Turning video games into a spectator sport is about more than just showing video of games--it's about telling stories.
Mehmood "Moody" Askar had his back up against a wall. He and the rest of the Canadian PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds team were sitting on the outside of the circle, fighting tooth and nail to get inside the zone against a Vietnamese squad hunkered down inside a compound within the safe zone.
A sudden explosion sent Askar's squadmate Luke "Meluke" Laing to the great beyond, as Team Vietnam lobbed grenades toward their position. Askar knew he had to act. He started strafing out into the brush of the adjacent field, thinking he could even the odds if he got a clear line of sight on the enemy. Team Vietnam was none the wiser as Moody made his approach.
Just as he reached a vantage point with sufficient visibility of Vietnam's position, a third team decided to crash the party. Russia's Arsenii "ceh9" Ivanychev, through trees, brush, and buildings, let his trigger finger go, putting Askar into the ground. The Russian sniper stopped the Canadian dead in his tracks--and no one saw it coming.
"It's always meant to be a surprise, moments like that," says PUBG commentator and analyst Lauren Scott. "That one shot was perfect."
That was a scene from the third match in the inaugural PUBG Nations Cup, a tournament between 16 teams composed of players representing their home countries held at the Jangchung Arena in Seoul, South Korea. It was one of the greatest examples of how the arbitrary, scattered, and action-packed nature of battle royales is captured on camera for an audience of millions to enjoy.
The battle royale genre, including games like PUBG, Apex Legends, and Fortnite, is a unique beast when it comes to spectating. All three games have fostered competitive scenes where thousands, sometimes millions, tune in to watch tournaments. Players are spread out across a huge map after parachuting from battle buses and airships, with gunfights erupting in multiple places once they land. It's difficult to capture the best bits of the action for viewers, even when a fight between two teams unfolds right in front of the camera.
"You had a defensive team holding their position, you had a team encroaching on that, and then you had a potential third party," Scott, who commentated on the shootout between Canada and Vietnam, told me between matches in Seoul. "It's difficult though. You can't expect the third party to get involved because new angles become apparent once the smoke fades, you can't expect ceh9 to hit that one shot."
Except this time, he did, and the production crew behind the camera was able to cut to ceh9 right after Askar fell, beautifully capturing an exciting moment. So how do broadcast crews capture moments like these in these sprawling competitions?
Since the breakout success of the battle royale genre in 2017, and the respective growth of each games' competitive community, storylines have shaped how broadcasters have captured the excitement of dozens of players parachuting onto a dangerous island. In-game improvements, including features like spectating systems that allow the camera to flow freely around the map, have made streams more approachable and dynamic, making every story told more compelling.
"My goal as a commentator is highlighting the players," Scott said. "We want to connect the general audience with the game but for me, on a more personal level, we want to build narratives around the players and why they do what they do. We want to give the players the credit they deserve, putting all this time and effort in. It's an overarching storyline."
A different scene unfolded nearly five thousand miles away at Alvernia Planet, the surreal movie studio turned esports arena, situated just outside Kraków, Poland. The Apex Legends Preseason Invitational was in full swing as 80 teams from more than a dozen countries gathered to compete in Respawn's fast-paced, first-person battle royale.
In a match where a victory could have made him a champion, Team SoloMid player Phillip "ImperialHal" Dosen hunkered behind a crate, bruised after taking out three enemies and losing his two teammates. There were only two players left in the late-night grand finals match, but Dosen was pinned down.
Romain "wSerious" Dittmann, of French team GamerOrigins, was looking down at him from a higher platform. Dosen and Dittmann exchanged potshots, dancing back and forth while unable to deal a lethal blow. Dosen knew that wouldn't be enough and tried to run up and flank Dittman by approaching him from the side. But as soon as Dosen left cover, Dittmann unloaded a clip into the TeamSoloMid star's back.
It was an exciting situation that's comparable to Team Russia's long-range kill at the PUBG Nations Cup, but it didn't feel nearly as impactful. We experienced the entire interaction from Dosen's viewpoint, which was mostly him waiting for the right moment to jump out from behind cover. We didn't see anything from Dittman's viewpoint or anything from a third angle.
That's because competitive Apex Legends doesn't have an in-game spectator mode yet and production teams don't have the experience needed to anticipate these types of situations. The game launched earlier this year and there have only been two actual Apex tournaments. Most players, commentators, and fans, who have experience in other games, said that things would get better for spectators. PUBG went through this phase too--check out the Gamescom 2017 tournament to see Tyler "Ninja" Blevins compete on a similarly lackluster broadcast.
"Apex Legends desperately needs an observer mode. As a commentator, it would help me actually show the audience what's happening," Apex Legends commentator Dan Gaskin told me between matches in Kraków. "At the moment it's just guesswork, where the circle is going. Right now we can only see the map when a player opens the map. It's getting there as a viewing experience and the game is exciting enough to attract viewership, but it needs an observer mode if it wants to become a large esport."
"You build a story in-game, one that you build in each map."
If Apex Legends had a spectator mode, we would have been able to see the odds that Dosen had stacked against him, being on the lower ground surrounded by open space. It would have made his loss more compelling and a potential win all the more gratifying.
"You build a story in-game, one that you build in each map," Gaskin said, before talking about TSM, the team that took first place in the overall tournament and was often the focus of the broadcast. "We certainly wanted to keep talking about TSM as the team to beat at this tournament, as they were the best coming in. They still are the best now that everyone from around the world met at this tournament."
