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Esports — skill, chance, and everything inbetween: Part 2

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The second part of Hai Ng’s deep dive into the most popular esports titles, he examines battle royale games, and how sportsbooks can offer a viable betting product.

Stage 2: Battle royale

One of the newest genres to hit the competitive gaming world is the battle royale.

If you’ve read Stage 1 of this series, many battle royale games incorporate First person shooter (FPS) elements in titles such PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite. 

However, the battle royale genre covers a much broader swath of gameplay approaches and equally broad variety of skill and, for some, an element of chance.

More than “There can be only one” — The birth of a genre

While it may be common to associate the battle royale genre as a last man standing, deathmatch, or king of the hill scenario, those gameplay modes have existed since the onset of first person shooters (FPS).

The signature elements that differentiate and define the battle royale genre today were introduced by Koushun Takami’s novel, its manga adaptation, and the eventual cult-favorite film of the same name. It is therefore it is fitting that the genre adopted that title.

For those not familiar with Takami and his work’s adaptations, they may associate the genre with the series, The Hunger Games, which brought a similar battle concept to the western world. 

One key difference between The Hunger Games and Battle Royale is the fixed point at which all players and teams begin, that also provides them with the main cache of equipment. Intellectual property issues aside, the genre is probably not named The Hunger Games because the Battle Royale format is the prevailing one.

From screen to game

One of the most influential persons in the birth of the battle royale genre is Brendan Greene. 

He started with DayZ, a mod (game modification) for the military simulation game Arma 2 and subsequently Arma 3 when DayZ became a standalone title. Greene then went on to consult in the development of H1Z1: King of the Hill, which was a standalone title from inception.

You may not have heard of Brendan Greene, but you probably know him by his gamer-tag (the nickname or call sign for gamers)—PlayerUnknown—the same PlayerUnknown in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds or PUBG for short.

While clearly not the first battle royale game he has worked on, PUBG did send shockwaves into both the player and investment communities in gaming. At one of PUBG’s highpoints, the name of the company that owned the game became synonymous with the successful investor class in South Korea—you were either an investor in Bluehole or one that missed out.

At the time, Tencent, one of the largest venture capital and investment corporations in the world, acquired their initial stake in Bluehole, it set the valuation of the company at almost  KRW4.7tn (£3.2bn/€3.5bn/$4.3bn)

When Epic Games released their battle royale title Fortnite, it further solidified the popularity of the genre by grossing $318m in the month of May 2018 alone. This revenue came from a free-to-play title, from in-game microtransactions, where players purchase non-performance-enhancing cosmetic digital items.

Epic’s success could be attributed to Fortnite taking a much broader and more creative approach to the genre. It had a more “animated” or cartoon feel in contrast to the militaristic reality portrayed thus far by the genre. 

It added the element of construction, allowing players to build structures as part of their strategy. Perhaps more unique is creating an arena that wasn’t just for battle competitions but a destination for players to simply gather together to enjoy everything from concerts to movies to parties. 

You don’t have to be only battling for survival in Fortnite, instead you can be enjoying the musical stylings of Travis Scott or catching a Christopher Nolan flick. This opened up opportunities for cross-promotional and sponsorship activities to happen, resulting in tie-ins with major movie franchises such as Marvel’s Avengers and product marketing to occur.

Battle royale royalty

With the popularity of the genre, it probably comes as no surprise that the term “battle royale” gets tossed around a lot due to its marketing value. 

While developers have found creative ways to distinguish their games from others in the genre, true to its inspiring origins, battle royale games should have the following genre-defining elements:

  • A number of players or teams compete to be the last player or team surviving
  • A play area that shrinks over time
  • Players/teams 
  • are all equal in attributes and performance
  • are deposited into the play area, optionally with a degree of choice
  • start with no equipment in their possession 
  • must scavenge equipment from the map

From a purist point of view, a game should only be part of the Battle Royale genre if the above gameplay elements are all met. Interestingly, some unlikely titles have even been able to stay totally consistent with their existing themes while genuinely checking all the battle royale boxes, including Pac-Man Battle Royale.

As with most genres used in esports, while there are many games that are in the battle royale genre or feature battle royale gameplay modes, running on a variety of gaming platforms, only a select few are considered by most as esports. Notable battle royale esports titles include:

  • H1Z1 [PC]
  • PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) [PC]
  • PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds Mobile (PUBG Mobile) [Mobile]
  • Fortnite [PC]
  • Free Fire [Mobile]
  • Call of Duty: Warzone (COD:WZ) [PC/PS4/XBox]

The mechanics of battle royale

Some may consider battle royale as a subset of the FPS genre, but there are sufficient differences dictated by the format affecting game mechanics, required skills, and other probative elements that rely on chance, which warrant the separate genre classification.

While battle royales resemble deathmatch or king of the hill formats in FPS games, the large play map that shrinks over time and the need to scavenge equipment, dramatically changes how players can achieve the winning objective.

Let’s begin our analysis with the map of the playing area.

Typically, the map on a battle royale title is many times bigger than one on a typical FPS title. For example, Fortnite’s default map is about 5.6 sq km and CS:GO’s Mirage map is about 0.12 sq km, making Fortnite’s map almost 47 times bigger. For additional comparison, PUBG’s Erangel map, which stands at about 64 sq km, is over 533 times bigger than Mirage!

For some real-world references, CS:GO’s Mirage map is about the size of 29 soccer fields. PUBG’s Erangel is a tad bigger than the Republic of San Marino (yes, the country in Europe) or about 23% bigger than Bermuda. Even the smaller map of Fortnite is almost 3 times bigger than the country of Monaco.

