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Coronavirus could deal final blow to embattled Apex Legends pro scene

(The Washington Post illustration; EA)
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When the Arlington Major, the first tournament in the $3 million Apex Legends Global Series, was indefinitely postponed due to coronavirus, professional Apex players were quick to react. “Today is a dark day for the Apex Pro scene,” tweeted Carlo “Dcop” Delsol, a former Overwatch pro and Apex free agent who was set to compete at the major. “So many people and orgs will finally throw in the towel.”

While other esports leagues have also had to upend meticulously-planned schedules in response to the outbreak, the timing is particularly precarious for Apex, given existing problems and frustrations in the professional community. Further imperiling the Apex circuit is the impending release of games like Riot’s Valorant, which has enticed many Apex pros. Made by the same developer that operates the high-profile League of Legends pro circuit, there’s a belief any esports league for the new first-person-shooter title could offer higher-level competitive play and larger prize pools. Even before the postponement, the Susquehanna Soniqs disbanded their Apex roster. Some of Apex’s biggest streamers, such as NRG’s Brandon “Ace” Winn, have openly discussed leaving Apex for Valorant on stream.

The Apex Legends Global Series was meant to show that EA and Respawn, the game’s publisher and developer respectively, were finally taking the pro scene seriously. After seeing dwindling investment from major esports organizations in the year since the game’s release, the Global Series, flush with a $3 million prize pool and dedicated competitive servers, initially attracted fresh interest from elite players and organizations. It wasn’t a $30 million payout, like last year’s Fortnite World Cup, or even the $6 million shelled out by Activision Blizzard for the opening season of the Call of Duty League. Still, the future looked bright. Teams like Rogue and Luminosity were signing new talent. Other players had switched to Apex from Overwatch and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

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However, the Global Series quickly became a showcase for the game’s lingering problems. Since its competitive scene began, pros have dealt with bad servers, poorly managed practices and lackluster publicity.

“Coronavirus could not have made an appearance at a worse time for Apex,” Delsol told The Washington Post via email. “After the devastating qualifiers and the ongoing discontent with the pro scene, the major getting postponed basically told the orgs ‘hey, you are just wasting your money because the ONLY reason you have your team was to compete — that’s not happening any time soon.’ … This just put a nail in the coffin for many orgs and if you’re trying to be a pro, that’s the last thing you want to hear.”

Trial, and error

For months, Apex Legends had lacked private matches, a baffling oversight for a battle royale game competing with juggernauts like Fortnite and Call of Duty. Pros and prospects alike were forced to improvise every time they wanted to practice, looking for empty lobbies on dead servers and then coordinating matchmaking through Discord.

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A new Tournament Mode, an invite-only system for custom matches designed to make practice easier, was badly bungled, according to Apex pros. The volunteer labor that had previously cobbled together a working matchmaking solution for pros was replaced by management from GLL, a third-party company contracted by EA and Respawn to handle practice lobbies for the Global Series. Responding to a concern that not enough teams came to practices, GLL made registration for pro practices completely open, mixing top teams with untested amateurs.

“We lost the right to our own private lobbies,” said Jack “Nicewigg” Martin, a pro player for Counter Logic Gaming (CLG) and one of Apex’s most popular streamers. "[EA/Respawn] ended up not really screwing us over, but they made our practice hurt even more … anyone can play. You can be Gold 1 and play against pro players, and that doesn’t make the quality good.”

Issues continued in the lead-up to the first big tournament of the season, the $500,000 prize pool Arlington Major. In the online qualifiers, crashes, disconnects, and bugs like getting stuck in level geometry were common, leaving teams of three to play one or even two players down in a given match. A three-game format to advance meant that randomness had a significant impact on performance, and many top-tier teams simply got unlucky, failing to even qualify for the supposedly elite main event.

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Brandon “Nocturnal” Singer, a pro currently playing for Team Liquid, missed qualification by a single point. “This qualifier went just as bad as you could practically expect, from crashes without reconnections or restarts, to format [issues] to website errors,” Singer said.

