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'Battlegrounds' Finds Streaming Success With Tense Human Drama

Watching 'PUBG' streamers is the closest thing to a horror movie on Twitch.

Bruno Dias

courtesy Bluehole

It always seems to end on a field of rolling wheat or patchy grass; some useless no-man's-land with no cover and no reason to be there. The streamers I watch rarely make it that far. "I'm not very good at this game," one enjoys intoning, deadpan. Another lets off a faux-folksy "aw, beans," whenever her plans don't work. I watch them specifically for their vulnerability and frailty.

Usually, it's a fairly ambient experience, and these days I often keep a Battlegrounds stream in the background. But that stops when we get to the end of the match, and I find myself watch every flying frag grenade, and listening for every shot whizzing past, until death (or, more rarely, victory) comes out of that narrow field full of crawling, terrified people.

PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is consistently one of the most watched games on the Twitch platform, sometimes coming in second, just before League of Legends. In rankings of most-watched games on Twitch, it competes with Dota 2, Hearthstone, and Overwatch. Other studios and publishers have invested large amounts of money trying to get here. They sponsor lavish tournaments, and aggressively market not just their launches but also expansions and DLC; each new character in Overwatch comes only at the tail end of weeks of speculation, hype, marketing pushes, and ill-fated ARGs.

Battlegrounds has none of this, and yet it's achieved a volume of viewers that competes with big-budget games. And this viewership is organic; PUBG is not an esport, at least not yet. There are no big events or tournaments to draw large numbers of viewers to the game. So many people are streaming it and watching it for a straightforward reason: it's enormously entertaining to watch, almost regardless of the skill level of the players you're seeing.

Major game developers, in trying to build games that can thrive as esports, have to build games that attract spectators as much as players; they must be as entertaining to watch as they are to play. Otherwise, streams don't attract viewers, and thus they don't act as the promotional channel they are supposed to be.

The pattern that a lot of competitive games have used includes a few common features: games that are bursting with candy-colored action, oriented towards small-team play, and easy to understand but with stratospheric skill ceilings that allow for astonishing displays of ability on the part of pro players. This isn't to say that this formula is followed to the letter (Counter-Strike is fairly drab, and League and Dota can both be hard to follow), but this is the rough outline of a competitive, spectator-friendly game.

Battlegrounds stands as an almost complete exception. Instead of the futuristic cartoon of Overwatch or the Melniboné-by-way-of-Cinemax aesthetic of League of Legends, it takes place in a drab and rainy world somewhere between post-Soviet Russia and a military small arms discussion forum. Instead of tight team-on-team matches, it's designed for chaotic battle royale games of up to 100 players.

It's a simple and straightforward game to understand, but there are no shocking displays of skill in Battlegrounds; there are good shots, but you don't see players enter minute-long trances of unimpeachable play. There are too many factors, too much chaos, too much variance for that. The game is definitely tapping into something unexplored in this space. Or, at least, it's succeeding more than past incarnations of the battle royale genre, like H1Z1: King of the Kill.

If Team Fortress 2 (and its successor in almost all things, Overwatch) is the multiplayer shooter as cartoon slapstick, Battlegrounds is the multiplayer shooter as a horror movie. It's all about ratcheting tension and the possibility of shock. The arc of a typical squad game goes something like this: in the early minutes of the game, there's not enough investment to take it too seriously, and there's too much ground to cover to take every precaution. Players split up, rush into houses, announce their finds to one another. It's reminiscent of the first act of Alien; the squad of players are like those working stiffs wandering around the Nostromo, joking around, seemingly unaware of what is about to happen to them but somehow still surrounded by dread.

If Team Fortress 2 (and its successor in almost all things, Overwatch) is the multiplayer shooter as cartoon slapstick, Battlegrounds is the multiplayer shooter as a horror movie.

Sometimes, this initial phase is cut short by bad luck and sudden violence, which tends to erupt in the most unseemly ways; ill-prepared teams bumbling into one another and having nasty, brutish, short firefights.

Otherwise, the slowly narrowing field of play eventually leads to an ominous reminder that the squad is not alone on the island: A house with nothing but pistols and useless items, clearly looted by another team; unseen gunfire going pop-pop-pop in the distance; a car running past on the road. Voice chat goes quiet. Jokes are replaced by the dry language of pseudo-military callouts: "Popcorn at 300," meaning distant gunfire heard from somewhere with a bearing of 300 degrees, west-northwest.

Players take time to adjust the select fire on their weapons and the zero distance on their scopes. They carefully clear dodgy-looking buildings, slicing the pie, watching those doors and corners. They go prone in fields of tall grass or behind rocks, leapfrogging from cover to cover. This is phase two: Full Metal Jacket, the knife's edge of boredom and terror that is patrolling hostile territory.

Inevitably, inexorably, as the advancing wall of death forces the players closer and closer together, contact is made. Someone gets shot by a sniper. A grenade sails through a window. An enemy group is spotted in the distance. In Battlegrounds, someone almost always gets the drop on someone else, but engagements aren't decided entirely by surprise. The outcome of every situation is genuinely in question, until it isn't.

Some fights are taken with tense professionalism. Some are not. We enter into the third mode of Battlegrounds, and it's much like the third act of Get Out. They're desperate, they're hurt, they don't fully understand what's going on, but they're armed. Victory, or defeat, emerges from the chaos, usually soon followed by the call to play one more round.

For now, the design of games as spectator sports is conflated with the design of games as esports. The idea is that eyeballs will be drawn by pro players, tough competition, big events, and a structure that replicates physical sports as much as possible.

Battlegrounds shows another way: The online game not as a competitive sport but almost as a performance space, as a toolbox for creating emotional arcs. There's foreshadowing: that Vector found early in the game, maybe the weapon that'll see the squad through to the end of the game.

There are ominous details, like the background motion of an out-of-focus monster in a horror movie: Doors left hanging open, a vehicle abandoned by the side of the road. There's slowly rising tension: the advancing wall funneling players together. There are twists: a "care package" dropped dangerously close to the squad's position, a zone movement that suddenly forces them to relocate in a hurry. There are scares, like the unmistakeable sound of suppressed sniper fire hitting the ground nearby.

Everything leads to the denouement on some rain-soaked field, where there is no cover and death is clearly near, but the squad might never make it there. The tension is only heightened by knowing that you might not make it to the end; that the danger, narratively at least, is genuine and present. And in spite of its military-fantasy complexities, it achieves an accessibility that isn't really there in games like League of Legends.

Much like Alien, the best matches of Battlegrounds are about regular people somehow improvising a path through panic and danger. This is the big, clever design trick that propels Battlegrounds so far up the Twitch rankings, without a big AAA marketing push, without big esports events, without visual spectacle: It's a game that seems to get better and more entertaining to watch when it's played by middling players.

The ideal ending to a match of Battlegrounds is not a balletic display of skill but a panicked crawl through hostile territory. Winners emerge shaken and blood-soaked, blessed more by luck than skill, surprised at what they just did; victory is as much of a shock as the sniper's sudden bullet. And there's something completely transfixing about watching, match after match, the asymptotic approximation towards that ideal arc. PUBG is a game designed so that those suspenseful thrillers emerge from its rules. And that suspense is only heightened by the fact that you can never be sure, until the very end, that you were watching the hero. But whether you were or not, we are invested in the protagonists of those stories—in the players we watch—not because they are capable, but because they are vulnerable.