at first, and here’s why.

Where is the skill ceiling?

Fortnite or Apex Legends may never produce players as good at those respective games as the top players in League or Overwatch. Battle royale games don’t funnel top players toward each other, nor do they force players to hone and refine narrow, specific optimized strategies.

Trying to perfectly optimize play in battle royale games actually runs counter to the incentives of streamers, because playing the game in a routine, “meta” manner would result in a less varied, surprising, and entertaining experience for viewers. The frequent addition of game-changing items to Fortnite and the like also helps to keep top-level players from settling into any specific strategy.

The top echelon of Fortnite players does not necessarily contain the very best players, instead belonging to content creators who are good at the game — and great at entertaining the game’s fans. Another player may be better at Fortnite than Blevins, but it would be unlikely that they could disrupt Blevins’ position in the Fortnite community. Battle royale games don’t rely on pure skill when building up their most popular human players.

Watching Blevins is entertaining, because his excellent mechanical skills mean he can successfully play Fortnite many different ways against players who rarely pose an actual threat to his dominance. That allows him to exhibit much more personality while he streams, and it rewards experimentation. Turning Fortnite into an esport, complete with skill-based matchmaking, would be like telling the Harlem Globetrotters to play in the NBA.

And I want to stress that this isn’t a weakness of battle royale games. These games have become incredibly popular without a traditional esports infrastructure, and the most popular players have earned huge audiences despite rarely competing directly against each other. So maybe it’s OK to focus on pure entertainment and not worry about competitive ladders that separate players into tiers.

So why do companies seem so hung up on turning everything into an esport when battle royale games are doing so well by avoiding that type of structure? It could be about developing the best talent possible for their games.

Do you want a challenge, or do you want to stomp?

Your skill at a sport like basketball hypothetically exists on a continuum with toddlers throwing balls at Fisher-Price hoops on one end and the NBA at the other. But when you go to play pickup ball at a local gym or park, what matters is your skill relative to the set of players who frequent that location.

The best player you’re likely to encounter in that environment is nobody special on the entirety of the continuum. A good high school player with no hopes to play college ball, much less the NBA, could still dominate your gym. And that player will be the best person you encounter in-person. You can work out and practice three hours a day, and you’ll start to play better against everyone in your gym, even if you will still never be able to join the NBA. But you’ll get better against the people you actually play against, and that feels good.

This is how battle royale games handle matchmaking. Your opponents are randomly selected from a large pool, not from a small group of people at a gym, but you’re still mostly going to be facing average players with average skills. You can practice for hours and win most of your games without ever getting good enough to compete at the level at which money or fame is at stake.

Multiplayer games have been designed around the assumption that skill-based matchmaking is a way to build a community around a game. The competitors in multiplayer games aspire to greatness, and part of that is watching other top-tier players do what they do best. That makes a certain kind of sense; if somebody broadcast your pickup basketball games on television nobody would want to watch. This is why developers like Riot have been marketing elite gaming as a spectator sport, like basketball or football.

But skill-based matchmaking will never let you consistently dominate your games, even if you are very good. As you improve, the matchmaking will compensate by finding you stronger opponents, so you’ll still only win about half the time. You’ll hit your ceiling and stop climbing at some point, and that can feel pretty bad, no matter how many epic animated videos set to stadium rock songs Riot releases in an attempt to make you feel otherwise.

And it turns out that making a larger number of people feel good by setting up a system in which they can more easily win more frequently is a valid strategy for growing the popularity of your game. The old assumptions about skill being the most important thing need to be re-examined — and that’s a large reason why battle royale games became so popular so quickly.

It’s not always skill that matters. Sometimes being entertaining, or at least being able to dominate your local gym, is enough. Neither situation will help you in League of Legends, but both can find you an audience in a battle royale game.

I get that companies want the largest possible audiences for their games, which is why traditional esports games try so hard to sell you the dream that you can rise to the top, and why battle royale games keep trying to edge into ranked play that emulates esports, but at some point it’s important to just let your duck quack instead of forcing it to bark in order to sell it to dog people.

What now?

The pinnacle of gaming for the past few years seemed to be addictive, competitive online games that were impossible to master, even after thousands of hours of engagement over years of play. Skill was king.

Then Epic Games took a few bites out of everybody else’s lunch, and Blevins became the world’s most successful streamer by playing Fortnite. Suddenly you could be at the top without being unquestionably the best technical player in that particular game. The idea of what it meant to be “at the top” had itself shifted someplace else when it came to battle royale games.

Now, in 2019, Respawn Entertainment and Apex Legends seem poised to mug everybody all over again, including Epic Games and Respawn’s sister studios, DICE and BioWare. I bet none of you saw that one coming.

League, which is an ongoing live service that doesn’t post annual public sales numbers, hasn’t been as obviously impacted as something like Battlefield, a franchise with an annual retail product whose sales were markedly down from previous installments.

But Fortnite and other battle royale games are building communities of players, viewers, and content creators who have very different values than those of League and other esports. And it’s not clear whether games like League are going to be able to attract younger players whose first exposure to multiplayer gaming and streams comes from games like Fortnite, rather than games like World of Warcraft and StarCraft, which informed players who grew up to become esports stars.

The larger lesson may be that players want more accessible games with more attainable ceilings. It’s very possible that entertaining players will have a longer shelf life than those who are able to play at the very peak of proficiency and human response time. Or there might not be one right answer, and another approach to matchmaking and player growth will come along that begins to eat Fortnite’s lunch.

Battle royale games aren’t esports, and they may never become esports, but the best examples of the genre have found a way to make online competition fresh and exciting for a new audience. Going after the esports market makes sense from a purely financial point of view, but what would happen if battle royale games spent more time and energy focusing on the unique aspects of this new genre?

That’s where the magic is going to happen, and where growth is more likely. We already have esports. Let’s see what battle royale can turn into.