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Knockout City draws a crowd, and dodgeball sharks are working it

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The sport is only two weeks old, but it already has hustlers and sandbaggers

colorful futuristic teenager in greaser-style clothing against a wall covered in graffiti in Knockout City Image: Velan Studios/Electronic Arts

Barely two weeks into its launch and Knockout City already has hustlers.

Karthik Bala, co-founder of the studio that developed the multiplayer shooter-like dodgeball title for Electronic Arts, said he’s run into them himself. “They were messing with me,” he laughed. “They come in, they look like one of the default [skins] on startup, they play poorly, they’re uncoordinated as a team, they’re purposefully not on a crew together.”

After stumbling to a 7-to-1 deficit early in Team KO, then they poured it on. “I’m like, ‘I’ve got this game lit,’” Bala chortled. “And then all of a sudden it just flipped; and they do the ‘woo-hoo!’ and the taunts. And I’m like, what just happened?”

Two points here: One, Knockout City is a good enough multiplayer game to be worth hustling. Two, 5 million players — a figure Velan Studios touted earlier this week — is the kind of population bona fide hustlers need to work their dark arts, particularly if it’s an all-new sport. The bigger the crowd, the easier it is to blend with it, after all.

“Five million is a big number; I mean, it’s a big number in a lot of different ways, but what it means is people around the world are really playing it,” said Guha Bala, Karthik’s brother (and likewise Velan’s co-founder). “Our second-biggest country, surprisingly, is Japan. Very few Western games sort of, really, have meaningful headway there — but we always knew that dodgeball is a bit of a thing there.”

The global uptake has been vital to Knockout City’s biggest value proposition, and the Balas’ biggest anxiety in meeting it: very fast, anytime, anywhere matchmaking. Knockout City launched on virtually everything except phones, with cross-play and cross-progression from the start, meaning one platform isn’t left out of a popular, multiplayer-only game just because it has the smallest player base among them.

Velan Studios offered a 10-day “block party” preview, free to everyone, to draw a big audience and keep the matchmaking working quickly as curious players figured out what the game was all about. Velan has since extended the preview, giving folks unrestricted play up to level 25 in the game (reached in about five to six hours of gameplay). It’s also part of the EA Play library, meaning it’s free to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscribers.

Karthik Bala admitted to a big-exhale sense of relief, pulling five million new players into the game. “It’s a new IP, you know; it’s a new play pattern, that sounds kind of boring on paper? But you got to get people to play it. And it’s all about the playing field, before you can design. We like it, it’s really fun, the betas were successful, but can we actually go to scale, and are people going to show up?” For now, it appears that they have.