When Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene took in the PUBG Global Invitational tournament at Mercedes-Benz Arena in Berlin last year, the experience was overwhelming. Here was the scrappy battle royale game he had created, being played by teams from all over the world in a packed arena, with many more watching from home. It’s something he dreamed about when the game was in its infancy, but also something he didn’t believe would ever really happen.
“I was on the verge of tears seeing the game up there,” Greene says. “I wanted an e-sport, in a stadium, with millions of people watching around the world. It just was crazy. I never thought I’d ever get there.”
As PUBG continues to age, its competitive scene is slowly maturing. Last year was a big moment: in addition to the Berlin final, multiple professional leagues were also established in regions across the world. And according to Greene — who recently formed a new studio, but remains a consultant on PUBG — the competitive scene is an integral part of the game’s long-term future. “We’re not thinking in months and years, we’re thinking five, 10 years,” he says. “Especially with e-sports. E-sports take years to set up correctly, to get all of the various mechanics and systems in place in order to allow growth.”
It’s something we’ve seen with other popular online games, like League of Legends and Overwatch, which have used professional e-sports leagues as a way to extend their relevancy years after launch. And in the battle royale space, Epic is putting a great deal of effort — and money — into making Fortnite a viable e-sport, investing upward of $100 million, including a $30 million World Cup final in New York this summer.
With lucrative sponsorship deals, packed arenas, and a huge audience on Twitch and other platforms, there’s clearly a financial reason for developers to explore the competitive gaming space. But according to Greene, the team behind PUBG only began seriously considering e-sports because it’s something the community was interested in.
“If a game is going to be a successful e-sport, the players have to want it, the community has to want it,” he says. “I don’t think you can create an e-sport. You can’t go, ‘Well, this is an e-sport.’ You have to create a good game, a competitive game, and then if the public want it, then I think an e-sport can be built on top of it. I think with battle royale and PUBG, we have that.”
There are issues unique to the battle royale space. In most popular competitive games, whether it’s Dota 2 or Counter-Strike, there are two small teams up against each other. But in a game like PUBG or Fortnite, you could have as many as 100 individual players competing. With so much to focus on, it can make the viewer experience challenging, something the PUBG team has tried to remedy with new viewing angles and other UI tricks to make the action clearer.
This larger scale can also make live events difficult, with the technical logistics of having dozens of computers and players onstage simultaneously. “It’s a challenge to organize that scale of an event,” says Greene, adding that the PUBG e-sports team is currently crafting a “rule book” with best practices for tournaments. “We’re hoping to set up these processes that make it easier for third parties to then run these events.”
Aside from the problems of scale, though, Greene believes PUBG has an advantage over the other e-sports it’s competing with at the moment: it’s a game that’s relatively easy to understand. As competitive gaming continues to reach for a more mainstream audience, that level of simplicity inherent to battle royale games could help the game reach a new audience.
“I think it could be a sport, not just an e-sport,” says Greene. “I think PUBG is relatable enough for fans beyond just that core gaming audience. The problem with a lot of the other e-sports is that, for people who aren’t gamers, it’s hard for them to understand what’s going on. Even me as a gamer, I find it hard to watch some e-sports because I don’t get what’s happening; it’s too fast, or there’s too much on the screen. PUBG is not like that. It’s simple, it’s relatable; you have a gun, you have a grenade.”
“These are simple things for the viewer to understand,” says Greene, “and I really think it will help us make that leap to be a more commercial e-sport, rather than a specific niche.”