PUBG Mobile: Report from PUBG Mobile Star Challenge in Dubai

I was rather surprised a couple of weeks ago when I received an email from a PR firm representing Tencent Games. I’m familiar with Tencent, but never had much in the way of professional interaction with them, nor this PR firm. I think that even among gamers, not many people know the name Tencent, but they’re probably the biggest games company in the world. Even if you didn’t realise it, there’s a good chance that your gaming diet includes a slice of pie that they’ve had their finger in. They own the majority of the Chinese mobile and PC gaming market, but also own stakes in the likes of Epic, Ubisoft, Activision Blizzard, Frontier, Riot, Supercell and Paradox.

When I saw they were inviting me to go undercover to attend an event for PUBG Mobile, they piqued my curiosity. My main focus both in terms of what kind of games I cover on SavyGamer, and what I personally play, doesn’t really fall in line with PUBG Mobile. But it seemed like a great opportunity to gain some insight into some areas that represent a blind spot in my otherwise comprehensive areas of expertise in contemporary games industry. I was fascinated by the intersection between what might often be considered as the hyper-casual world of top grossing mobile F2P games, and the hyper-hardcore world of professional tier competitive gaming.

It felt like a large part of the goal of this event was to send a message. I hesitate to put a figure on the total spend, but my best guest would be in the seven figure range, if not eight. They flew out staff from Tencent Games’ various international divisions, international media, influencers, 80 players and their management, a host, and commentators to Dubai. They put everyone up in fancy hotels (I think Dubai only has fancy hotels), hosted the event in the huge Festival Arena, had a prize pool of $600k, and livestreamed the event in many different languages. All for a game that launched just nine months ago. They want people to see PUBG Mobile as a legitimate eSport, whatever exactly that entails, and they wanted the world to notice.

PUBG Mobile is a separate version of the game from the PC/Console version, with a separate development team, and is published by Tencent. To me, it feels like the more complete product than the “main” version of the game. It’s optimised well enough to run solidly on my mid-range phone, and it’s F2P on Google Play and iOS. The monetisation is remarkably light, bucking much of the conventional wisdom that game design needs to aggressively coerce players into opening their wallets for F2P games to make decent revenue on mobile. It’s all just cosmetic stuff, and whilst it’s a bit embarrassing playing your first few games in your underwear, unless there’s a specific bit of cosmetic equipment you’re after, you can just wear the stuff you quickly unlock for free. Aside from a few splash screens when you boot the game, and a progression system tied to loot boxes and multiple in-game currencies, the game itself isn’t negatively impacted by how microtransactions are implemented. There’s no advantage given to players that pay up, and whilst my personal preference is still for games that you pay up front and then they never ask for another penny, this is by far towards the least egregious end of the spectrum for monetisation I’ve seen in mobile games, and you don’t get to 200 million downloads with a paid upfront game.

Controls are another question entirely, where I was not really sure if a game with such an emphasis on fast paced realtime combat, and relatively complex 3D movement was even going to be viable on a touchscreen. Truth be told, I think the touch screen controls are still somewhat of a barrier to enjoyment for me, but I think they’ve done as good a job as possible with FPS controls on a touchscreen. A few nice touches like mostly automated inventory management, gyro aiming, and context dependant virtual buttons make it smoother to operate than I’d expected, and it gets the job done. Full on keyboard and mouse or controller enthusiasts might not be able to adapt, but for a touchscreen based controls scheme I think it’s about as effective as you could hope for, although I’d be lying if I said I don’t occasionally fire off a few accidental shots.

As for the tournament, there was lots of glitz and glamour, hordes of dancers wearing outfits from the game, SUVs from the game dotted outside, attendees were all offered custom printed shirts to commemorate their attendance. In the words of one of the competitors, “all this from downloading a free app on your phone”.

This was the first time there’s been any large scale meeting of teams from across the globe, so it was interesting to see the mix of different playstyles and cultures interplay. Top North American team Gankstars said of the difference in playstyle between them and the Asian teams:

We came in here with the expectation of us doing better, but it’s close. They’re doing things that we don’t see in our North American tournaments, so we have to adapt. It almost seems like they’re not taking any time looting at all, they’re just immediately on the move. These guys are in every house, you never see a four man team in the same house, you might see two in the biggest house, and one in the shack, one in the small house. They’re completely split. In NA, if we’re going to rush a compound, if you only have two in the compound you’re dying, and the ones coming out to help, they’re dying too. We have some ideas to take some of their strategies back with us, but in NA the meta is totally different, so their strategies might not work.

