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PUBG Is, Still, The Best Esports Out There

Playerunknown's Battlegrounds, now known as PUBG, is a phenomenon to say the least. The game went from being the undisputed king, changing the very shape of video games to this day, to being an evanescent afterthought in that very same space. Giant Bomb even crowned it as Game of the Year, in a pretty controversial turn of events. If you still play the battle royale (BR) genre that it has soared to the top of our zeitgeist today, however, it's unlikely that your to-go choice is still the OG, the classic; your granddaddy's BR, at this point. Once Fortnite stole the formula, and they did that quite literally, it was open season for competitors. The gaming landscape was never the same. Remember Hyper Scape? Of course you don't.

Despite a drop in popularity and player base, there is still one corner where PUBG quietly shines: Esports. After a rough start, where the first big tournament was won by playing hide and seek or swimming, the grassroots movement behind the game started to take matters into its own hands, to clean up the mess that Bluehole, now Krafton, had created. Since then, the esport has become this strategic, ever-changing highlight reel, where not one game is the same and every round feels like the glory days, from back when we were all playing with our friends.

Pardon the language, but holy fucking shit is PUBG esports good. The spectacle is a lot more viewable than your Overwatch or Dota 2. The game is more cerebral or climactic than the lightning fast Counter-Strike and its carbon copy, Valorant. Choices aren't seen as overly simple like Rocket League, but also not as tricky as StarCraft. Watching PUBG strikes the perfect middle ground, while keeping the adrenaline in its active moments at a constant high. There's a dip here or there, but to explain the entire history behind how the game is played would simply take too long. I'm really trying not to do that. Once you've seen a few matches, you know what to expect and that's when all the subtleties behind the sport will blow you away. It's unreal how good these players have become at playing PUBG. You thought hitting that Kar98 shot at 200 meters was cool that one time? These players are doing the same thing, but by using their M4 with a 4X scope. They can fire a Mini14 as fast as any automatic rifle, with the same long range accuracy as a sniper. They've started doing drive-by shootings these last few years, with such vivacity that the game had to be patched to nerf it. That hasn't stopped players from finding new ways to impress the audience, with every new update.

So why am I fawning over this elder video game? Why now? Well, the PUBG Global Championship 2021 (PGC) is happening right now. For anyone that I'm talking to at the moment, I've likened PGC to the football World Cup. Throughout the year, teams rack up points in events and those who are at the top, in their respective region, qualify for the grand finale that determines the best in the world, in this month-long tournament. It's all come down to this. They even created fantasy teams around events, which I also eagerly play in. I've had middling results, but I just placed in the top 50 and I improve my prospects with every new roster. My point is: The hype for PUBG esports is at an all-time high, for a multitude of reasons.

One of the main attractions to this competition is the amount of storylines that have developed, throughout the year and then once again in the tournament itself. A team made it through open qualifiers in Europe, all the way to the global stage, based solely on raw, undiscovered talent. Spacestation Gaming in North America was unsure of their position until the very last game of the very last qualifier, only making it in at the very last second. Dignitas, an early favorite, started losing steam and eventually got in by the skin of their teeth, only to crater so hard that they didn't even play past the first leg of the tournament. There are stories like this for every region, with new players making their name and monolithic teams being toppled left and right.

The tournament has just completed its first week, which was first decided by seeding teams through a point system. In the second event, those teams would, in descending order, play 16 games that would trade out the winner of each match for the next team on the board. The 16 dinner winners would finally compete to be the week's victor, once more decided by a points system. The bottom 16 spots, who didn't manage to get a chicken dinner, would then play a brutal six matches, to reshuffle where they'd come in on the aforementioned dinner format, for the next week. Being in the bottom lobby is no joke either, as there are ultimately always going to be a few highly favored teams that just didn't manage to get that one important top place finish. Playing just six games, to see if you get a better shot, has been grueling for those few squads that ride the middle of the pack, when one of the teams in that lobby is literally Asia's MVP, who just had an off week. No part of the event has a noticeable skill gap or a team who just can't compare. Every round is a brutal head-to-head, every time.

