At times swinging between teenage LAN party and proper esport event, the PUBG Invitational was still a spectacle.
When ESL and Bluehole announced they would be hosting the PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds Invitational at Gamescom everyone was super-hyped to see how the most popular game of the year would perform as a spectator sport in a true competitive environment. But quickly that hype turned into some very worrying questions, such as how can you fit 100 players on LAN in the middle of Gamescom, and how do you manage to broadcast a game that can have 100 different view points spread out over a gigantic map?
ESL’s involvement certainly calmed some fears, despite what most of the esports sub Reddits will tell you, but even for the biggest third-party tournament organiser in the world, this would prove to be quite the challenge in almost every department. At times the event felt like one of ESL’s best, competing with the likes of the Intel Extreme Masters Katowice World Championships or ESL One Cologne, but at others it felt like a small scale LAN event that was hastily put together by a group of teenagers.
“Overall, I’m pretty happy with what the PUBG Invitational achieved,” says Lauren 'Pansy' Scott, an experienced esports caster who was on hand to commentate the Invitational. “It highlighted what I expected coming into this event as it showed the massive potential that this game has to really thrive in an esports environment.”
"It showed the massive potential that this game has to really thrive in an esports environment" - Lauren 'Pansy' Scott
Potential is the key word here. Heading into the Invitational no one really knew how a LAN event like this would come across the the viewers, but everyone knew that it had the potential to be great. If everything went smoothly and there was some top level action then this would undoubtedly be one of the most entertaining esports out there. Perhaps the biggest sticking point to this watchability was the broadcast itself. No other esport out there has this many players competing at the same time, and there is no guarantee what the players will do, so this makes finding the action very difficult.
For the Invitational ESL devised a custom broadcast solution, where they would have access to the direct feed on each of the PCs being used and could choose which one would go out on stream. In theory this sounds like a great idea, but when the production team has to keep tabs on 100 screens to see where the action is, a lot of things get missed. This was only made worse by the casters requesting something and it taking a good 10 seconds to happen. Missing things is forgivable with something of this size, but lengthy delays when the casters want to point something out should be something that only takes a couple of seconds at most.
“What I'm really looking forward to finally see in action is the spectator client: it would help tremendously with getting the real good action going forward,” says Scott when asked about the issues that they faced at the event.
While there is a spectator mode available in PUBG, it is almost impossible to keep track of everything that is happening without heavily relying on the map view. With some refinement this tool could solve all of the broadcast issues, but for now it will be down to ESL to work on their system.
The visual side of the broadcast may have been one of the weaker elements, but there was no doubt that the audio side of things was fantastic. The casting duo of Scott and fellow Brit Richard 'TheSimms' Simms worked really well together. They managed to form narratives that spanned the entire game, keeping viewers engaged with the storylines that were unfolding, but also quite difficult to follow without the commentator’s guidance.
“I actually find it way simpler to cast PUBG than Counter-Strike: Global Offensive as there is an overall narrative every round that is very easy to follow,” says Scott whose main role these days is to cast CS:GO tournaments around the world. “However, when it's hectic, the game is very tough to keep up with. PUBG definitely has great potential and once the rule sets reflect the ‘ideal game’ better I think the casting can only improve.”
Away from the broadcast side of things there was the actual layout of the event itself. For those attending Gamescom in person it was pretty difficult to watch the event, with many choosing to simply watch on Twitch instead, which is never a good idea. The Rainbow Six Siege finals, which were held just meters away, had a thunderous crowd that added to the atmosphere of the event, but for this there was nothing other than the occasional shriek of the players themselves. Live crowds are a must for esports events, and for something as popular as PUBG that becomes even more important.
Then there was the long wait times between games and at the start of the day. With at least 70 people in each match it was never going to be easy to get everything working correctly, but it did feel like these issues popped up a little too often.
There was also the really weird interviews that came across as awkward more times than not, even when the interviewee was someone who is on camera for a living. Finally who could forget the controversy caused by the points system prioritising top place finished instead of kills and players just hiding out in the blue to win.
"PUBG can bring together a load of personalities and create stories in the game that will be remembered for a long time."
But despite all of this I came away thinking that the PUBG Invitational might just be one of my favourite esports events of all time. There was a lot of things that need to be improved, and realistically it still has a long way to go before it can match the likes of IEM Katowice or ESL One, but the actual entertainment from the matches themselves beat anything I have seen in Dota or LoL this year.
Whereas they often rely on the narratives outside of the game to sell the excitement, PUBG can bring together a load of personalities, many of which were completely new to us, and create stories in the game that will be remembered for a long time. That is why PUBG has a great shot at becoming one of the biggest esports in the world.
Fortunately the rumour flying around the show was that the next ESL PUBG event is sooner than you may expect, so hopefully we won't have long to find out if this was a one off fluke that worked out or if this really is the next major esport in the making.