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Is battle royale dead? The circle shrinks on gaming’s biggest phenomenon

This week, Respawn Entertainment announced a major change to Apex Legends. The popular battle royale game is getting a new mode called Arenas, which is a complete departure from its usual free-for-all gameplay. Respawn emphasizes that the elimination mode is still its focus, but that the team has ambitions to move Apex Legends beyond battle royale.

That’ll be music to some fans’ ears. While the genre is wildly popular, it has also pulled in a fair share of detractors. Scour the depths of sites like Reddit, and you’ll find years’ worth of threads with explosive titles like “Battle Royale games are trash.” With Apex Legends’ upcoming evolution, is it finally time for the mega-popular genre’s downfall?

Don’t cheer just yet; battle royale isn’t going anywhere. However, a changing of the guard may be on the horizon for multiplayer gaming as a new trend steps up to bat.

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Trendsetting

It may seem like the battle royale trend started only yesterday, but the mainstream phenomenon is already four years old. The genre was popularized by PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds in 2017, which introduced many gamers to the now-household 100 player elimination format. Epic Games would quickly capitalize on that success with its own take on the idea, revitalizing its tower defense game Fortnite: Save the World.

Fortnite’s monumental success set the stage for the next four years of multiplayer gaming. Many major studios quickly put together their own competitor to capitalize on the genre’s success. Ubisoft released Hyper Scape, Respawn Entertainment struck gold with Apex Legends, and even Nintendo turned Super Mario Bros. into an elimination gauntlet.

Super Mario 35
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The industry-wide rush to recreate a winning formula is nothing new. Video games are historically a trend-based medium where developers react to what’s popular. That’s especially true for shooters and multiplayer games. Go back to the ’90s, and you’ll find a herd of Doom clones. There was even a Chex-branded copycat that came packaged with cereal boxes.

It’s important to understand that gaming trends never actually die. They ebb and flow after that initial boom based on how quickly a new hotness comes along. How popular a trend or genre remains after that period is entirely determined by how much space there is to iterate on the format. According to industry analyst Piers Harding-Rolls, research director at Ampere Analysis, battle royale games have a distinct advantage in that arena.

“Inevitably there is likely to be a certain burnout on the classic shooter battle royale mode,” Harding-Rolls tells Digital Trends. “But there are a number of ways this space is staying fresh, including esports, mobile gaming, entirely new game themes and modes, licensed content, and adding deeper narrative to boost engagement and longevity.”

Harding-Rolls points to Epic’s recent changes to Fortnite as an example of how the genre could evolve into more of a social destination. The chances of the industry abandoning battle royales wholesale are slim to none when there’s so much room to grow.

But it’s about to get some serious competition.

Valorant-like

Last year, League of Legends developer Riot Games made a huge splash with Valorant. The competitive first-person shooter look notes from the eternally popular Counter Strike: Global Offensive to create an “economy” shooter with Overwatch-esque character abilities.

The basic premise is that players compete in round-based team battles with a certain objective to complete. Each round, players get a certain amount of money they can spend on weapons and gear. Unused money carries over from round to round, so players can strategically save and spend.

Riot Games

It was an immediate success for Riot. During the game’s closed beta, it was averaging 3 million players a day. That’s not to mention the 470 million hours Twitch viewers spent watching it. It quickly became clear that there was money to be made with Valorant’s winning formula.

Harding-Rolls notes that when there’s a success story of this scale, everyone wants a piece of the pie.

“Often when leading companies, such as Riot, make a move into a particular space, others will follow,” Harding-Rolls tells Digital Trends. “I think it’s likely we’ll see a few more tactical team-based shooters in a similar format, although I’m sure battle royale games will be looking at a multitude of ways to stay fresh.”

The thing about video games is that they take time to develop. When a game like Valorant gains traction, most studios can’t just churn out a good copycat in a few months. There’s always going to be a delay between when a hot new game launches and the titles that try to capitalize on it. One year later, Apex Legends’ Arenas mode could be the opening shot in gaming’s next turf war.

For now, all eyes are on the next wave of shooters that are coming this year. With new entries in the Battlefield and Call of Duty series expected by the holiday season, we’ll have a clearer picture of Valorant’s long-term influence. If those games feature their own “economy” game modes, expect another multiyear avalanche of multiplayer shooters.

In the meantime, don’t expect battle royale games to disappear. The cream of the crop will continue to thrive, and developers will keep experimenting with the format. We just might be coming out of the gold rush. To borrow a genre cliche, think of it as the circle shrinking.

Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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