Five Years Later, The Most Innovative Battle Royale Game Is Still Going Strong
The last one standing.
The year was 2017 when Fortnite and PUBG sparked a frenzy of battle royale imitators and a never-before-seen hunger for esports. While they didn’t invent the genre, their consecutive launches proved how popular it could be and other developers rushed to put their stamp on it. Most rivals crashed and burned immediately or never even made it out of development, but one established itself as a uniquely great take on the battle royale that stands apart from its own inspirations.
By 2019, PUBG and Fortnite had already outlasted plenty of the games they’d inspired. Released on February 4, 2019, without a single announcement that it was even in development, Apex Legends quickly proved itself to be a much better game than the countless titles hoping to benefit from the battle royale genre’s success. The game attracted 50 million players within the first month of launch.
Apex Legends set itself apart from other popular battle royales by bringing in elements of the hero shooter genre. The year before battle royales took off, Overwatch had found massive success by adding characters with distinct personalities and skills to familiar competitive shooter gameplay. The genius of Apex Legends was taking the best parts of both hero shooters and battle royales, and somehow combining them into a game that’s more than the sum of its parts.
Being developed by Respawn Entertainment was both a help and a hindrance for Apex Legends. On one hand, the developer’s experience creating the Titanfall series made it a beloved studio and one with plenty of experience crafting incredible shooters. Meanwhile, some fans weren’t happy about its shift from crafting one of the most lauded single player FPS campaigns of all time to making a multiplayer-only battle royale. Some people still clamor for another Titanfall to this day, but it's clear those expectations didn't overshadow Respawn's accomplishments.
While you could accurately describe Apex Legends as a mashup of two popular genres, it also includes features so innovative that they’ve made their mark on shooters as a whole. Apex Legends’ “ping” system got a lot of attention when the game first launched. The intuitive system lets players call out a number of different lines with the press of a button, letting teammates mark enemies, direct teammates, or point out choice pieces of loot. That might seem like a simple addition — and it’s a little surprising it wasn’t standard in team-based games already — but this one feature opens Apex Legends up to players who can’t or don’t want to communicate with teammates verbally, which can be a barrier to online games.
Apex Legends characters present another way into the game for players who aren’t often represented in competitive shooters. From its launch, Apex Legends had a notably diverse cast, and it’s only grown more so since release. Its initial roster already included multiple people of color and characters in the LGBTQ+ community. As Kotaku noted at the time, Apex Legends launched with two Black women as playable characters. Overwatch, lauded for its diverse characters, would make room for multiple robots and a talking hamster before adding a single Black woman. As Kotaku points out, seeing marginalized characters find fans among players can be validating even if on some level it’s just a way for the game to market itself.
“Just seeing those characters, and knowing those small lore details about them, does actually make a difference to me,” she wrote. “Seeing characters that look like me—not just one, but two—being played and embraced by the community makes me feel like I won’t be made fun of for my core identity.”
Five years after release, Apex Legends is still going strong. According to data from Steam Charts, which tracks active players, Apex Legends has continued to pull new users in since its release, peaking last February with the launch of Season 16, which added a new team deathmatch mode. This January, it grabbed players’ attention again with a crossover that brought costumes and weapons from Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth onto its battlefields.
Respawn is clearly confident in the future of the game, opening new studios to support it in 2020 and 2023. Plenty of games tried and failed to challenge the battle royale crown, but Apex Legends remains as proof that even a crowded genre can be reinvented by the right team making it their own.