Justin "Teenage" Phipps thought he was done with battle royales. Hours of grinding H1Z1, Fortnite and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds had ultimately led nowhere. Even Overwatch, where he once reached Rank No. 1 as Widowmaker, failed to satisfy for long. Then, Teenage booted up Apex Legends.
"It was something fresh," Teenage said. "There's been so many battle royales out lately that I was honestly pretty skeptical about playing it. I tried it out with some of my buddies and really enjoyed it. I hadn't played a game in a while that I genuinely enjoyed playing for hours on end. And then I saw the competitive side of things, how big the game was getting. I had to take a shot on it."
Teenage wasn't alone. Since Apex Legends' surprise Feb. 4 release, more than 50 million players have jumped into Respawn's take on the BR genre, a level Fortnite needed more than four months to reach. Apex's infectious popularity quickly launched it to the top of Twitch as heavyweight streamers Tyler "Ninja" Blevins, Jaryd "summit1g" Lazar and Michael "Shroud" Grzesiek (to name a few) clocked in serious time. Two high-profile tournaments followed within days of release: another edition of Guy "Dr Disrespect" Beahm's Code Red and a $200,000 Twitch Rivals tournament that registered 8.28 million viewership hours on its first day, shattering a Twitch record previously held by Fortnite since July 2018.
Apex Legends' meteoric start drew the attention of esports organizations across the globe, and 100 Thieves was no exception. Founded in 2016 by former professional Call of Duty player Matt "Nadeshot" Haag, 100 Thieves moved to capitalize on the new shooter's growing playerbase and the community's overwhelmingly positive reaction by creating their own team. An open call on Twitter for competitive players drew more than 7,000 applicants, of which 100 Thieves signed three: Connor "Gigz" White, Isiaih "Lifted" Slowik and Teenage.
"I had offers from a lot of other orgs, but it was an obvious pick for me," Teenage said of joining 100 Thieves. "I just think they're one of the higher-tier orgs, one of my favorite orgs that I'd ever want to join. It's very different from any esports team I've seen, really West Coast hip, new and cool."
For Teenage, a 24-year-old from Seattle, his partnership with 100 Thieves offered a chance to restart an esports career that stalled last fall when the H1Z1 Pro League dissolved. Teenage moved to Las Vegas on a whim in early 2018 to compete in that ill-fated league. He'd already lost enthusiasm for H1Z1 as a competitive endeavor, but when player salaries upward of $50,000 were bandied about, it became too good of an opportunity to decline. Unfortunately, Teenage's stint on Obey Alliance was cut short when the organization withdrew from the league when promised player salary stipends failed to materialize.
As the H1Z1 Pro League faded out of existence, Teenage participated in the final weeks of the Fortnite Summer Skirmish, even winning $5,000 from a PAX West grand finals appearance in his hometown. But the heavy element of randomness ultimately soured Teenage's interest in Fortnite; he wanted to play a game where skill, not a lucky loadout, was the deciding factor.
"The difference between [Apex Legends] and a lot of other battle royales is it's very little RNG-based," Teenage said. "It's not like there's super weapons where you have to loot for 10 to 15 minutes [to find]. It's very game rewarding, where if you have a better grasp of aim than another player, even if he outgears you to a certain extent, you'll still win the fight."
Gigz is more liberal when singing Apex's praises. A prominent Destiny streamer, Gigz was also a massive fan of Titanfall, the multiplayer first-person shooter that shares a universe with Apex. When he heard Respawn was making a Titanfall battle royale, Gigz was all in.
"The fast movement, the gunplay, it's all really fluid," Gigz said. "I love the pace of the game, how quick it is. You can have a game that lasts only nine minutes. The looting system's good, the ping system is amazing, the abilities of all the different legends are really unique and add to the gameplay really well."
While Apex has earned acclaim for its legend-specific abilities, their efficacy in a truly competitive setting remains to be seen. Currently, the meta revolves around a Bangalore-Wraith-Lifeline triumvirate that has no equal, offering sustainability, utility and mobility wrapped in smaller-than-average hitboxes. There's no incentive to play a legend like Gibraltar, with his lackluster abilities and a hitbox over twice the size of Wrath's. It's possible to imagine creative compositions that incorporate larger legends, but why start at a disadvantage at the expense of better options?
Still, the meta is a relatively minor concern when compared to the open question of what form competitive Apex Legends will assume. Will Respawn and Electronic Arts position the scene as a circuit like Fortnite, or a league closer to Call of Duty and Overwatch? So far, the companies aren't telling, instead posting roadmaps that focus on battle passes and gameplay changes rather than esports. It's a smart move considering that the failure of H1Z1's Pro League stemmed from the decimation of its player base, which itself was caused by a lack of gameplay improvements. Respawn seems to have learned the correct lesson: You can't have a thriving esports scene without a thriving game.
While the idea of a Fortnite-esque tour appeals to Gigz, Teenage would rather see a league system implemented. After he got burned by H1Z1, it's easy to understand his desire for the stability implied by a league.
"In Fortnite, it's very stressful," Teenage said. "You don't know when the next tournament is until five days before the tournament starts. And then they tell you it's across the country, and the invite system is going to be based on who knows what. It's a lot of uncertainty.
"Scheduling how many matches they're playing over the week, I think that's the only way to do a battle royale. It's hard to play a battle royale game and play four games and determine who's the best player. I think that's what battle royales are about, becoming the most consistent. You can't expect to win every game."
Eric Sanders, head of esports operations for 100 Thieves, toes a line between the two potential directions.
"I would love to see an open competitive system that funnels the best players to a top tier of competition," Sanders wrote in an email to ESPN. "While franchising provides security for the organizations involved, I love seeing teams and players rise to the top tier of competition strictly through their competitive performance."
In signing Gigz, Teenage and Lifted, 100 Thieves is among the first organizations to assemble an Apex trio. That they have done so without a defined esports ecosystem in place speaks to their initial intentions: attaching their trendsetting brand to the game everyone's talking about. What matters most is that 100 Thieves got their foot in the door, ready for whatever esports idea becomes reality. For now, it's enough that they have talented streamers broadcasting an entertaining game with the 100 Thieves logo prominently displayed.
The 100 Thieves threesome hasn't scrimmed together yet due to scheduling incongruities -- although Teenage and Lifted already have existing synergy from their H1Z1 days on Obey Alliance -- but they've stayed busy. After a month of Apex, Teenage's 41 kills in a single lobby still stands as a world record, while Lifted is currently 11th in total kills worldwide.
Yet their biggest question mark as a team has yet to be answered: Who gets to play Wraith?
"We're also all Wraith mains," Gigz admitted. "So it's kinda awkward. We'll have to figure something out."