It’s not really possible for the international teams to play each other properly unless they’re all in the same location, the latency introduced by online play limits the exposure that the teams have had to the varying strategies different region teams play by.

We would love to find a way, but there’s not going to be a way, either we’re going to have 200+ ping, or they’re going to have 200+ ping. I think the best thing we would do is watch footage. We’ve watched footage before, but never understood what was happening, but now that we’ve experienced it, we get it.

I don’t want to put anything on the record but there’s some unconfirmed reports of collusion between some of the teams here [at this point I interject to clarify that he’s very much on the record, and gesture to the range of recording devices that he’s talking into]. We were given a lot of outfits on these phones, and you can pick whatever you want to wear, and some teams are wearing the same things as each other. And also what’s weird about them choosing the same things, is that it’s not even what most people would choose, it’s a bright colour, that really stands out. We’re choosing dark colours, and they’re choosing white clothes, which has no tactical advantage at all, the only tactical advantage is ‘hey, we know who that is’. Some teams are reporting a team on a hill, and another team on a hill, and those teams have a clear view of each other, but they’re not shooting. Staff have been made aware of this.

But that’s against the rules. It could be that they don’t like the Americans, or that they like to beat the Americans. That’s throughout all competitions, all tournaments.

Team Wildcard wouldn’t be baited into discussions about collusion (might have had something to do with the PR in the room I saw gesturing in the corner of my eye) but they clearly had respect for the standard of play on the international stage.

EVOS was definitely marketed as the team to watch out for, and RRQ too. We didn’t hear too much about the Chinese, we’re really surprised by the level of play that they’re bringing. Their qualifying tournament wasn’t broadcast to us until a day or two before this tournament. They had it live on Twitch, but it was in such a different timezone that I missed it unfortunately. After that they removed the VOD, if you look anywhere for the full stream it’s gone. They posted it with edited clips, it was 30 minute videos, but more than half of it was behind the scenes footage. If you go online, you can find our VOD everywhere, it’s on youtube, it’s on Twitch, so they can see everything that we were doing, so they know exactly what we’re doing.

In NA it’s only Cloud9, Gankstars and us at this level, and we can only get so much better playing against each other.

It’s been a big learning curve, we know that 2019 is going to be much bigger for this, we’re not hanging our heads down because we’re not first place. We’re learning from it, we’re getting closer together, adversity brings the best out of people.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing though, serious technical problems hit during the final day of the competition. Part way through the first round of the day, the game, viewscreen and venue PA cut out. The host put on a brave face and tried to keep the crowds entertained whilst the technical difficulties were dealt with, but it turned out that the competition wouldn’t be back up and running for another two and a half hours. We were treated to an impromptu talent contest that ranged from impressive to brave effort but distinctly unimpressive, as what felt like hundreds of event staff crowded round electrical equipment backstage to confirm that, yes, things were broken. Fair play to everyone involved, I didn’t see any tempers lost or spirits deflated, although I can’t imagine it helped with the viewing figures for the heavily promoted livestreams.

The show must go on though, and after two and a half hours of dead air, the gremlins were conquered and the tournament resumed. Favourites RRQ Athena from Thailand dominated the competition from early on, and comfortably secured first place, along with the $200k grand prize. I asked them how they were able to do so well, and they said:

We really focused on day two [the first person portion of the competition]…it’s our strength compared to the other teams. And it pays off. Day 1 and 3 we played it safe. We also trained very hard for a whole month for this tournament.” and their management are rewarding them with a well earned luxury break in Bali to unwind after the tournament.

They kept their composure both on and off the pitch, and it seems to have paid off. I’m sure they’re going to have plenty of other teams gunning for them in future tournaments. For my part, I definitely walked away with a level of appreciated for an aspect of gaming I was fairly ignorant of. The professional-level players all come from a variety of backgrounds, had their own stories for why they were competing, and all had a positive outlook, even in the face of crushing defeat.

For Tencent, I think broadly speaking they achieved what they set out to with this tournament. If it becomes a recurring annual event, and if PUBG Mobile remains popular enough to sustain a healthy competitive scene, I’m sure they’ll have plenty of things to improve on next time around, and will probably aim to keep spare hardware to avoid lengthy technical problems. I’d also hope that they remedy the glaring flaw of none of the catering options including any form of Chicken Dinner.

Disclosure: Travel, accommodation and meals were provided by Tencent.

1 Comment Leave yours

  1. Not an esports influencer just yet but willing to negotiate. #

    Interesting article. Esports is big business and I China fucking LOVES ploughing money into tech projects right now. Sounds like a good way to spend your time. I absolutely love the irony drenched shirt!

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