When I talked to Brendan "PlayerUnknown" Greene recently, he spoke of his excitement regarding the PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds very first Invitational. Or in layman terms, the game's first official esports-related competition.
"I want to create a spectacle," Greene said. "You know, 64 players in an arena, fighting out against each other. I want that idea that this is a massive number of people supported by a massive crowd." The Cologne, Germany-based Invitational has allegedly plucked 80 players from all across the world. For today's Solo Invitational competition, 72 players are competed for a cash prize of $46,000.
Before the first Battlegrounds Invitational officially kicked off, I wondered all the ways it would be presented. Would it be on a lavish stage, a la the competitions we see commonly for Dota 2 or League of Legends? (No, probably not, this is just an Invitational, and not a Major after all.) Would it be a hellish wall of individual perspectives, all windowed in a single screen, almost like that one scene with all the screens in The Matrix? Also how would so many players be housed in one space? Would it just look like a big ol' LAN party with rows and rows of people and desktops?
Turns out the latter-most is the truest, seemingly smack dab in the middle of the Gamescom showfloor, barred in by faux-decrepit walls and dividers among players. The competition's two spectators look like they could be overlooking a battered wall in Pochinki themselves. If you peek closely, you can see other publishers and games' logos hanging far in the background, away from this frenetic competition where teams are divided into individuals, and friendships find themselves shattered. Passersby might not even know that inside the confines of these fake-crumbling cement walls, that there is a hefty prize pool and an intense competition of Battlegrounds in their midst.
The matches of the day bounced between different players' perspectives at the blink of an eye, from quiet looters to calculated firefights in open fields. Sometimes the camera panned out into a spectator mode, where players were outlined in bright yellow, or on the map the names of others were seen in the distance. It felt chaotic, but also unpolished. There was no sense of tension in zipping all across the map, seeing each player's individual journeys through bullets and quiet rummaging in quick flashes. Viewers never got a sense of when action was really happening simulataneously across the map; we only got a few peeks of it if the cameraperson was lucky enough to pan over in time. The spectacle of it lie only in the fact that 70-something players were all playing Battlegrounds in the vicinity of one another, and that's unfortunately all.
"No one's done a Battle Royale esport before, so we're trying to figure out," said Greene. "Especially when it comes to a large scale events, [like] how do you bring enough players to bring six to eight hours of coverage every day, because you can't fly in a thousand players." Logistically, Greene admits, Battle Royale-type games are a hard-to-realize nightmare in the competitive landscape. Instead of a couple teams of five or so battling against one another, a full-squad match might realistically be about 25 teams of four for a full 100-player match. That's 100 people, playing simultaneously in a single space. And that's just for a single match, for a full-blown competition like a Major, many more would have to battle on the sidelines to rank among the best of the best.
That solution—while more than the 64 players Greene originally theorized—is a smaller pool than 1,000 or even the game's cap of 100 players at once. At the Gamescom Invitational, a blend of professional players (from well-regarded teams like Cloud9 or Team Liquid) and popular Battlegrounds streamers are thrown into the mix to battle it out. The mixture of types of players, from entertainers to the pros, adds a layer of surprise to the matches.
The first match of the day got started early in the AM in the U.S. (but technically the afternoon over in Germany). The match unraveled as expected for a solo round, with more cautious play than aggressive. One player, former top-ranking Overwatch player in South Korea Kyo-min "EVERMORE" Koo, made his way to the spawn area, a little island far away from the main map. EVERMORE stocked up on supplies, road a boat back to shore, drove a car inland, survived an intense one-on-one firefight, only to die outside of the white circle with no first aid kits to save him.
I was worried that watching high-level PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds play where the stakes were notably high—as in, included money—that the fun of Battlegrounds would be lost. The sillier plays. The happy accidents. The motorcycle flips that go very, very wrong. Fortunately, there was a fair share of goofs during the Solo Invitational's three matches; arguably, one mishap even led to EVERMORE's eventual victory. After getting chicken dinner the second match and getting close the two other rounds, in the third match EVERMORE actually got stuck behind a cliff where no one could fire at him. As a result, he was eventually just killed by the blue circle; not by a combatant.
EVERMORE's strategy through the matches was nearly always the same: grab a boat, head to the initial spawn island that's far away from everything else, stock up on loot before heading back to the fray. The unique strategy ended up working in the long-run, even if he only got four kills overall, earning EVERMORE a shiny IRL golden pan in the end, representative of the frying pan melee weapon that happens to be bullet proof in Battlegrounds itself. You can watch him get stuck below. (And even though he didn't finish first in match one or three, he racked up enough points in the long-run to net him the top prize.)
Now that the Invitational is underway, for the future PlayerUnknown hopes the Battle Royale genre's potential as an esport grows from here. "This is why we have our custom games. We want to give players the ability to start their own leagues from the ground up and really start building a community of Battle Royale players, amateur as they are now," Greene said. "[We're] trying to build that pyramid up to the top of having a Major. You know, we wanna take things slowly, but we want to make sure we do it right."
Fine-tuning the future of Battlegrounds specifically as an esport, like if it has a future beyond competitive LAN parties, will be a massive challenge in the future. The Invitational is at least a step forward in proving that these types of competitions of nearly-100-player games (that, mind you, are still in Early Access) are at the very least possible on a smaller scale. No matter how miniscule that may be.
Yet even then, I can't help but feel like for such a large celebration of the unstoppable force that Battlegrounds has become in 2017, day one of the Invitational only showed the glaring ways that Battlegrounds needs to improve in the future. The Invitational—with such an odd medley of streamers and professional players all competing in one singular place—felt oddly lonely with the frenetic camerawork. Maybe in the oncoming days' duo competitions and squad finale on Saturday this will feel a little more together, but for now I only feel like I watched a fragment of a high-stakes match, rather than feeling like I had a wholler idea of how it shook out for everyone. It's a balance that will be hard to swing in the future. Hell, maybe a Matrix-like wall of screens is even the semi-answer to that, illustrating the individual journeys players all go through in just a single exciting round of Battlegrounds.