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PUBG is difficult to watch as an esport, but there's hope

IEM Oakland gave the world a second glimpse at PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds at a large international LAN event. 20 of the world’s best squads airdropped into California to compete across eight maps for their share of $200,000 in prize money. 

To many spectators, an Early Access PUBG is still not quite ready for the international stage. To PUBG Inc. and ESL’s credit, both organisations made adjustments based on their learnings from Gamescom to put on a more polished event this weekend. 

Evaluating PUBG's watchability

Frenzies of mapwide action were almost too frenetic for the observers to cope with.

PUBG is played very differently when thousands of dollars are on the line. At Gamescom we saw plenty of conservative play, and at IEM Oakland we continued to see players reluctant to engage in the opening phase of the game, despite guns being readily available—assault rifles were set to spawn at 1.5X the normal rate at the tournament.

One thing motivating this is the ESL's scoring system, which at IEM Oakland awarded 10 points per kill, and survivor points ranging from 300 (first place) to 40 points (for 20th place, the team that lost all its players first).

The incentive for teams to play aggressively simply wasn’t there and as a result the first 10 or 15 minutes of each game was spent looting, scouting, and migrating. Each team was able to stake out a town or territory for themselves with almost no interference. FaZe would drop Mylta Power, aAa plunged into Mylta, and Method consistently hit Pochinki. After 20 minutes of play in the first match, 60 of 80 players were still alive.

This slow start consistently led to explosive, bloody firefights for the fourth or fifth circle, when many teams began competing for the best terrain. Still, these frenzies of mapwide action were almost too frenetic for the observers to cope with. While gunshots rattled in the background, the audience was sometimes treated to shots of someone healing behind a tree, or third-person shots of no real relevance. When chasing vehicles, the camera would occasionally clip under the map. The casters would call out a firefight, but before the camera reached them they'd be massacred.  

The final moments of a match were more focused and watchable, of course, but without a permanent statistics screen for viewers to keep up with who’s alive and who’s not—it was difficult to follow each game’s storyline. 

Still, we should spare some patience for the devs and ESL as they continue to figure out the best way to present PUBG. It's an extraordinarily challenging game to broadcast—at some moments, the crew has to monitor more than a dozen similar-looking map areas simultaneously. The task of running an 80-person LAN, on a tight schedule, without major technical miscues, is likewise daunting.

There are some hopefully-simple steps that PUBG Inc. and tournament organisers can take to immerse the viewer. There’s so much data available, and fans are crying out for it to be made available live. Basic information such as current kills, gun loadout, and even just who’s alive and who’s not would make spectators considerably happier. Whether it becomes available through a Twitch extension, standalone app for a second monitor or phone, or in the game’s client remains a different issue, but one worth exploring for PUBG should it wish to join Dota 2 and CS:GO in the upper echelons of esports.

The winners, and how they won

The IEM scoring format allowed the eventual winners, Against All Authority, to win the tournament without scoring any kills in the final two maps. A qualifying team rather than an invitee, the French roster was a picture of consistency throughout the weekend, finishing in the top five in half of the eight maps and finishing sixth in the final two maps. 

Digital Chaos were the only squad to win more than one map across the weekend. The mixed European team took both the first and seventh map, securing 27 combined kills in the two victories. In their other six maps they could only manage one top ten finish and a grand total of eight frags. 

Oakland proved that patience, stealth, and positioning remain just as important as outright fragging ability.

Tempo Storm on the other hand failed to win a single map yet secured second place overall. Shotcaller Keane “Valliate” Alonso and his squad made squeaky clean rotations and nearly always had solid positioning ahead of the next circle. Pre-tournament favourites FaZe Clan were seen being picked off in vehicles due to late rotations and perilous circles but this was something Tempo Storm avoided fantastically. The team notched a somewhat meek 28 kills across the eight maps but finished 2nd overall with five top-five finishes. No matter the circle, Tempo Storm were well-positioned and rarely caught out. They’re not the most exciting squad to watch but they most definitely know how to score points. 

The format we saw at IEM Oakland made it clear that it's a marathon, not a sprint. If you're watching a popular streamer like Shroud or DrDisrespect on Twitch, you'll usually see them follow a reckless, entertaining shoot-on-sight policy. That strategy doesn't transfer into the professional game. Oakland proved that patience, stealth, and positioning remain just as important as outright fragging ability. In the final map of the tournament, winners aAa earned a sixth-place finish on the map by hiding their last living player, Monkey, in a patch of grass, where he avoided any conflict for minutes.

The importance of compounds

Pro PUBG's meta is still developing. One thing that was evident across both days of the competition is that compounds, wherever they were, were hotly contested. The later the circle goes, the more coveted structures become. A single compound can provide solid cover for an entire squad with clear vision over wide areas of land where there’s no cover. They provide perfect opportunity for players to grab pick-offs as other team scramble for better positon. As soon as the circle was revealed and the “migration phase” begun, the compounds in the next circle would very quickly be filled by a squad looking to catch the late-movers languishing in the blue or anyone having to expose themselves across sparse open areas of land. 

Compounds don't guarantee survival, though. In game seven, Miami Flamingos, PENTA, Method and Corn Shuckers all found themselves shacked up in or around the same three houses. Between the tiny shack and the three rather flimsy looking yellow houses the game burst into life with Method, PENTA and Miami Flamingos players being KO'd and traded left, right, and centre. Again the circle didn’t behave and the teams had to mobilise to survive the imminent fast approaching doom. Unsurprisingly, every other team still alive had heard the gunfire and knew exactly where they were coming from so they didn’t survive long when bursting late towards the next circle. 

IEM Oakland was an improvement on the Invitational at Gamescom. Considering the game is still in Early Access, it’s not made a bad effort of becoming a top tier esport. The viewership figures are modest compared to the heights of CS:GO and Dota 2, but in sparks of combat and clutch grenade throws, you can see PUBG's potential for competition. Arguably Overwatch, with a much more established business behind it, is at a similar stage of finding its footing.

Better observer tools, in-client spectating, and better presentation of stats are no-brainer improvements for PUBG, but I'd also love to see the studio experiment with wildly different formats for competitive PUBG while they still have some room test weird ideas. Tinkering with the points system to incentivize kills and damage would be one step, but what about king-of-the-hill-style points accrual awarded to teams to spend time in the circle? If PUBG can force teams to get out of their comfort zone and fight for the same territory in matches' opening minutes, that'll be a big step forward for the game.