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Game On: What keeps gamers hooked on battle royales?

UPDATED: Thu., April 22, 2021

Respawn Entertainment recently announced the addition of “Valkyrie,” a new legend with flying capabilities, to join “Apex Legends” in Season 9, which begins May 4.  (Electronic Arts Inc.)
Respawn Entertainment recently announced the addition of “Valkyrie,” a new legend with flying capabilities, to join “Apex Legends” in Season 9, which begins May 4. (Electronic Arts Inc.)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

“Apex Legends” and “Call of Duty: Warzone” both surpassed 100 million players this month, and, truthfully, I’m not surprised. They’ve been immensely popular since their launches in February 2019 and March 2020, respectively.

While neither has overtaken “Fortnite” in popularity, their success is impressive given both games released to an already-saturated market of battle royale types where players compete to be the last person standing.

Battle royale games might appear to be another multiplayer shooter at first glance, but the objective is far different. Rather than playing a standard four-on-four capture the flag or “deathmatch” where players respawn after death, battle royales drop dozens of online gamers onto an island to scavenge for supplies to outlive and outkill the competition with just one life.

Although other games toyed with the concept, its modern form was first realized by “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” in 2017, then later by “Fortnite” that same year. Like many gaming enthusiasts, I first stumbled upon the genre when I installed the free-to-play “Fortnite.”

It immediately struck me as gimmicky. I was impressed by the net code allowing so many people around the globe to play together so seamlessly, but I figured the overglorified game mode would be a flash in the pan.

To say I was wrong would be a severe understatement. “Fortnite” has rapidly become a cultural phenomenon, the veritable “Super Mario” or “Halo” of Gen Z. The game itself and all its merchandise have become nothing short of ubiquitous.

Kids everywhere started doing “Fortnite dances” such as the “floss” in public. Part of me cringes at the sight, and another part of me remembers being a tween acting out my own video game-related fantasies.

While “Fortnite” is the indisputable king of battle royales, the aforementioned “PUBG,” “Apex Legends” and “Call of Duty: Warzone” have also enjoyed tremendous success. The popularity of the genre extends far beyond children.

This is unsurprising given the formidable quantity of precision, strategy and discipline required to perform consistently well in these games’ “every man for himself” environments. But, I won’t beat around the bush: If you’re bad at them, playing battle royales is not fun.

If you overcome the initial learning curve and still play poorly and don’t have friends to carry you, these games become an absolute slog. The genre is just as unforgiving as it sounds: load into a match, pick your spot and, if you happen to die quickly, it’s right back to the menu screen.

Even if you’re mediocre, you’ll likely spend more time navigating menus than playing the game itself. Regardless, hundreds of millions of gamers keep returning to these incredibly challenging games to unwittingly infuriate one another. Through all of the trials and tribulations, what exactly keeps them hooked?

The answer is simple: Like so many other things, it all comes down to dopamine. The thrill of winning a round of “Fortnite” – knowing you outwitted and outshot 99 other gamers – is almost immeasurable. The high is so high that in that moment, you forget all the lows that lead up to it. The sting of repeated failures is whisked away and forgotten in an instant.

This pattern is hardly unique to video games. Ask any gambling addict, and they’ll describe something eerily similar. In 2017, I figured most gamers would quickly grow exhausted from losing repeatedly and kick the battle royale fad to the curb.

It’s been almost four years, and, while imitators like “Radical Heights” and “Cuisine Royale” have flown under the radar or died off entirely, the trend itself shows no signs of dying. The genre’s popularity is also owed to it being a fantastic spectator sport.

“Fortnite,” “Call of Duty: Warzone” and “Apex Legends” all consistently occupy the top 10 most-watched games via Twitch. The suspense of watching someone else play one of these games is so tense, it’s almost agonizing. With just one life, there’s no room for error, and the stakes are incredibly high.

I hadn’t played a battle royale since dipping my toes in “Spellbreaker” in September, but, two weeks ago, I found myself picking up “Apex Legends” again after a long hiatus. I even convinced my best friend to do the same, and, thanks to a decade of playing multiplayer games together, as a duo we’ve been able to make the odds a little less insurmountable.

Seems I’m hooked all over again.

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordanzentler@gmail.com.

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