The format was only one issue among many. A planned EA live stream of the qualifiers was canceled, and accusations of illegal communication and unsportsmanlike play arose. Some players appeared to share intel with friendly enemy teams, and squads who had already gotten the points to qualify targeted teams they’d prefer not to play against in the upcoming tournament, leaving other, less threatening teams alone.

“I just want to see this fixed so another team never has to experience the amount of frustration our team endured,” said Singer.

A looming player exodus

When the Arlington Major was postponed, Timothy “Overpowered” Liang, a top-tier player fresh from winning a $24,500 payday at Twitch Rivals in February, immediately announced that he would no longer be playing competitive Apex, citing community mismanagement by EA and Respawn as the primary reason for jumping ship. Given that the problems facing the Global Series seem to be increasing rather than decreasing, pro players foresee more announcements like Liang’s in the coming days.

“No one is playing the game, pro players aren’t playing the game right now,” Martin told The Post. “Everyone’s kind of on [new Call of Duty battle royale] Warzone. Everyone’s kind of doing their own thing, playing CS: GO, getting ready for Valorant … right now, it sucks to say, but the competitive side of Apex, the pro players are still there, they’re still signed — but the actual competitive side …. is not there. It’s just not there. It’s tough right now. You have to make the decision, is it worth it?”

For Martin, who has more than 136,000 followers on Twitch, the future of his Apex career might be in content creation, not competition — collecting footage of his gameplay and continuing to build his Twitch following and his presence on social media. Martin has been vocal about moving to a multigame platform, and not wanting to be known as an “Apex-only” streamer — hedging his bets against a future where Apex has fallen out of favor. But Martin is lucky to even have that possibility. Since Apex is still a relatively small game by the standards of esports titans like LoL or CS:GO, most other pro Apex players don’t have the luxury of a loyal audience, who might follow them to a different game.

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Ryan “ImMadness” Schlieve, another player signed to the CLG roster, is still hopeful about the future of Apex, but worries about the competitive vacuum created by the suspension of the Global Series. “I’ve been pretty optimistic about Respawn and Apex and its competitive scene thriving. I personally believe Apex is going to get over this, I really do,” Schlieve told The Post. “But I will say I’ll be unsure about the future of Apex if EA doesn’t step up.”

Singer is also balancing anxiety about the future of Apex with his belief in its still-developing pro scene. Though he believes comparisons between Valorant and Apex are unfair given the difference in resources between the two developers, Singer was candid about the game going through a rough patch. “I like to keep positive, but you can only be so positive within being reasonable and not lying to yourself,” he said. “I’d be lying if I said the competitive scene wasn’t in a dark time in the current moment, but this is just a small part of the big picture.”

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Some pros remain hopeful for the future of competitive Apex. But without significant changes like faster and more stable server performance, better management of online play and pro practice, or more direct measures like larger prize pools, the health of its esports scene will continue to be in question.

This week has been no exception to Apex’s downward spiral. Another player formally announced their retirement from Apex, and pro discontent reached a peak when TSM, the best team in North America, were kept out of a practice lobby.

Simmering tensions between the pro community and developers reached a new high when EA updated its tournament schedule Wednesday afternoon, officially postponing (without a new date) the next major, meant to be played in Paris, and establishing that the online tournament scheduled for the weekend of March 21 would be played for placement points for future events — which may or may not happen. Later that afternoon, one of the best-known Apex players, Eric “Snip3down” Wrona, referred to Respawn’s announcement in a tweet that implied he’d be pivoting to Warzone going forward.

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After a day of withering criticism from the pro community, Apex released a follow-up announcement: this weekend’s qualifiers will be played for a prize pool after all — for an amount that remained undetermined on Thursday afternoon. Despite the announcement, Team Reciprocity formally disbanded its roster and withdrew from the competitive scene soon after.

The Arlington tournament was poised to be a definitive event for professional Apex, a testing ground for the precarious pro scene to assert its legitimacy. Instead, its postponement may have sounded a death knell.

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