Game Changers — Analyzing the Apex Legends launch

Phillip Rasmussen

Game Changers is a series of posts about concepts and activations, that change the way we look at marketing in esports and gaming.

It’s not often that a multi-million dollar game gets announced on the same day that it is available for public play. The usual dance between developers, publishers, press and fans involves CGI trailers, short demos at tradeshows, more trailers, maybe a weekend-long alpha or beta-experience for a small audience, which will then feed into a bigger beta, and eventually a crappy launch, followed by excuses and months of bugfixing.

Usually that’s how it happens.

With Apex Legends, the newest FPS BattleRoyale game, Respawn Entertainment — a subsidiary of EA — has flipped the script completely.

The blitz launch

At the end of January rumours surfaced, that Respawn Entertainment would be dropping a new BattleRoyale title, and had held meetings with top influencers and BR-players, getting very positive feedback on the game.

A few days later, on February 4th, the game went live as free to play, and with support from the biggest gaming influencers on Twitch.

shroud’s first reaction to Apex.

For anyone that regularly streams gaming content from Twitch, it wasn’t a surprise to see Tyler “Ninja” Blevins abd Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek, spearhead the launch of the new BR-title. Both of them have become big-time streamers on the back of BR-games, so watching them play a new title is nothing out of the ordinary. Even though they have built streaming careers playing Fornite and PUBG respectively, they both jumped straight into Call of Duty’s BR game when that launched, so seeing them play another game is not out of the ordinary. They are entertainers after all, and the “flavor of the day”-games is part of their entertainment portfolio.

What was out of the ordinary however, was the fact that Respawn had devised their blitz launch to not only be spearheaded by streamers, but exclusively driven by them.

How do you even go about that?

Consider for a moment this sobering quote from The Verge’s Nick Statt in his original launch piece for the game:

For Apex Legends to become a success, it needs to capture an enormous base of players, with the hope that at least some of them will spend a sizable amount of real money. There are no preorders, no sales, and no discounting. The game will be advertised — McCoy tells me it has a comparable marketing budget to a standard major studio title — but the only meaningful factor that will help the game truly take off is its fun factor.

- Nick Statt, The Verge

When you only have the fun factor to help the game take off, you better make sure that the fun factor is plastered across the Internet, because if that bet goes awry, you’re royally screwed.

The issue of discoverability

For my money, Respawn’s focus on getting the top BR influencers to showcase the (insanely fun and addictive!) game, is a stroke of genius. They’re not the first to utilize Twitch streamers, but the combination of a surprise launch, the right influencers used, an insanely good game and the game being free to play and relatively bug-free most of the time, was an offer you couldn’t refuse as a gamer.

So in that sense, the launch was a success.

But why? Why would you risk your marketing budget on this kind of activation? Why would you pay Ninja $1,000,000 to play a video game for a day?

In one word: Discoverability.

In 2018 there were over 9,000 game releases on Steam alone. That’s more than 2004–2016 combined and roughly 24 per day. Creating a good game is not the issue anymore — getting it in front of consumers is. And that’s where Twitch come in.

Over the course of the first 10 days after launch of Apex Legends, Twitch viewers consumed more than 63 million hours of live content, according to Newzoo.

Over the course of the first 10 days after launch of Apex Legends, Twitch viewers consumed more than 63 million hours of live content, according to Newzoo.

The primary channels driving that traffic? Shroud and Ninja of course.

It obviously helps to have a damn good game, but the stats do speak for themselves. This overview from Gamoloco really underlines the impact on launch. Only challenged in 1-day viewership by the most successful CS:GO Majors ever, it beat Fortnite’s biggest single day streaming record, 8 days after launching.

In terms of users, Apex Legends hit 10 million in 3 days, 25 million in 10 and 50 million within the first 28 days of launch — not just beating Fortnite’s records, but incinerating them. Check out this amazing visual representation of user growth from Thomas Rice.

But can they make money off of it? Well, according to a recent report from Superdata it turns out they can. Respawn have reportedly made money to the tune of $92M in February alone (23 days if you’re counting)!

What are the learnings?

Build an amazing game, duh… In all seriousness though, the success of Apex’s launch is not just a testament to a game that’s THAT good. It’s also a new way of launching games, where the focus is on getting the game in front of players as fast as possible, with the ultimate goal being that you can play it on announce.

Here are the things that Respawn did right, and that you can do as well:

  • Knowledge about the game was kept under wraps until very shortly before launch. This ensure maximum impact from media and communities when the announce hits.
  • The information that did leak, was either strategically planted or a stroke of luck. Reports about top influencers being really positive about a game does two things: It ensures that people have a positive buzz about it, because the influencers are often gatekeepers, and it creates intrigue amongst fans, to see who picks up the game.
  • They mapped their audience almost to perfection, making sure that the top FPS- and BR-streamers were on the Apex train from the beginning. They OWNED the consumer-facing part of Twitch for 10 straight days, ensuring insane amounts of viewership on the game. If you are a small indie-company, consider finding the streamers that fit your player profile — you don’t need to give Ninja one million dollars to get off the ground (but it does help).
  • Use those opinion leaders under an NDA to obtain feedback, and prime them for more. You want the streamers and influencers you work with, to love your game upon launch, so they can show that love to the audience.
  • Together with Twitch, they rode the wave of the initial launch, running two Twitch Rivals-tournaments with the biggest influencers and streamers on the platform. This helped build up new stars, consequently feeding the content-machine even more.
  • Make sure the game is playable upon launch. Given the way Apex Legends launched, a small distribution or server issue could have seriously halted the growth of the game. Instead it ran almost flawlessly upon launch, and I never had more than a few crashes in the first week of playing.

Originally published at phedemark.me on March 28, 2019.

Phillip Rasmussen

Written by

Working with digital things in gaming and esport. Writing things on the Internet. I have opinions. Please forgive me.

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