A week ago, a team won a six-figure esports competition through sheer patience. Obey Gaming, a team competing in H1Z1 King Of The Kill, orchestrated their strategy around not starting fights, opting to wait patiently on the sidelines as the Battle Royale-esque game of survival and slaughter played out. This patience would not only lead to them lasting longer than many other top teams, but winning in the first televised H1Z1 broadcast ever.
Image credit: Daybreak Games
This result, however, was leaked well in advance of the airing of the tournament on The CW. It was a taped broadcast, cut down from a live event held a month prior, with the audience all placed under non-disclosure agreements. Much of its intensity and presentation was manufactured in an editing room, and many firefights were shortened or cut to make room for advertisements. It wasn't quite the home run the battle royale esports scene was looking for.
Games like King Of The Kill or PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds fall under a burgeoning umbrella of "battle royale games", named after the movie of the same name. If you've seen Battle Royale or its similar Western version, The Hunger Games, you get the premise: A discrete island, filled with tools and weapons, and an ever-shrinking field of play. You parachute into the arena with nothing but the clothes on your back, and have to scavenge for tools and become the last man standing using your foraging skills, guile, dexterity and a fair bit of patience.
Though Battlegrounds is the apparent top-dog at the moment according to Steam numbers, its progenitor H1Z1: King Of The Kill has a much more involved competitive scene. Well-known esports brands like Echo Fox, Cloud9, Counterlogic Gaming and Panda Global all have H1Z1 squads, and The CW recently aired the Fight For The Crown tournament. With $US740,572 ($983,495) given out in prize money, there's some level of interest, but the scene is still lacking in a presentation that sheds a proper light on the game's best features.
Many esports pride themselves on their strategy, whether it's understanding the economics of a Counter-Strike match, the drafts of Dota 2 or League of Legends, or even just knowing your match-ups in fighting games.
Battle royale games offer some level of strategy, in securing certain high-value items like assault rifles and high-quality vehicles (which offer both mobility and cover in a pinch), but with money on the line and one life to live, there's little incentive for teams to seek each other out rather than find a good hole to hide in. H1Z1 team Obey won Fight For The Crown by hiding out for most of the match, picking off teams who were too busy fighting each other, and winning through its superior numbers (all five members of Obey managed to stay alive through the entire match).
As one poster on reddit put it, "when it comes down to the money aspect everyone plays it safe which makes for a less entertaining experience. I was hoping at least one team would start hunting down other teams immediately. Camping in cabins and trailers are what most streamers hate when other players do it. Seems to be common in tournaments for this game."
A focus on the mechanical skill and action of King Of The Kill can lead to incredible moments of emergent gameplay and more interesting broadcasts, but many of those moments got left on the cutting room floor. Highlighting clashes between two teams, the multiple firefights that involve tactics and skill, would have been a welcome change to the broadcast.
Much of this fault is due to the presentation though, as the Fight For The Crown tournament only showed a single match which decided the outcome of the whole tournament. Teams can win or lose due to circumstance, either by dropping onto an unfavourable position from the outset, or being caught in the toxic gas like strong contenders Echo Fox were. Making the best of any situation can be a good metric for player skill, but a single life can lead to better teams falling victim to chance rather than their own misplays.
At the moment, events like Fight For The Crown feel like showmatches, exhibitions put on to prove the games have competitive potential. For more tournaments on the horizon, it's a little vague; Daybreak has yet to announce a date for its annual invitational, and no other major tournament is set for the game. King Of The Kill and its battle royale brethren has all the ingredients to provide an exciting esports broadcast, but for now, it's still waiting for the right presentation to make that happen.