Right off the bat, there is a lot of terrain to memorize for a battle royale title. Now add buildings and structures onto the terrain, which range from single floor sheds to multi-level buildings, and the complexity of the maps increases by large multipliers.

What further increases the difficulty of battle royales compared to FPS titles is the limited ability for players to explore the map in a training or exploration environment. While there are now many tactical maps available on the Internet, as the adage goes, “no plan survives first contact with the enemy,” knowing a map and having virtual feet on the ground are very different experiences. First-hand knowledge of key performance items from sightlines to camouflage will take days and hundreds of games to acquire before mastering them even begins.

Having a much bigger map is just the beginning of the map challenge.

The start positions, or what is commonly referred to as spawn points, are typically not fixed for battle royales. 

Most games will have players start on board an aircraft flying across the map on a randomly selected course. Players must decide when to jump off the plane and control their glide down to a spot on the map before the plane leaves the map. They will see other players deplaning, allowing them to decide when and where to go to avoid a crowd or find a crowd, depending on their strategy. 

Then there is the shrinking map. Happening at predetermined intervals, the map will shrink to a smaller area within the current playable area, typically by about half. Any player left outside the playable area will take damage until they expire or move back into the playable area.

This forces confrontation but it also requires that players know all of the map, since you may not always be able to start at the same spot, and you most likely would not be able to stay in an area familiar to you. Toss in the fact that some of the other players may choose to start in the same area, players have to be quick on their feet and be able to select a new LZ (Landing Zone) if they see their chosen spot getting crowded.

Next up, the scavenging element of the battle royale genre.

Players begin the game with no equipment. That means no armour, no weapons, no ammo… you get the idea. Every player has to scavenge everything from the map or off defeated players once they get on the ground. The alternative is to engage in unarmed combat, and that rarely ends well.

The biggest challenge here is where and what can be found—it is mostly random. 

While items can typically be found in certain types of locations, for example inside buildings, that is not always the case, and what you find will vary. As well, everybody in the game will be competing for the same equipment scattered around. Additionally, if players get lucky and find the weapon they like, they may not find enough ammo of the type they need. 

Most titles also limit the amount of equipment you can carry, so inventory management and decisions have to be made.

In some games, there are marked points on the map where you can purchase equipment with money earned by completing marked objectives or timed equipment drops where a cache of stuff is guaranteed to appear at a specific time. With both of these, everybody in the game sees the same information, so expect others to be heading there, or worse, an ambush.

Furthermore, in some titles, picking up equipment will leave an empty container, which  could serve as a trail for someone to follow or a trap that can be set.

This element of chance adds an interesting twist to an otherwise pure game of skill, but it does not take away from the need for skill. Like in poker, good players are the ones that know how to make the most with the hand they are dealt.

This chance element does present a window where players can get lucky, allowing them to take out an otherwise superior opponent—something that does not happen very often in FPS, short of player error.

However, unlike poker, good battle royale players with a high level of skills that parallel the FPS genre have a clear advantage over one without those skills. Like in a Chuck Norris movie, I have seen skilled professionals beat amateurs armed with a great weapon with their bare hands, no bluffs or tells required.

Finally, another major aspect that sets battle royale apart from FPS is the perspective of the player during the game. Most battle royale games default to a third-person view (imagine the perspective from a floating camera positioned above and behind the player’s character’s head) instead of a first-person view. 

Some titles such as Fortnite currently (as of the writing of this article, rumours suggest Epic may add it) have no option to go into a first-person perspective except when aiming down the scope of a sniper rifle. The third-person perspective does provide for more visibility around the player’s character, something that definitely provides an advantage in this genre.

More than one way to win

Most of the mechanical and mental skills required in FPS titles are still very relevant in battle royale. Skills such as location and situation awareness; visual acuity; mastery of controls, movement, and aiming; map memory; weapon familiarity; all contribute to a player’s performance. It will come as no surprise that many battle royale professionals come from an FPS background.

However, the mechanics of battle royale allows for myriad strategies or metas for skilled players, unlike the much more straightforward FPS titles.

A player can choose to dive headlong, actively seeking and taking out opponents; to going stealth and letting other players thin out the herd for you; to everything in between. The drastically bigger map, shrinking map, and resulting longer playtime, creates opportunities that are not practical in FPS.

Strategic approaches like setting traps, creating ambushes, the use of vehicles, and using other players in the game to your advantage, are just some of what is possible.

The varied nature of game play and longer matches can present a challenge in esports tournaments and bookmaking alike. 

For bookmaking, it’s a double-edged sword—the variety presents great opportunities for in-run products but longer games could be a drag for final outcome wagers. In the case of esports tournaments, fair, effective, and efficient scoring and ladder resolution can be a challenge, especially considering the length of games, number of players needed, and the role of chance.

On the flip side, the broader challenges that battle royale demands of players result in much more interesting content for the viewer, with much more variety than the repetitive rhythm of FPS.

TL;DR summary

Esports genre: Battle royale (BR)
Games include: H1Z1 [PC]
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) [PC]
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds Mobile (PUBG Mobile) [Mobile]
Fortnite [PC]
Free Fire [Mobile]
Call of Duty: Warzone (COD:WZ) [PC/PS4/XBox]
Skill / Chance / Hybrid: Skill with a touch of chance

Hai Ng is integrity ambassador for the Esports Integrity Commission (ESIC) He is also co-founder of Neomancer, a unique technology strategy and management firm. Hai has more than three decades of experience in the technology sector, with a decade in igaming.

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