“Apex Legends” — the game — is wildly popular. It boasts more than 100 million players, and in the first half of 2022 it was one of the most-tweeted about titles in the world, beating out “Elden Ring” and “Valorant.” So it may be hard to imagine that the game’s pro circuit was nearly over before it began. In fact, this weekend’s spectacle in Raleigh was more of a rebirth than a victory lap.
The talented Australian team DarkZero won the tournament, taking home $500,000 for their efforts. But “Apex” has not always been so lucrative. Limited to regional tournaments during the pandemic, a victory at an ALGS event a little over a year ago netted DarkZero just $4,500. The viability of a career in “Apex” was an open question, and many pros openly expressed doubts about the game’s future.
Ultimately, players left the arena on Sunday with a general sense of optimism — about the future of “Apex” esports and their place in it. But that optimism came with some caveats.
More than two years after the coronavirus pandemic upended a robust calendar of in-person tournaments planned to begin in March 2020, the scene continues to feel the impact. But John Nelson, the ALGS commissioner, was never worried about the game’s pro scene — or else he won’t admit it.
Nelson is no stranger to the ups and downs of popular interest in esports, having spent 12 years running Major League Gaming events before joining Electronic Arts (EA), which publishes “Apex.” In a conversation with The Post in a Carolina Hurricanes box suite overlooking the arena, Nelson argued that his title has gone from strength to strength.
“From the moment that we played ‘Apex Legends’ prelaunch, my team knew that this game was made for esports,” he said.
For Nelson, the pandemic merely delayed the inevitable rise of the “Apex” scene.
“Obviously covid impacted our plans, as it did plans across the industry,” Nelson said. “We went online-only for the better part of two years. But the constant for us throughout the ALGS and ‘Apex Legends’ esports has been growth.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, the return to in-person events was fraught with real-world problems, including covid.
At the Raleigh event, the ALGS was unable to provide on-site alternatives for players who tested positive for covid — a problem the logistics team got a preview of at an event in Stockholm, where several players tested positive and were barred from play. Despite a concerted effort by the pro community to lobby for separate on-site facilities that would enable competitors who tested positive but otherwise felt well enough to play, quarantine booths were not set up at Raleigh.
After more than ten players tested positive for the virus, the ALGS released a statement Friday reiterating their covid policy. It was met with derision from some of the most prominent players in the circuit, who argued that the lack of quarantine facilities was unacceptable given the fact that popular peer esports in the space, such as “Valorant” and “Counter Strike: Global Offensive,” had set up similar facilities in the past.
“One of the only large esports that actively have this rule,” wrote Mac “Albralelie” Beckwith, a content creator signed to the esports org TSM, on Twitter. “If you want this game to be a proper esport it’s time to begin really treating it like one in ways other than just playing on a fancy stage.”
The relationship between EA and “Apex” pro players — already strained — didn’t appear to improve over the course of the event, as players criticized EA’s covid policies. Two more players who had qualified with their teams to compete in the finals failed their coronavirus tests on Sunday. The British team Invictus was left with two substitutes, one of whom was the team’s manager.
On Sunday, the hashtag #LetThemPlay began circulating on Twitter as prominent players in the finals demanded that EA change their covid policy mid-tournament.
Travel issues also dogged the Raleigh LAN. More than a dozen players failed to secure visas that would allow them to attend the championship, sending teams scrambling for substitutes.
Nelson views this as unfortunate but unavoidable. “Despite all of our efforts, those things can, you know, just come down to the decision of governments at the end of the day,” he said.
Many recently demanded that the ALGS administration cover travel expenses for teams who had qualified for a $1 million playoff series in Stockholm, when unsigned rosters began crowdfunding efforts for the financial resources to make attendance at the tournament a possibility. After intense social media scrutiny, EA announced they would cover the expenses. Despite the kerfuffle, the game’s tentative first step toward live audiences yet again broke viewership records, reaching 539,00 Average Minute Audience (AMA), or how many people are watching the event during any given minute.
In an interview between matches, Jack “NiceWigg” Martin, a popular caster who’s played in the ALGS, highlighted the predicament of pros who continue to have their livelihoods affected by recurring logistical issues.
“Not every one of these pros is popping off and is a streamer that makes 1000s of dollars a month,” said Martin. “Their salary is coming from their org and from their tournament places. So when they fly out here for 36 hours, they better be respected, they better be cared for. And they have to be the main concern moving forward in this esport. They need to be treated like athletes. That’s what it comes down to.”
Nelson stressed that the health and safety of players was the first priority of the ALGS and that the protocols were in place exactly for those reasons.
Beer, nachos and screaming
The virus has impacted the livelihood of pros since the very beginning of the ALGS. After a successful preseason event in Krakow, Poland, with no spectators, the first in-person tournament of the circuit was scheduled for March 2020, in Arlington, Texas. That event was canceled mere days before it was slated to begin, however, and the scene languished. A highly-polished rival arrived with the release of “Valorant,” and a crisis of confidence roiled the burgeoning esport. Big organizations left and pros jumped ship for greener pastures. The online ecosystem that replaced the schedule of in-person events got off to a rough start as the ALGS production team was forced to pivot overnight, upending carefully-laid strategies.
The game’s core base of dedicated fans never left, though. And over two years, the ALGS not only survived but thrived, surpassing its own viewership records with every event. That base showed up in large numbers to Raleigh, where passion for the game was thick in the air. Spectators chugged beer, ate nachos, and screamed for their favorite teams.
Even the event’s issues became cause for celebration.
There were cheers and claps for an audio glitch that filled the arena with repetitive percussive shots. The Japanese team PULVEREX, forced to play as a two-man team due to covid restricting their teammates’ participation, became a crowd darling. Fans chanted their name every time they appeared on-screen and then again outside the stadium after the duo was eliminated from contention.
The two-year online stint also proved to be a fruitful testing ground to improve the viewing experience for fans at home. Battle royale esports have always faced unique challenges for spectators. While games like “Overwatch” and “Valorant” take place on smaller maps and feature only 10 players, each game of “Apex Legends” is set on a much larger piece of terrain and begins with 60 different players active. They can be eliminated at any time, and each game lasts about twenty minutes, with a fair amount of downtime. Nelson rightly touts the development of Multiview to make “Apex” easier to watch, a Twitch feature that allows fans of particular teams or players to see the action from individual perspectives, with up to four different viewpoints at once.
As the ALGS team adjusted to the new normal, EA funded handsome prize pools, increasing the stakes of matches. More than $2.5 million was divided between five regional tournaments for the first year of the ALGS Championship. Through the pandemic, the game improved as well, while the consistency of top-performing teams like TSM and NRG brought clarity and stability to the intrinsic chaos of the often unpredictable genre.
Those larger prize pools and the increasing dominance of “Apex” on the battle royale scene led top-tier esports organizations like 100 Thieves and OpTic to join the game, and tournaments began to break viewership records. “Apex” is still gaining momentum, Nelson said.
“It seems almost on a weekly basis that there’s another announcement of a roster that’s being picked up, be it from South America or APAC south, or North America, represented by a top-flight esports organization,” he said, reflecting on the esports teams competing in the game.
This weekend, the ALGS team finally got to test that growth in the crucible of an arena filled with fans. Though EA and the pro community have their differences, both agree: “Apex” is at its best in the stadium.
“ ‘Apex Legends’ esports is driven by the emotion of players and fans,” Nelson said. “We’ve been building toward this as a pinnacle in terms of being able to have a live audience, and to feel that atmosphere in the building. And in some ways, it’s also a beginning.”