Susquehanna Soniqs, the defending champion, was in this bottom lobby. No one would believe you if you had said this a month ago. What happened here is that the best teams usually get the best spots on the map. That is, the best team in each region gets their pick. In a global tournament, however, there is a bit of a debate about who that team really is, which creates the concept of the "hot drop." If a region feels they can have a certain area over others, they'll land there together and duke it out at the start of the game. Soniqs, not wanting to lose face, accepted all comers and, well, they got their wish. Multiple squads bombed their spots and the reigning champion found out that, while they are exceptionally skilled, Chinese teams in particular excel at one thing: Kicking the everliving daylight out of anyone in immediate range. The Soniqs might come out on top in a measured approach, but when it comes to landing, picking up the first gun you see and running right at the enemy, there is no team on the planet more aggressive than 17 Gaming. These Chinese players put their boot on the American squad and flushed them out, time and again, as well as any others who would dare to do the same. As an aside, Asia does not play by the same rules in general, which seems to take other regions off guard every other year.

After being kicked so far down the board that Soniqs could only play a single game to win a chicken dinner, the defending champ made it to the top 3 in that final game. Oh, it was almost the comeback story of the century; everyone was going nuts as Soniqs just pushed ever forward, dismantling team after team in a blind yet calculated rage. It was too good to be true, as with a decrease in cover and territory, Thailand's Buriram United managed to choke out the champion, to fight their own way in the week's finals with tooth and claw. That's Buriram United, the PUBG team, not the football team. I mean, technically they're the same organization, but we really don't have time to dive that deep.

In the week's finals, another upset unfolded. A team of Argentinians, now picked up by KPI Gaming, claimed their spot in a sordidly debated way. Latin America had to be fused into North America, because the disparity in teams was getting to be too much. To balance things out, Latin America got one guaranteed spot for PGC. Some claim that this would give a spot in the global event "for free" to a team that just happened to be from a region, regardless of skill. KPI Gaming also happens to play in a very defensive style, where they turtle up in the center of the circle and wait for the competition to die. All their success has come from just being present late in the game and then striking at that opportunity. It felt a lot like the old PUBG, the hide and seek PUBG that got laughed out of the spotlight. We're sending these people to the biggest event of the year?

When teams of this caliber make the cut, we quickly forget what it takes to become a competitor. Remember that I mentioned how good players are? Any player on any roster can frag like crazy, no matter how taped together their squad appears to be. Well, KPI set up that trap like a genius, getting everyone to believe they were just little rats, only to unleash at the last moment. Oh, did I mention that there's a giant prize pool for anyone that gets to the grand finale? Maybe that had something to do with it. From being a dark horse, KPI followed their usual plan to get their four players in that final circle and then steadily began pushing earlier and harder every round. Suddenly these turtles were picking up 5 kills or more every game, while also maintaining a chance at winning the chicken dinner for even more placement points. Third place, second place, second most kills, first in damage; the stats kept coming up for KPI.

It all came down to the final game against their first place competitors, the murderous squad of Ghibli Esports. The Koreans play the opposite style of the Argentinians, never letting go of the gas. Ghibli will either win a game by killing everyone or rack up the kill points from fighting until they die. They do not care. At first, it looked like KPI was going for the tried and true method of waiting it out. That is, until they saw the kill feed. Reading the feed in PUBG esports is a vital source of information, to deduce where a squad is and, more importantly, get a sense of how healthy they are. One player of Ghibli goes down. KPI are relatively near. You can hear the shots line up with the knocks. That fight continues, with Ghibli trading their usual blows. That means, however, that for a few moments Ghibli is vulnerable to a third party arriving and KPI smell blood. They hunt down their competition relentlessly, because only one thing matters. If Ghibli dies, then whatever else happens in the last game is inconsequential. The Ghibli members start falling apart and only one player manages to retreat, clinging on to hope, but KPI do not let this go and continue the chase with a single objective. The last Ghibli player meets an early end and the squad that no one wanted to see in the finale wins the first week of PGC on their own terms. KPI are now the team everyone needs to look out for. Gen.G, the fan favorite, had been last place the entire time in another tragic storyline. They win this last match and redeem themselves in the eyes of the audience, presenting a hopeful outlook for the next stage.

There are still two weeks of this rotation system to go, before the grand finale starts. If you take anything from this, it's that PUBG esports is a game like no other. It is unrivaled in what it can achieve and it stumps expectation any time you think you've seen it all. I could talk about this thing all day and do, in my daily Twitter threads. Someone got two consecutive headshots while aiming at a flying car. Another held out multiple full teams as a solo player to get a top 3 finish. One player, with 20 hit points left, managed to somehow hold down an open corner for a full minute with only a shotgun and a dream, coming out on top in the end. Every match is different. Every time it's the best game you've ever seen. There's rarely a dull moment.

In this lengthy essay, I will try to get you to watch the PUBG World Cup with me, also called PGC. It streams every day on the PUBG Twitch channel and you can catch up to the days you've missed on their esports YouTube feed. I promise you that it is worth your time.

See you there <3