It's September 2017. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is dominating the gaming landscape, both on Steam and on Twitch. Everyone who plays video games is dropping into Erangel to loot military base before pushing a final circle in Pochinki.
The game is on the verge of exploding, as it will soon break Steam records for concurrent player count, surpassing titles like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2.
Suddenly, and quietly, another contender approaches. On Sept. 19, 2017, Epic Games announces a free-to-play battle royale version of its horde defense game, Fortnite. It's called Fortnite: Battle Royale, and in a few months, it will begin to usurp the throne once held by PUBG.
What went wrong for PUBG? How did we get here?
Over the past month or so, PUBG has seen its playerbase decline for the first time ever. There are a number of reasons for that, and not all of them have to do with Fortnite. But it looks as though there's a new king of the genre.
The great console race
One of the biggest reasons Fortnite is outshining PUBG is due to console gamers. On its release in September, Fortnite hit both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One as well as PC and unleashed battle royale to millions of players who had only been able to watch the game mode from afar in the past.
The role of consoles and their millions of players cannot be underestimated. PUBG eventually released on the Xbox One in December, but Fortnite had a nearly three month head start on that console, as well as the higher-selling PS4. Right out of the gates, PUBG was losing the battle with more casual gamers.
And casual gamers are key here, too. For example, my friends from high school used to play games casually years ago. We spent countless hours on SOCOM II on the PS2, but they seemed to stop playing once college came around, and we grew apart. Over the past month, those friends have been reaching out to me and asking to play Fortnite on PS4. That's the kind of reach that Fortnite has attained.
If it's free, it's for me
Fortnite has mastered the free-to-play model. You do not need to put one cent into the game to get countless hours of enjoyment out of it. Epic Games makes a ton of money off cosmetics from the in-game store, and it is constantly adding skins to the game, but they have zero impact on gameplay.
PUBG has cosmetics as well, and that's cool, but the game itself comes with a $30 pricetag. Fortnite offers a similar experience to PUBG with its drop in, loot, kill, last-man-standing game mode, all for the wallet-friendly price of zilch. That matters a lot to gamers.
Just play a few games of Fortnite and look at how many players you see with default skins on their characters and pickaxes. A lot of people elect not to buy any skins and enjoy the game's pricetag as much as its gameplay.
As a free game available on both PS4 and Xbox One, Fortnite was immediately made more available and more accessible to a larger pool of gamers. And a big part of this larger pool is casual gamers, who may be hesitant to try out PUBG's more "hardcore" experience.
Battle royale is a classic pick-up-and-play game mode. You don't need much knowledge on what to do outside of familiarizing yourself with the map and the weapons.
While Fortnite offers colorful visuals and silly things like Slurp Juice and snowball grenade launchers, PUBG goes for a more visceral, realistic approach. Fortnite's graphical style alone is more welcoming to casual players and younger players as well.
Hackers and fatigue
PUBG's main issue, after nearly a year of being out in the wild on PC, is an abundance of hackers. To this day, PUBG Corp. has yet to find a solution good enough to deter cheaters from ruining the game for players around them.
In China, the hacking is rampant. The publisher of the game in that region, Tencent, has even enlisted the help of police to quell the cheating epidemic. But it has barely stemmed the tide. One million accounts were banned in January of this year alone.
Long-time players of PUBG are just plain sick of dealing with getting instantly headshotted by aim hackers, or killed by someone using a speed hack, and they've begun to stray from the game that they used to love.
Let's not forget as well that PUBG released nearly a year ago now. The game entered Steam early access on March 27, 2017, and entered the mainstream a few months later. Players could just be fatigued with the game after playing it so much and for so long. Meanwhile, Fortnite is newer and fresher.
Content creators love victory royales
Fortnite has exploded on Twitch over the past few months, with numerous big-name PUBG players making the switch. A large part of PUBG's success in 2017 was due to large streamers adopting the game and advertising it to their audiences, and the same can be said for Fortnite.
Most recently, Tyler "Ninja" Blevins has reportedly broken the record for subscriber count on the website. This happened after he made the move to Fortnite from PUBG, a game in which he competed with Luminosity Gaming at LAN events.
Other popular streamers who've recently made the change include DrDisRespect, Lirik, and even Shroud. Content creators have influence, and gamers will play what they see online.
It's clear that 2017 was the year of PUBG on Twitch, as it was far and away the most-watched game. But 2018 might be Fortnite's campaign, as it has overtaken PUBG on Twitch when it comes to viewership on a daily basis.
Fortnite is just really fun
None of these other factors would matter if Fortnite wasn't a fun game. Sure, it's more accessible, it's colorful, it's cartoony and has a broader appeal to PUBG, but the game is just plain fun.
The battle royale genre is fun in itself, but Fortnite has taken it and improved upon it by offering a faster, more exciting variant than the one offered by PUBG. Fortnite's building mechanics offer a unique spin on the game mode, forcing players to decide when to engage or when to defend themselves from an upcoming onslaught. It's a different, brighter take on the game mode.
The esports community has taken notice of Fortnite's popularity, too, with teams like TSM and Method picking up full rosters for the game. It's likely that we will see some online tournaments and large-scale LAN events for Battle Royale in the not-too-distant future.
PUBG is not beyond saving, but the hacking issue needs to be stopped soon before players give up completely. Additional content like new weapons, maps, skins, or quality of life changes can immediately drive interest again. But for now, Fortnite looks like it will take its own victory royale for the foreseeable future.