In es­ports, it’s a new ball­game

In­flu­encers pro­pel ‘Apex Leg­ends’ past pop­u­lar ‘Fort­nite’

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - People On The Move - By Jake Seiner

NEW YORK — For the first time since its me­te­oric rise, “Fort­nite” is no longer a no-doubt vic­tory royale atop the video game in­dus­try.

“Apex Leg­ends” — a bat­tle royale from Elec­tronic Arts — has charged into the mar­ket and smashed “Fort­nite” records for down­loads and view­er­ship since its re­lease three weeks ago. Tyler “Ninja” Blevins and other stream­ing stars have pow­ered that surge, as has the emer­gence of an 18year-old “Apex” su­per­star. Es­ports teams are al­ready scram­bling to sign tal­ented play­ers and in­vest longterm, while oth­ers are rais­ing con­cerns about over­com­mit­ting to the sud­denly volatile bat­tle royale genre.

De­vel­oped by Res­pawn En­ter­tain­ment and pub­lished by EA, “Apex” has shaken the in­dus­try by build­ing on many of its suc­cesses. It has pulled pop­u­lar el­e­ments from other bat­tle royales — a type of video game where play­ers are dropped into a map and fight in a last-man-stand­ing for­mat against up to 100 other gamers — while mak­ing a few key changes.

Like “Fort­nite,” “Apex” is free to down­load and play, mak­ing its money by sell­ing out­fits and other up­grades for use in the game. Among its key dif­fer­ences: “Apex” play­ers com­pete ex­clu­sively in teams of three and can choose char­ac­ters with vary­ing abil­i­ties, fea­tures es­sen­tial to team-based es­ports such as “League of Leg­ends” and “Over­watch.”

The game also went hard after the ex­ist­ing bat­tle royale au­di­ence. EA re­cruited Blevins, Richard “King Richard” Nel­son and other fa­mous gamers, ask­ing them to put down “Fort­nite” and stream “Apex” fol­low­ing its re­lease Feb. 4. Blevins alone has over 13 mil­lion fol­low­ers on Twitch, im­me­di­ately giv­ing “Apex” a mas­sive au­di­ence. It’s un­clear if EA paid those in­flu­encers to play the game, and EA did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

“Apex” had 25 mil­lion down­loads in its first week, crush­ing the “Fort­nite” mark of 10 mil­lion over its first two weeks after launch­ing in 2017.

“I think ‘Apex’ has caught ev­ery­body by storm,” said Andy Miller, CEO of NRG Es­ports, which or­ga­nizes teams across var­i­ous video game ti­tles. “They did a phe­nom­e­nal job of get­ting the in­flu­encers to play it first, feed­ing the mar­ket on Twitch and then watch­ing ev­ery­body start­ing to play the game, and the game is good.”

Six days after the game launched, NRG an­nounced it was re­cruit­ing “Apex” play­ers, mak­ing it the first es­ports or­ga­ni­za­tion to seek a pro specif­i­cally for that ti­tle. Gen­eral man­ager Jaime Co­henca led the search, comb­ing through ap­pli­ca­tions and Twitch streams. With the game be­ing so new, Co­henca wasn’t en­tirely sure what he was look­ing for other than an “ex­cep­tional tal­ent.”

He “knew im­me­di­ately” when he came across Dizzy.

Coby “Dizzy” Mead­ows is an 18-year-old from Florida, and he is be­lieved to be the best “Apex” player in the world. NRG signed him Feb. 12, and later that day, Mead­ows made ma­jor waves in the es­ports com­mu­nity by killing 33 of his 59 op­po­nents in one match — a vi­ral mo­ment that gen­er­ated nearly 500,000 views on YouTube. The next day, Mead­ows teamed up with Blevins and Nel­son, also an NRG player, to win the

$200,000 Twitch Ri­vals “Apex Leg­ends” tour­na­ment against a lineup of stream­ing megas­tars.

“Apex” smashed an­other “Fort­nite” record that day:

8.28 mil­lion hours of “Apex” were streamed on Twitch, top­ping the “Fort­nite” mark of 6.6 mil­lion from July 20, per The Es­ports Observer.

Mead­ows has played reg­u­larly with Blevins and Nel­son since. They won an­other tour­na­ment to­gether later that week, and in the fi­nals, Mead­ows had as many kills on his own as the en­tire op­pos­ing team.

“We knew this was a kid we had to take a flyer on,” Co­henca said. “Dizzy was a rock star.”

The ques­tion now: What comes next for “Apex,” “Fort­nite,” and the stars and com­pa­nies build­ing up around their pop­u­lar­ity? NRG’s fast move on Mead­ows has paid off, and other top es­ports or­ga­ni­za­tions have be­gun re­cruit­ing their own “Apex” pros. But it’s still not clear what kind of scene they’re staffing up for.

Epic Games, the de­vel­oper be­hind “Fort­nite,” hasn’t pri­or­i­tized that game’s com­pet­i­tive sphere in the same way that com­pa­nies be­hind “League of Leg­ends” or “Over­watch” have. Top “Fort­nite” play­ers like Blevins aren’t nec­es­sar­ily stars be­cause they win ev­ery tour­na­ment. Blevins is a skilled gamer, for sure, but what has sep­a­rated him is that he’s en­ter­tain­ing, a tal­ent that pairs well with a goofier game like “Fort­nite.”

“Apex” lacks those car­toon­ish vibes, and its rules and struc­ture could lend it­self bet­ter to com­pet­i­tive es­ports — where skill and team­work be­come more im­por­tant than en­gag­ing on Twitch. EA has ex­pe­ri­ence build­ing leagues around its games, too, most no­tably with sports ti­tles such as “Mad­den” and “FIFA.”

Right now, it’s un­clear where “Apex” is go­ing, and for how long it can hold that space. That’s part of why Ari Se­gal, CEO at Im­mor­tals, has been he­si­tant to in­vest in bat­tle royale play­ers. He re­mains cau­tious, es­pe­cially now that “Apex” has drawn up such a spec­tac­u­lar blue­print for en­ter­ing the mar­ket.

“It’s a well-oiled fly­wheel that likely means new bat­tle royale games will in­creas­ingly be able to launch to faster and larger suc­cess, at least ini­tially,” he said.

Im­mor­tals and NRG are at op­po­site ends of that spec­trum, in many ways. NRG plans to build out a full “Apex” team so it’s ready to put a tal­ented squad in the field no mat­ter the com­pet­i­tive and stream­ing struc­ture. It also plans to main­tain its “Fort­nite” ros­ter, which fea­tures en­ter­tain­ing stream­ers like Nel­son.

Se­gal’s con­cern is that if one bat­tle royale can so quickly pull eye­balls from the oth­ers, how do you build around each ti­tle? For­merly an ex­ec­u­tive with the NHL’s Ari­zona Coy­otes, his am­bi­tions are to turn Im­mor­tals into a long­stand­ing fran­chise like those in tra­di­tional sports. Quickly turn­ing over ros­ters to keep up with the hot new thing isn’t part of his plan.

“We be­lieve that by sell­ing siz­zle, your cus­tomer is buy­ing siz­zle — and that, by def­i­ni­tion, will flame out,” Se­gal said. “We’re not sell­ing siz­zle; we’re build­ing com­mu­nity.”

JOSE JUAREZ/AP

Stream­ing star Tyler “Ninja” Blevins has more than 13 mil­lion fol­low­ers on Twitch, which quickly gave “Apex Leg­ends” a boost when he started play­ing the game, which was re­leased on Feb. 4.

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