The battle royale is among the most popular new formats to emerge in the games industry over the past 10 years. Its earliest origins come by way of Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel Batoru Rowaiaru which, in the year 2000, was adapted as a film of the same name which went on to enjoy breakthrough international success.
The premise of the novel and film was that a group of people suddenly find themselves trapped on a desert island and must defeat one another until only a single victor remains. All battle royale games follow a similar format to this. They typically feature a large number of players ranging from between 100 and 150, who are dropped on large bounded maps and must compete in a last-man-standing contest until only a single player or team survives.
The earliest examples of this game type come by way of mods of popular titles. Interest in this format saw a surge in popularity following the release of the film adaptations of the Hunger Games novels – stories that feature a similar last-man-standing premise.
Of these, Minecraft mod Survival Games, and DayZ, an open world zombie survival mod of Arma 2, are considered the main precursors to the modern battle royale.
The first true standalone battle royale is also based on the Arma engine – this time, Arma 3. This was the work of Brendan Greene, better known by his moniker PlayerUnknown. Through several iterations, Greene eventually developed PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds (PUBG), the first true battle royale – and still, to date, the most popular.
Battle Royale and Esports
From the early days of PUBG, it became obvious that the battle royale format was a great fit for professional gaming. The nascent esports industry, which began to enjoy significant growth in the mid 2010s, found in the battle royale an ideal format for competitive play.
Now, PUBG is among the most popular esports in the world, and comparison platforms such as OddsChecker, which provide odds and bonus offers on esports events, frequently features major PUBG events among its headline offerings.
Yet while PUBG commands the highest prize pools, daily active players and spectator numbers of any battle royale esport, it’s not the one that has had the biggest cultural impact. That accolade goes to Epic Games’ Fortnite, which takes the core elements of the battle royale as outlined by PUBG, and repackages them as an anarchic and cartoonish experience with a much broader demongraphic appeal.
During the peak of Fortnite’s popularity, it came second only to Minecraft in terms of merchandising revenue. This has led to it becoming a hotbed for IP collaborations with some of the world’s largest franchises, from Star Wars to Marvel and even Toei Animation’s Dragonball Z.
What made Fortnite so successful is that it offered a solid and skillful gameplay experience, and one that attracted some of the biggest esports athletes in the world, such as Tyler “Ninja” Blevins.
Nowadays the battle royale is commonplace – so much so that it’s come to be expected in many corners. It is for this reason that Halo developers 343 Industries have embarked on building an entirely new spin-off to Halo: Infinite’s multiplayer that features a battle royale mode. Another big name franchise, Call of Duty, has been offering its own free-to-play battle royale series known as Warzone since 2020, which has also proven incredibly popular.
Modern Battle Royales
American developers Respawn Entertainment have also seen great success among the esports faithful with their 2019 release Apex Legends, which skilfully blends the battle royale format with the ‘Hero Shooter’ genre popularized by the likes of Overwatch and VALORANT.
Not all battle royales are destined to succeed, however, as is evidenced by Square Enix’s botched Final Fantasy VII spin-off, The First Soldier. This mobile release barely lasted a year before low player counts and clunky mechanics persuaded the Japanese developers to close down its servers.
Among the most popular battle royales today is Garena’s Free Fire. This mobile-only battle royale does not attempt to innovate on PUBG’s formula, instead preferring to deliver a simplified and more accessible experience.
This appears to have resonated with gamers. Free Fire became the most downloaded game in the world in 2019. In 2021, a Free Fire event even stole the record from League of Legend for the highest peak concurrent viewer counts for an esports event.