The esports scene is flourishing across the globe and it has turned a number of elite gamers into multimillionaire superstars with legions of fans. The competitive gaming industry is now worth billions of dollars and it is becoming increasingly professional thanks to large sponsorship deals and the emergence of major franchises.
Yet this burgeoning sector has been dominated by just a handful of games. Multiplayer online battle arena titles League of Legends and Dota 2 have carved out the lion’s share of the esports market, along with first-person shooters like CS:GO, Overwatch, Rainbow Six Siege and Call of Duty. A few sports and fighting games have enjoyed modest success, but largely esports has been all about MOBA and FPS games.
However, in the past couple of years an intriguing new contender has emerged. The battle royale genre shot to prominence with the launch of PUBG in March 2017 and soared up into the stratosphere when Fortnite was released four months later.
Fortnite became the best performing game of 2018, earning $2.5 billion for developer Epic Games and turning into a cultural phenomenon. Apex Legends has since surfaced as a credible challenger, and a heap of battle royale titles are now in the pipeline as developers rush to cash in on the trend. This genre has the potential to crack the thriving esports sector, but it will not be easy.
Fortnite Leads the Charge
Epic Games knows that turning Fortnite into an esport is paramount to its chances of earning longevity in the cutthroat world of gaming. Players are notoriously promiscuous and they have always been quick to abandon popular titles in favour of the next big thing. Esports offers gaming firms the perfect opportunity to arrest that trend.
League of Legends turned 10 years old this year. Most games released in 2009 have long since been consigned to the scrapheap, but LoL remains the most popular esport in the world, as underlined by its dominant position in the list of esports betting odds. It boasts legions of fans, it tops the Twitch charts on a regular basis and a record-breaking 205 million people tuned in for the last World Championship Grand Final.
Following in LoL’s Footsteps
Epic is desperate to replicate LoL’s success and it is investing huge piles of cash into creating a thriving professional scene for Fortnite. This year it has channelled $100 million into prize money esports tournaments, culminating in the $30 million World Cup in New York City this summer. More than 40 million gamers entered qualifying, and the tournament generated a vast amount of media coverage around the world after a 16-year-old from Pennsylvania won the $3 million top prize.
It might seem cynical, but money talks in this world. Gamers cannot turn professional unless there is enough cash on offer for them to quit their day jobs, and they often rely on the company that created the game to stump up the prize money. Dota 2 is a fun and popular game, but if Valve pulled the funding for the competitive scene then it would quickly die as an esport.
Fortnite has already paid out more money at tournaments than LoL, and it will soon overtake CS:GO to become the second most lucrative esport of all time after Dota 2. That makes it a viable pursuit for many pro gamers, and in theory they should develop their skills, leading to more dazzling displays of brilliance at major tournaments and inspiring more fans to watch the action.
Maintaining Current Popularity Levels
As long as Epic keeps channelling money into the esports scene, Fortnite will remain popular. That is, of course, dependent on casual gamers continuing to enjoy Fortnite and to spend on in-game microtransactions. But a bustling calendar of exciting professional events could in turn encourage a flourishing casual gaming scene, as is the case with CS:GO and LoL.
Meanwhile, PUBG is now an important esport. Tournaments have handed out $13.65 million to players over the past couple of years, making it the ninth most lucrative esport of all time, and many big esports franchises now have a PUBG team. Apex Legends is muscling its way onto the scene.
Epic Games and its peers are keen to turn the battle royale genre into a powerhouse within esports, but they will have to overcome a number of challenges. The most obvious issue is that these games are pretty hard to follow. MOBA and multiplayer FPS games typically involve no more than 10 players at a time, so it is easy for fans to keep up with the action. Battle Royale extravaganzas can involve 100 or more different perspectives, and trying to follow the action can be dizzying.
It is also difficult to maintain a competitive balance when randomness is so integral to the appeal of battle royale titles. You are dropped into an area and you could either end up striking lucky and stumbling across a B.R.U.T.E., or you might be left to face an overpowered mech while holding just a six-shooter. You cannot get rid of the randomness that sees players receive totally different loot at the beginning, as that is what makes it so exciting.
A Delicate Balancing act
The reliance on RNG makes it difficult to sustain a competitive scene, while the kill reward mechanic is questionable, and you frequently see pros having meltdowns on social media and YouTube. Epic Games in particular has a difficult balance to strike. It needs to keep updating the game in order to keep it fresh and dynamic and see off competition from emerging rivals. It throws in mechs like the B.R.U.T.E. to lure in more casual gamers. But at the same time, it needs to keep pro gamers happy, but they are frequently left irate. Celebrity streamers are constantly threatening to leave Fortnite, which could damage its appeal.
There are numerous obstacles to overcome, but the Fortnite World Cup laid down a strong blueprint. The action was exciting, millions of fans watched the action unfold and there were few complaints. Bugha seized glory after triumphing by a considerable margin, and he was well ahead after six games, showing that skill, boldness and hard work can negate the randomness of the genre.
Another battle royale title may soon come along and knock Fortnite off its perch. If it is not as interested in esports as Epic Games then the genre could suffer. But there is already a well-established scene for competitive battle royale tournaments and there is every chance it could flourish in the years ahead.
Games need a high skill ceiling in order to succeed as esports, and if professional players are able to skilfully adapt to the random loot they are given at the start of a game then it could certainly work as a thrilling spectator sport. The scene is only in its formative stages and developers are constantly improving the offering, so the aforementioned complaints could well be ironed out in the years ahead and the battle royale genre could remain a force within the competitive gaming sector.