Battle royale video games burst into the mainstream in 2018, but the last-man-standing genre is still far from done. New titles are still vying for the crown, especially on mobile platforms, where success comes down less to complexity, and more to convenience.
As we outlined in our beginner’s guide, Garena Free Fire burst onto the scene two years ago, and has grown into a sleeper hit esport. Its official tournament circuit attracted a peak concurrent viewership of over 2M, and Daniel Ahmad, senior analyst at Niko Partners, noted that it was the highest-grossing game in Southeast Asia and Latin America during the third quarter of 2019.
Those markets are key. Why the game stood out isn’t immediate until you recognize the scarcity of top dollar phones in certain regions. In Brazil, for example, the majority of people own phones in the $100-$150 USD price range, which simply won’t run other battle royale titles such as PUBG MOBILE or Fortnite. “Garena understands this,” said Rosen Sharma, CEO of mobile gaming tournament platform Game.TV, and former senior vice-president and CTO of Intel.
“If you look at the markets where Free Fire is popular, and you look at what the percentage is of what phones are in what price range, there is direct correlation,” Sharma tells The Esports Observer.
In Brazil, his company runs the equivalent of the company’s minor league baseball competition. He compares the game’s phenomenal rise to how Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was positioned in the film Slumdog Millionaire, or how sports can tell a rags-to-riches story in the United States.
“One thing which the internet has done is there are a lot of communities which are small, but very active,” he said. “NFL is huge, but imagine if there were thousands of variations of NFL possible […] That you can’t do with physical sports, but games give you the opportunity to do that.”
The line between competitive mobile game and esport is still somewhere on the envelope, with most handheld tournaments outmatched by their PC counterparts. However, market research company Newzoo has noted the speed at which once desktop-only genres made their way to mobile, and estimates that mobile will in 2020 account for 47.4% of the global games market.
App Annie goes so far to suggest that despite only making up 18% of all downloads, “core” games (rather than casual times) make up 55% of time spent on mobile. The result is that even the most hyper-casual titles will start integrating mechanics seen in more complex games.
“Garena Free Fire fills a very obvious void in the developing world,” said Akshat Rathee, managing director of Indian esports company NODWIN Gaming. He noted that the runaway success of Fortnite was bound to create an opportunity for similar games to take center stage. He added that there are historical parallels to be found, such as when the original Defence of the Ancients mod (Dota) led to Heroes of Newerth becoming a much larger hit in Thailand than in other regions—again thanks to Garena, which also publishes League of Legends in the region.
The current challenge for mobile game developers is scaling their product upwards towards their core user base to those with high-end phones, and more to spend. Garena Free Fire is readying a “Max” version of their product, while PUBG MOBILE went the opposite route with a “Lite” edition.
Meanwhile, the ever-present Fortnite built a cross-platform strategy, where a mobile gamer could potentially play alongside those on console and PC. “Cross-platform in this space is a huge opportunity, and challenge” said Rathee, who added we can see the same phenomenon play out now with Call of Duty Warzone, which found unprecedented success during the COVID-19 lockdown, thanks in part to its overlapping player base on PC and console.
“I would love to see how this changes when you throw in mobile. Brilliant if done well. Huge community blowback if not,” he added. “I think sticking to the platform but expanding the reach is seen to be an easier challenge.”
Part of the challenge is maintaining a competitive balance. Even if players are exclusive to mobile, the difference in processing speed and storage space between phones needs to be accounted for, as is the rising trend of mobile gaming peripherals.
“We’re seeing more mobile games have support for native controllers,” said Sharma. “Also, you don’t see it in the western markets, but in China the gaming-specific phones all have Nintendo Switch-like attachments to them, and some of them are doing really well.”
The cultural hold of games like Garena Free Fire and PUBG MOBILE continues to grow in markets such as Brazil, India, and Southeast Asia. A resulting trend is that the biggest brands in western esports, such as Team Liquid, Fnatic, and TSM have all signed on mobile-specific rosters in these regions—in some cases a co-venture with an existing team.
As esports becomes a more viable direction for these games, it’s likely the developers will add more viewing options ideal for streaming or showcasing tournaments. “I think those are the people in the FPS genre who are making the game successful or not successful,” said Sharma. “If they begin making tournaments with that, the whole audience will follow en masse.”
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