Time will tell if PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds can be a viable esport

Fans crowd the KBS Arena Hall in Seoul for the AfreecaTV PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds League (APL) pilot season finals. Provided by AfreecaTV

SEOUL -- It was well below freezing when I arrived at the arena. The sky was a frosty pale, and the parking lot was patchy with snow. But there were at least 100 people lined up at the entrance, huddling in black down jackets, clutching pastel-blue fan signs and puffing out tiny white clouds.

I was a few hours early.

The KBS Arena Hall in Seoul isn't a dedicated esports stadium; it usually hosts other events such as MMA tournaments, beauty pageants, televised concerts and K-pop fan signings. Yet it felt like a perfectly fitting venue for the AfreecaTV PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds League (APL) Pilot Season Finals. After all, most South Korean esports events are one giant crossover between sporting competition, broadcast entertainment and idol culture. This one was expected to be no different.

How will PUBG esports fare in South Korea? The game itself might be enjoying a phenomenal level of popularity -- months have passed since it dethroned League of Legends from the No. 1 spot in the PC bang ratings, and this gap will not close in the near future -- but it remains to be seen how much of that interest will transfer to its fledgling competitive scene. Judging from Overwatch's domestic trajectory as an esport, there is no guarantee that PUBG esports will mirror the success of PUBG the game.

Of course, success is subjective. Did Overwatch esports succeed in South Korea? Some say yes: They believe OGN APEX was one of the best-produced tournaments in esports history, responsible for unlocking and retaining a new fan demographic, a large part of which have transitioned into avid viewers of the Overwatch League. Others say no: They believe the scene should have grown much larger, considering the game's popularity, and that APEX was prematurely sacrificed for a nominally global but primarily American circuit. Both are defensible perspectives.

But success is also contextual. Back in 2012 when League of Legends started taking off in South Korean PC bangs, the domestic market was wide open. A gaping hole in the esports landscape was left by StarCraft: Brood War's demise -- one which StarCraft II never came close to filling -- and LoL came out at the perfect time to capitalize upon it. With full support from the top establishment (OGN, KeSPA) and without any true competition, LoL was able to cement itself as the successor to Brood War and become South Korea's next national esport.

Overwatch was launched into a very different environment. The game itself was a sensational hit, ending LoL's supremacy in PC bangs for the first time in four years, but there was no pre-existing void in esports for it to fill. League of Legends Champions Korea was still going as strong as ever -- less fresh, perhaps, but more familiar and richer in storylines. By this time, watching LoL esports had become a deeply ingrained habit for its fans, as exemplified by the many players who had quit the game for Overwatch but continued to follow LCK. Due to this and other private interest factors, there was no industry-wide initiative to help Overwatch esports flourish.

In light of such circumstances, South Korean Overwatch esports should be considered an overall success, though to which degree is debatable, and its future in the Contenders Korea era remains murky. Sure, its viewer base might not have directly corresponded to the game's popularity, but that wasn't a real possibility, and such correspondence is rarely observed anyway. Context is key. FPS esports had never been mainstream in South Korea, only a small part of the traditional audience had been available for conversion, and little support had come from the establishment, aside from OGN's own efforts. Despite all that, a respectable viewership was built, a surprisingly large number of new fans were drawn in from non-traditional demographics, and a new, vibrant fan culture was created.

What about PUBG esports? The signposts are mixed. There are many positives: PUBG is receiving one of the quickest and strongest broadcast pushes in South Korean esports history, with both OGN and AfreecaTV pouring millions of dollars into new stadiums, new leagues, new staff and superstar talent. The developer being a South Korean company means mammoth KeSPA franchises such as SK Telecom T1 and KT Rolster might quickly get involved. From a spectator viewpoint, the game is the most accessible and intuitive blockbuster title since Brood War. While LoL esports remains perfectly healthy and popular, generational shifts are inevitable and increasingly observable. No longer would it be surprising to see the torch passed on, if only ever so gradually.

But there are also negatives. According to many South Korean veteran streamers, broadcast talent and tournament organizers, the game's relationship to esports is reminiscent of Hearthstone, in which star streamers command more popularity than most esports-related brands or events. Those experts believe that in LoL and Overwatch, the Korean community displayed a fervent appreciation for esports from the very beginning, whereas the same cannot be said for PUBG. As if to support this assessment, viewership for the two ongoing domestic tournaments -- AfreecaTV's APL and OGN's PUBG Survival Series (PSS) -- have largely been unimpressive. PSS's has been particularly abysmal, even accounting for the fact that the South Korean broadcast is being streamed only on KakaoTV, an unpopular platform.

Furthermore, PUBG has yet to display signs of enlarging the viewership pie, unlike Overwatch, which immediately attracted fans from demographics previously untapped by mainstream titles. For PUBG esports to achieve immediate success, it will have to steal away a good amount of viewers from other games' well-established leagues, some of which have directly clashing time slots. But LCK is unlikely to suddenly hemorrhage viewership, the Overwatch League is off to a solid start, Contenders Korea is just around the corner, and the AfreecaTV Starleague will return in March. It's uncertain how much of those crowds could be converted to professional PUBG.

I had arrived with a certain amount of skepticism about PUBG as a spectator esport. I had given both APL and PSS a fair shake following their launches, but found both underwhelming. While the out-of-game production was stellar (PSS more so, with its signature OGN sheen), the in-game pacing felt rather sluggish (PSS more so, due to its poorly designed point system). The combined physical presence of 80 players made for an impressive sight, vaguely evocative of some dystopian sci-fi Coliseum, but it also highlighted how difficult it was to distinguish or remember them all. Then there was the appallingly severe spectator lag and overall dismal observing. It simply wasn't a good first impression.

But the APL finals was one of the most enjoyable matches I've watched in months. With the right commentators, observers, production, format and teams, competitive PUBG proved to be as exciting as any other esport. All four games of the night produced organic narratives that involved plenty of opportunities to highlight both individual brilliance and team coordination. Perhaps a different roll of the magnetic dice would have produced a worse experience, but then again, Game 4 indirectly proved that at the top level of play, even mundane circles can lead to highly strategic nail-biters.

Of course, there is no guarantee of this experience being representative of what's to come. The ideal tournament structure for PUBG esports -- if one exists -- has yet to be discovered, and both the developer and tournament organizers seem willing to experiment for a while. Competitive StarCraft: Brood War was standardized through consensus limitations to map size and design, and it wouldn't be surprising to see PUBG undergo a similar optimization.

Does PUBG esports have the potential to completely restructure the South Korean esports landscape? After the APL finals, I'm now convinced that it does. But will it? The coming months should tell.