PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds – PUBG from here on – is the surprise hit of the year. With more than two million copies sold, the early-access battle royal game is currently the third most popular title on Steam, sitting behind the ever-present Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
In PUBG, up to 100 players – either fighting alone or as part of a team – engage in fights to the death on a huge virtual island. Starting with no items, players need to explore and root out new weapons, items and vehicles to give them a tactical advantage.
Over time the area of play shrinks, forcing players to move into closer proximity, in turn guaranteeing an outcome. Likewise areas of the map are also bombed, posing an additional threat. A single game takes roughly 30 minutes to complete.
Despite being very rough around the edges, the PC gaming community has flocked to PUBG. Hardcore MOBA players are playing alongside tactical shooter veterans, while battle royal pros are guiding console players through their first taste of PC gaming. It really has brought all kinds of people together.
A lot of PUBG's early success can be attributed to Twitch. Even during the closed alpha tests, big-name streamers from all corners of the gaming sphere were playing and pulling in big numbers. These figures only increased following early-access launch, and haven't slowed down since.
Being a competitive online game doing huge numbers on Twitch, conversation soon turned to the PUBG's prospects as an eSport. Limited custom game features mean that right now community-led tournaments are nearly impossible to organise, leaving it to developer Bluehole to get the ball rolling.
A few weeks back it announced the PUBG 2017 Charity Invitational, a tournament that would feature some of the biggest streamers in Europe and America battling it out to raise money for the Gamers Outreach Foundation.
Gamers Outreach provides games consoles and other tech to children's hospitals to help young patients through their treatment. While raising money for charity was, of course, the main goal for the competition, it also allowed Bluehole and PUBG fans to see how the game functions in a competitive environment.
Going into the event many were sceptical about entertainment value. With 100 people in each public game, following an individual streamer was undoubtedly the best way to watch events unfold. Following an individual creates a singular narrative to pursue and engage with, which counters the fact players will be able to see most of the action going on around the map.
As the number of players is whittled down and the area of play shrinks, the tense moment-to-moment action translates incredibly well to a viewing audience. One mistake can waste a lot of hard work, and that makes for some gripping stories.
With viewers and streamers trying to capture all of the action, many feared that the emotional investment and storylines would be lost, even if the player count was reduced to, say, 64. Following the Invitational however, it's safe to say that isn't the case.
The first match in the European competition is just one of many examples. Former professional Smite players Peter "Suntouch" Logan and Aiman "YoungBae" Azmir took a chance by trying to drive to the play area early on in the match. Their route took them between two other pairs engaging in a firefight that had effectively trapped all four players in opposite buildings. As the pair of Smite players drove through it looked like the other pairs were ignoring them, until an impressive shot from distance knocked YoungBae out of the car and quickly led to his death.
This left Suntouch as one of the few lone rangers in the game, and most people counted him out as the action moved elsewhere on the map. Then as the number of remaining players started to hit the teens, everyone noticed that Suntouch was somehow still in the game. Once the player number hit single figures and the play area had shrunk significantly, some crafty hiding in bushes and good shooting saw him reach the final three.
He was still alone though, and tasked with taking on German duo of Marcel "3tButz" Schaefer and Martin "outc1der" Janowiak. He couldn't pull off the win but came incredibly close. It's not his loss that sticks in the mind however but his heroics, his covert bush infiltration and a story that encapsulates what Battlegrounds has to offer as an eSport.
This is just one story players got to witness during the Invitational, one that certainly rivals those of established eSports. Of course, a large part of the creation of these storylines was down to the impressive work of seasoned "caster" Christopher "Panky" Pankhurst, who broadcast the event (embedded below), offering a more general look at games on a larger scale.
His knowledge of PUBG allowed even casual fans to understand what was going on, while his impressive pacing and attention to detail created many memorable moments over the course of the event. The slower pace at the start of the matches allowed him to set up narratives and attempt to identify players who might do well, before going into building things up towards the final encounters late on. This predictable pace isn't something we see in eSports often, but it created a unique feel that worked well.
Once all was said and done the French pair of Pacifae and kylank_ won the European side of the competition, while in the North American event MarkstormTV and Cuda87 took home the W. More importantly over $220,000 (£170,000) was raised for Gamers Outreach.
The event's long-term impact won't only positively affect those set to benefit from the money raised, but the developers too. It proved that PUBG can work in a competitive setting. The narratives that have served it so well on Twitch streams can be carried over to tournaments, and with refinement to the game itself and how matches can be viewed, this could be a competitive shooter to rival Counter Strike or Call of Duty one day.
Battle royal games have typically been a hard sell in the world of competitive gaming for a number of reasons, but the PUBG charity invitational showed us that Bluehole's game in particular seems well suited.
With its ability to harbour stories sure to entice and grip viewers, and its intense shooter action, there really is no reason why PUBG can't succeed as an eSport over the next few years.
It will be a long road with more than a few bumps along the way, but the future is bright for competitive Battlegrounds, so get practising now and who knows, in a year or two you could be earning some serious dollar on the eSports circuit.