The hit game known as PUBG gets its professional esports debut at Intel Extreme Masters Oakland.
Cole Robbins usually stays up late playing games on his computer, but in early November he was struck by insomnia. The next day, he left his small Midwestern town to compete in his first professional gaming competition: the 2017 Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) in Oakland, California.
“I had been dreaming of becoming a professional player ever since I first started gaming,” said 19-year-old Robbins.
“How could I sleep?”
With $200,000 in prizes up for grabs, Robbins is one of 80 athletes competing on Nov. 18-19 at Oracle Arena, home of the defending NBA World Champions, the Golden State Warriors.
Robbins’ team, the Miami Flamingos, are part of eports history, competing in the first ESL tournament to feature the runaway hit game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG). Although still technically in beta, PUBG has taken the internet by storm, selling more than 20 million copies en route to the big stage.
“With PUBG, we are seeing the birth of a new esport,” said Michal Blicharz, vice president of Pro Gaming at ESL. “This is going to be the first competitive competition for PUBG that takes place with professional teams.”
From Beta to Big League
In order to transform PUBG into a professionally-played game, the players and organizers had to overcome a few hurdles.
Since it attracted more online players than any other title in history, PUBG’s developer Bluehole has been scrambling to satisfy an audience hungry for high level competition. At present, the game lacks many of the basic features expected from professional esports, including leaderboards, ranked competitive games and a matchmaking system that pits players against others with the same skill level.
Those omissions haven’t deterred fans. Players who wanted a competitive experience forged ahead on their own. Soon after the game launched in March, a group of serious players formed the PUBG EXP. Community, a discord channel that provides a way for PUBG enthusiasts to form teams, connect and compete. Many teams playing at IEM Oakland, including the Miami Flamingos, formed there.
Organizers of IEM, an event that has shaped esports for that past 12 years, watched PUBG grow up fast from a fun pastime to an enormous community of players.
“At IEM, we are trying to balance the historical context of esports with the up-and-coming games,” said Tim Hansen, IEM’s program manager. Hansen said that even though PUBG is unproven as an esport, the excitement surrounding the game was impossible to ignore.
Competition is Crucial
Hosting a PUBG stadium event is logistically challenging. With a battleground that continually shrinks, up to 100 players compete simultaneously in the game. IEM Oakland will feature 20 teams with four players each, along with 12 referees overseeing the matches.
And there’s even more action elsewhere at the event. Alongside a tournament for perpetual mainstay Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, the IEM Oakland event also features a regional qualifier for the VR esport The Unspoken, made by Insomniac Games, as part of the Intel and ESL’s VR Challenger League.
“We’ve never had a match this big in IEM history,” said Blicharz. “We’ve never had 80 PCs all on the floor. This is obviously unprecedented.”
ESL Gaming Network, the esport promoter organizing IEM Oakland, is up to the challenge. Equipped with Intel Core i7-7740K quad-core processors, these high-end machines are ready for battle. Backstage, teams warm up using cutting edge Intel Core i7-8700K systems.
Because esports are a spectator sport and the PUBG match will have 80 players skirmishing on a perpetually shrinking battlefield, the audience presents another potential headache for organizers.
“This by far is the most complex game to observe across all of esports,” said Blicharz. “Each match contains 20 different stories of individual teams fighting to survive.”
The broadcasting crew has been practicing its live camera coordination for months. Blicharz said that they will have up to eight different people capturing the action and fusing together the footage to make the match presentable to a live audience.
He said “observers” will operate invisible cameras inside of the game, while the director calls out the parts of the battlefield to highlight. Similar to professional football or basketball broadcasts, they can show a wide array of views, from third-person dioramas to battles seen from the player’s point of view.
The athletes are dealing with their own challenges too: Running through grueling marathon practice sessions every day isn’t easy. But in those days and nights leading up to IEM Oakland, Robbins’ mind was drawn deeply into team strategies.
“We practice all day long,” he said. “We’ve come here to do our best.”
Editor’s update: Among the 20 teams who played in the eight-round tournament, aAa was named the 2017 PUBG IEM Oakland Champions. On the official IEM livestream, IEM Oakland drew 28.6 million views, which were logged by 10.8 million fans around the world, totaling more than 7.5 million hours of content viewed. Follow the Intel Extreme Masters here and on Twitter @IEM.