It was only a few games into the group stage of the PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds Global Championship, and Team Liquid was off to a sluggish start. They had scrounged together 13 points after two days of competition, and many players, casters and PUBG fans were wondering if they'd even make it to the semifinals of the three-week-long tournament at the Oakland Arena in Oakland, California.
Team Liquid was ranked second in the world heading into the championship, and nearly everyone had them pinned to make the grand finals, and many thought they'd take first place overall. But Team Liquid didn't even make it to the final weekend after getting knocked out in the elimination round. Viewers unfamiliar with the intricacies of PUBG might look at the box score and think that Team Liquid were unlucky.
"Sometimes you get a little unlucky," PUBG and Overwatch caster Jake "Zenox" Brander told ESPN during the championship. "It happens in any esport. There's always one team where it doesn't click, it doesn't work out. They did have to contest for a few different positions. They didn't have the freedom in their looting locations that they do have in the [European PUBG League]. So they were dropping in different locations so they had different rotations, they were playing a different game, and they had to adapt. But it's unfair to everyone else here to call it all luck. They didn't adapt well enough."
Team Liquid wasn't playing in their home league in Europe, they were playing against some of the best players from South Korea, China, North America and other parts of the world. Each team has their preferred points on the PUBG map where they drop, and Team Liquid often lost in fights against teams they don't play against frequently. While luck might have played some part in their early elimination, it wasn't the dominant factor. The favorites didn't play well; they didn't adjust well enough amid the randomness of their games.
Battle royale games themselves are built on randomness. Every casual match of a battle royale game like Apex Legends, Fortnite and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is located on a different part of the map as a circle closes in, shrinking the field of play. Loot and vehicle placements aren't curated by developers in most live servers, so there's a chance you don't start the match with a viable weapon, and there are a handful of bugs and glitches that can accidentally disconnect or knock a player out of a match. At one point during the PUBG championship, The Rumblers' Alexander "CherryPoppins" Penner's car went flying high into the sky after awkwardly driving into a building, knocking him down.
"There's always going to be that random element in battle royale esports, that's contributed to its success," PUBG analyst Phil "Esquire" Stewart said. "It's what makes every game exciting, every game different. It makes it feel like every match is like the first time you jump into the game. It has been a problem in competitive play, but over the last two years a lot of adjustments have helped remove their impact."
There are things that players and developers have done to minimize the major effect that randomness has on the outcome of a match. Players have utilized a huge amount of data to strategize around the inherent randomness, while game developers have made some in-game adjustments to help normalize loot spawn rates and vehicle locations.
"The more knowledge you have of the game the less random the game can become," said former Team Liquid Apex Legends player Garrett "Geesh" Shearer. "For example, you can understand where some circles are going to end so you rotate early enough and put your team in a spot where it will be ending."
Players rely on the kill feed, enemy formations and statistics from previous tournaments in order to get the best chance at winning.
"For PUBG especially, you have to gather information. You can't make a decision based on something you have zero information on," TSM PUBG player Michael "mykle" Wake said."You can see people rotate, see kills on the kill feed, and you can see [how teams move] when the circle changes if you've positioned yourself [in the best location available]."
One of the most valuable tools players have is heat-scan maps -- maps that break down circle patterns and drop points by compiling data from hundreds of matches in previous tournaments. It helps players predict where the circle might go based on past patterns and lets teams pick the best landing point based on their game plan.
While different data points are available in all three battle royale games, players use them to different extents. One of Apex Legends characters is Pathfinder, which lets players use a beacon to see the next circle location, something that was key in TSM's first-place finish at the Apex Legends Preseason Invitational in Poland.
"If you don't get the scan, every team is so good here so you won't get a spot," TSM Apex Legends player Mac "Albralelie" Kenzie Beckwith told ESPN. "Once we got it, I knew we'd win."
Pathfinder makes heat-scan maps irrelevant in Apex Legends. Some players use them to help predict where the circle might end up, while others rely on them to know the most efficient place to drop based on the path of the plane at the start of the match. Some players use them to only focus on the biggest threats in each tournament.
"I don't look at heat-scan maps too much when it comes to practicing where I drop," Cloud 9 Fortnite player Joseph "Keeoh" Winkler said. "I basically take note of who lands where throughout each competitive event and plan around not taking early game fights against the wrong people."
Outside of players using data to help stabilize some battle royale randomness, developers have tried to rework things on their end. PUBG Corp. and Epic Games have raised loot spawn rates to make it easier to find viable weapons soon after landing. PUBG Corp has also added static vehicle locations, meaning teams will know where buggies and bikes are on each map, removing a whole element of randomness from their battle royale.
"This chapter [Epic Games] introduced 100% chest spawn rates which greatly lowered the RNG [randomness] of the early game," Winkler said. "For example, previously if you were to land on a house with 2 possible chest spawns, there was roughly a 25% chance that you wouldn't get any chest and potentially have a really rough early game."
Respawn hasn't made many competitive adjustments like this to Apex Legends outside of normal balance patches (and the removal of air drops during the preseason invitational), so loot is still the biggest random factor in Apex Legends.
"In situations with poor loot, a team is forced to play focusing on positioning with a passive playstyle," Apex Legends player Victor Bernev said. "When loot situation is good, a team has more freedom and can play dynamically, pick unnecessary fights in order to snowball even more."
Loot is still the biggest random factor in all three games. You never know if the team landing near you will find better weapons, armor or more healing items before a fight breaks out. "The part that you can't eliminate is the random loot factor," Shearer said. "You can loot the same spot 10 games in a row and your kit can be different every game."
While randomness has become a far more manageable part of battle royales, it's still a part of the competitive environment. Much like bad calls by referees in the NFL, the players ESPN spoke to believe it's something that's an inherent part of battle royales -- even if they do whatever they can to work around it.
"You can never fully take out RNG from a battle royale game. Someone can always have a better loadout than you," Winkler said. "It's up to each player to play around the loadout they get and adapt. That's what separates the good players from the great players."