PUBG Esports Project Manager Michael Sung on Evolving Battle Royale Esports, Adjusting to COVID
For many esports, from Call of Duty to Super Smash Bros., 2020 was supposed to be a landmark year to launch a new structure and move the ecosystem forward. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many of these esports to pivot away from much of their initial 2020 plans and forced organizers to develop a new online structure on the fly.
PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS was no exception to this challenge. After experimenting with a regional league format in 2019, and seeing several high-profile esports organizations depart the scene at the end of the year, PUBG Esports came into 2020 with a plan to focus on what the fans wanted to see – big international competitions. Of course, those large-scale LANs were the first thing to go during the pandemic, and as a result, PUBG had to pivot.
The Esports Observer spoke with PUBG Esports Project Manager Michael Sung about making the shift to online, and the team’s continued efforts to iterate on the game’s esports ecosystem, relationship with teams, and viewing experience for fans.
What were the primary challenges in transitioning your 2020 esports plan from offline events to an online format?
In many ways, it was the same challenge that a lot of our competitors faced. At the beginning of 2020, PUBG Esports announced our original plans for a renewed esports model in the form of the PUBG Global Series. Due to Covid-19 though, we had to pivot these plans and create a new online regional tournament structure in the form of the PUBG Continental Series.
Because of the changes, we had to come up with a broadcast system and ruleset that were optimized for an online tournament in a very short period of time. In addition to all of this, we also wanted to ensure that the updated structure was an evolution of last year. So, we asked each local office to develop an optimized model that suited their region. We felt it was important that each region was empowered to run a format that was optimized for their audience, but also similar enough to fold it into the PCS brand.
In Europe, we established a regional qualifying structure for PCS. In North America’s case, we moved from the closed league model that was confined to pro players and expanded participation opportunities for amateur players. You’ll notice that each of the regions are doing something slightly different, but each PCS tournament is built under the same concept.
PUBG esports has gone through several iterations in recent years. What lessons have you learned that led to the original 2020 esports plan?
In 2018, PUBG Corporation held PGI and PAI, both of which were set up in an invitational format. There was a strong appetite for esports and as we progressed, we saw the need for a larger esports ecosystem and format.
As we transitioned into regional leagues in 2019, we were able to identify new teams and players. In a lot of ways, that was also our “year zero” where we were able to establish a lot of the foundation you see today, an optimized battle royale ruleset and broadcast system.
Throughout 2019, we began to notice that the highlights were our global tournaments, which were very popular with fans. When we were thinking about plans for this year and how we wanted to evolve the system, the continuation of large global events was very important to us. The original PGS plans have obviously changed to PCS due to Covid-19, but a lot of the goals and DNA of the program remain the same. We will continue to bring PUBG esports to a global audience.
We saw several esports teams such as Tempo Storm leave the PUBG ecosystem at the end of last year. What has been done during 2020 to improve the relationship between the esports division and pro teams?
We are always working hard to build a sustainable ecosystem and support the teams that rely on us. In addition to the continued conversations we have with our current teams, we are constantly looking for ways to support them officially. As part of that effort, we made some critical changes to the Pick’Em Challenge so all teams are able to benefit from it (revenue is now split between prize pool additions and being shared with all teams), as opposed to last year, where some felt like it was a popularity contest. The way the updated Pick’Em Challenge system works also allows more exposure and spotlight for all teams.
We also changed the real-time replay function and API to help accumulate pro-players’ stat data quicker. This data is shown within the esports tab to allow fans better access towards the players and teams.
Ultimately, it’s critical we strengthen the PUBG esports brand and establish a sustainable ecosystem for the pro players through financial means and exposure. This cannot be done overnight, but we will continue to make incremental improvements.
One of the biggest challenges with battle royale esports has always been spectating with so many players involved in a match. How has PUBG’s spectating strategy evolved over time and how did the shift online affect the viewer experience?
We’ve come a long way with spectating since our first major esports event. Spectating improvements are something that we’ll always be tinkering with. As mentioned, with so many players competing at the same time, it can be challenging to deliver an exciting narrative to our viewers.
Like most things, our strategy has evolved. Currently, we’re up to approximately 40 observers during an international tournament. So we’re pretty confident that if something exciting is going to happen, we’ll be there to capture it. The large number of observers is also because we produce feeds with various perspectives including the main feed, region feeds, and team and country feeds. This means viewers can choose a feed where their favorite team or region receives the most focus. For example, during the PUBG Nations Cup last year we produced all 16 teams’ feeds separately. Viewers could watch the matches focusing on the team they prefer, and it was easy to watch other regions’ teams.
Our strategy will continue to evolve. We’ve even made investments in broadcast technology, which include frequent exposure of the scoreboard by applying real-time API, re-broadcasting major moments during matches, and broadcasting players’ communication during matches.
Regarding the online-only tournaments, it’s mainly been an internal challenge in the same way that working remotely is – we have to reimagine the way we do things. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that it doesn’t affect the viewing experience one bit and fans can continue having an exciting viewing experience.
Several esports have begun to experiment with integrating sponsors into the game during esports broadcasts. What is PUBG’s strategy for activating brands during broadcasts, and could we see in-game integration in the future?
I do agree that integrating sponsors and various brands into esports is a good approach for both the esports organizers and partners. While we don’t have anything to announce yet, we are actively exploring options for future tournaments, ensuring that it makes sense for both PUBG esports and the sponsors.
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