Another underdog situation, similar to what Dosen faced, played out when Thailand's Katanyu "DUCKMANZ" Chinsorranan faced off against three Brazilian players in the final circle during the second day of the PUBG Nations Cup. Everyone thought Chinsorranan would lose. No matter how skilled he was, the odds weren't in his favor.
Yet the camera stayed with Chinsorranan as the final seconds ticked away. It felt like a millisecond-long pseudo-stalemate as Team Brazil slowly crept towards him. Instead of sticking with his team, Ricardo "Rdnx" Queiroz decided to get creative, hopping into a truck to rush Chinsorranan. It was a bold move, but Queiroz's gambit failed, and he was gunned down and perished outside the circle.
Using that bit of momentum, Chinsorranan turned around and took out the two remaining Brazilians, winning the match for his fallen squad.
"We obviously thought that Brazil would win because it was three versus one," producing director Sun Kim, who helped lead the production at the PUBG Nations Cup, told me through a translator. "But the Thai player was performing incredibly well throughout the tournament, so we decided to focus on him."
Kim and her crew stuck with Chinsorranan, while also giving various angles from free-floating cameras, as he consistently dominated other players, ultimately racking up 23 kills throughout three days of competition. They also opted to focus on him in case he won, giving the audience the best viewpoint for the comeback.
There are a lot of moving pieces behind situations like this, as multiple members of the production crew have to be on the same page about what they plan to show spectators. You have the commentators who provide context for what's on-screen, the production crew who manages which shots go live when, and multiple observers that control free-floating cameras. Every crew is different, but most teams confer before and several times during tournaments to line up a game plan. They need to be in sync in order to give viewers a clear, unconfused look at a match--and they need to anticipate where to put the cameras to catch the best action.
"We use basic data to evaluate how players perform in previous matches and then use that to decide what we want to capture in the broadcast," Kim said. "We have conversations among our team and then the observers use that to help guide what they capture."
That basic data boils down to kills and placements, the two most important elements in battle royale. It's what pushed the production teams to focus on Russia and South Korea, the two frontrunners in the entire PUBG tournament, during the final few matches of competition. No other team had the chance to win it all, so it only made sense to put the focus on them. It's also what put the spotlight on Apex Legends Team 789, an unsigned squad of Russians who came out of nowhere to dominate other Apex Legends teams in Poland. They climbed to the top of the rankings on the second day of competition and got more time on stream as a result.
Those unique threads help broadcasters make battle royales compelling. A narrative approach to production helps teams decide who gets more screen time early on and who gets more focus in a gripping grand final showdown. Those storylines aren't always confined to what's happening within the game, either. Sometimes they're all about the people playing.
It was one of the final matches of ESL Katowice Royale, a Fortnite tournament that took place less than an hour's drive from the Apex Legends Invitational, and duo partners Will "Zayt" Aubin and Rocco "Saf" Morales were on top of the world, and on top of the ranks. They had dominated in earlier matches, landing multiple wins that helped build a huge gap between them and the next runner up. The tournament was already won and it wasn't even over.
Instead of playing out the final match with his head down, Aubin built a platform next to a tower the duo had built within the circle, with plenty of other players in range. He walked out on it and danced in front of everyone to flaunt his performance. "The audience knew they put themselves more than 100 points ahead [of the next team] in the last game...they ended up L dancing in the open on the highest spot of the map where everyone could see them," Fortnite commentator and analyst Arten "Ballatw" Esa told me. "That was a great story."
The broadcast could have stayed on a different team who was caught in an active gunfight, since some were happening close to the winning duo, but it didn't. Most of the attention was on the two that would go on to win it all. The stream stuck with the two winners during the short dance as the moment transcended the game itself. It was all about the story.
Stories are a driving force in more than just battle royales. They're the reason why the Dragon Ball Fighterz EVO matchups between Dominique "SonicFox" McLean and Goichi "GO1" Kishida, two incredibly talented competitors with a deep history of fights, are so intense. They're the explanation for why Overwatch League games between the Dallas Fuel and Houston Outlaws, both teams owned by organizations with a legacy of head-to-head face-offs, are more heated than other League matches. There is a history, a friendly rivalry even, that gets viewers invested.
"I would argue that stories drive every esport. That's what keeps you hooked. A crazy shot or fight is so much better with a developed story leading up to it. What went into that shot, why did it mean so much," Esa said. "The issue in battle royales that makes this difficult is that there are so many stories within one game. Even in trios, there are 33 storylines that all go their separate ways and converge unpredictably."
"I would argue that stories drive every esport. That's what keeps you hooked."
It's still early on in the life of battle royale tournament spectating, and spectating esports in general, so it's difficult to say how it'll evolve moving forward. Most casters and production crew members I spoke to believe that game-specific improvements, like the ability to expand and show a player's loadout in PUBG, will improve the viewing quality of each match. We'll have to wait and see which larger developments unfold across the genre.
While spectating in the fighting game community and Overwatch may not be as complicated as battle royales (although it's still quite complicated), the same emphasis on telling stories exists in all esports. There will always be viewers who love watching the game itself play out, just like hardcore fans of the NFL or NBA, but the key to getting more people involved is to get them hooked.
"I just want to convey the amazing story, tension, and skill it takes to win these tournaments," Esa said. "I want to get people watching and invested in the entire server, not just the players they are interested in. We've got to make it exciting, we've got to get people invested, we've got to make fandom a real thing."