The aggravation of game-breaking bugs in esports

Inherent, persistent and infuriating.

adamkaz via Getty Images

It was late one Sunday in September in Krakow, Poland, and Eric "Snip3down" Wrona was heated. He was a handful of points away from making the championship series of the Apex Legends Preseason Invitational and his only shot at progressing towards the grand prize of more than $100,000.

Wrona is a notable battle royale and Halo competitor, who had placed second at the X-Games -- the only other major competitive Apex Legends event. Tucked away in Alvernia Studios, a series of dome production studios turned into an esports venue with a small audience of already-eliminated players, he was prepped to wreak havoc in his final game in the loser's bracket.

But shortly after the match began, Wrona inexplicably disconnected. "The game just fucking crashed," he tweeted right after the incident, before adding, "I am so annoyed right now, only one team dead, and I crash, yet nothing happens. Game 4, 500k event, this is absolutely unacceptable."

The rules behind the Apex Legends Preseason Invitational, hosted by publisher EA and tournament organizer ESL, didn't account for disconnections. It left Wrona, who played for Team Reciprocity, out of luck. The team finished the match in 10th place with one kill and ultimately went home empty-handed. "That was a half-million-dollar disconnect," Wrona told ESPN while watching the grand final from the stands.

Nearly 6,000 miles away and two months later, Alex "CherryPoppins" Penner‏, a lesser-known PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG) player for The Rumblers, was in the midst of competing in the game's biggest tournament to date, the PUBG Global Championship, in Oakland, California. Locked in a firefight, Penner thought he had the upper hand on his opponent. He rushed at them in a car but ran into a building at an odd angle, which sent his car soaring into the air.

"Oh my goodness, what's just happened? He's gone to space," the commentator said. It took several seconds for Penner and the vehicle to come back to earth. The car exploded and the fall knocked Penner out before he was swiftly gunned down by an enemy.

"Imagine experiencing a massive bug that cost you a crash/fight in a tournament that's [worth] over 3 million dollars," he tweeted shortly after. PUBG players and casters called the bug the rocketman glitch.

pubg rocketman glitch

Glitches like the one Penner encountered and technical mishaps like the one that ended Wrona's chance at a title are rare occurrences in battle royale esports. But when they happen -- often for unknown reasons -- they can shift the outcome of a vital match. They're an inherent and unpredictable part of playing video games both casually and competitively.

"It was super unlucky," PUBG analyst and caster Martin "Avnqr" Gøth told me -- referring to Wrona's potentially costly disconnect -- on a Discord call from Denmark. "But that kind of stuff can just happen, it's a part of competing at that level."

Technical hiccups like these happen in other esports, too. A League of Legends game crashed during the championship series in 2018; Riot Games decided to award one team a win since the other team "did not have a reasonable chance to come back in this game." And an in-game bug reared its ugly head in the Overwatch League during a match between the Dallas Fuel and Guangzhou Charge.

Yet bugs are more common in battle royales than other games due to the map size and freedom given to players. Open-world shooters like PUBG and Apex Legends are difficult to test as there are more moving parts that are difficult to replicate. While games like Call of Duty and Overwatch have bugs, too, their maps are much smaller and controlled, making bug squashing easier.

"There are more entities in battle royales than other games," said Gøth, referring to the hundreds of in-game locations, assets, vehicles, weapons and the ways those things can interact. "It's an 8x8 kilometer map with millions of entities that can't all be tested."

They're an inherent and unpredictable part of playing video games both casually and competitively.

"Battle royales are definitely more prone to them," said PUBG player Kevin "Miccoy" Linn. "Before the championship in 2018, the organizers told us all the spots we shouldn't go to because if we did and a bug killed us, they wouldn't do anything about it. It's difficult -- someone has to find the bugs and that takes a lot of time with how big the maps are. PUBG Corp does their best." There were even barrels players were told to avoid, because climbing on them could trigger a bug that could kill them, according to another player at the tournament. PUBG Corporation and EA, which publish PUBG and Apex Legends, respectively, both declined to comment for this story.

"You just play around them," said Linn, referring to the bugs. "They will never go away since new ones are added with every patch."

Competitive players also play on tournament-specific clients, which are different to the public ones casual players take part in. "They don't have thousands of people testing it," Gøth said. "It's less than a couple of hundred players that are actually playing and PUBG Corp has to rely on their feedback to fix bugs."

PUBG has been known for significant bugs, game-breaking glitches and even optimization issues that gave players a way to see through in-game foliage that other players might be hiding behind. "It's something that needs to be fixed since it affects fair gameplay," said Joonhyuk Choi, PUBG developer and now-creative director at Bluehole (PUBG Corp's parent company) in a 2017 interview. While the development team at PUBG has worked to improve the state of the game, new bugs are discovered regularly with the release of new content.

"Before the championship in 2018, the organizers told us all the spots we shouldn't go to because if we did and a bug killed us, they wouldn't do anything about it."

Apex Legends is less bug prone, but it still has a problem with disconnecting pro players during tournaments.

"I personally crashed the very first game of the first GLL online tournament before touching the ground," G2 Esports Apex Legends player Sebastian "Mimu" Vesala said. "The game wasn't restarted."

Whether it be Team South Korea disconnecting in the final match of the PUBG Nations Cup or newcomers Team 789 disconnecting at the Apex Legends Preseason Invitational, these occurrences are common enough that there are now some rules. The official PUBG rulebook states that "if a player disconnects from the game after the first 60 seconds of a match and cannot reconnect to the server, the team must continue playing with alive members until the end of the match." Depending on how many squads are alive, compensation points can be awarded for disconnects based on the "summary of average kills of the squad in the last 3 games + average placement points left in the game."

The official rulebook for Apex Legends says that "matches will continue if players disconnect or fail to load into the game." Both companies have tried to develop ways to reconnect players after they disconnect, with varying levels of success.

In the majority of cases, as Gøth and multiple players tell me, disconnects and bugs have already happened in tournaments, so organizers and referees have a framework to follow. "For the most part, I trust them with the calls," Vesala said. "But at the same time, this shouldn't be an issue to begin with and is completely out of players' control."

On rare occasions, tournaments will encounter scenarios much bigger than a single player disconnecting. A Bangkok power outage put an entire tournament out of commission at the MET Asia Series: PUBG Classic, interrupting dozens of competitors in the middle of a match on the second day of the event.

Tournament organizers decided to completely restart the match. They gave teams two options at the end of day two: take the points earned from the rematch or accept compensation points. On the third day of competition, PUBG Corp reneged on those options and decided to combine compensation points with the points from the rematch.

The way PUBG Corp handled the situation angered several players; five Chinese and two Taiwanese teams eventually walked out of the tournament before the third day of competition. PUBG Corp ultimately revoked the tournament winners' spot at the PUBG Global Championship.

For freak situations like the power outage, which Gøth and others tell me are exceedingly rare, there is no other option beyond the organizers and referees making a judgment call. There are often too many unique elements in each situation -- how many players were left in the match, how many kills each team had achieved and the disconnected players past performance -- for a one-size-fits-all rule.

Technical roadblocks won't disappear as these competitions grow.

Right now, players and teams have no recourse after these decisions are made. Even though every player Engadget spoke to for this story said they trust the people making the decisions, a better process might include some player input or appeals system. That lack of player agency isn't unlike many other professional sports. When a game-day decision is made in the NFL, it's often final even when officials admit they made a mistake.

A lack of an appeals system for these types of decisions doesn't mean that companies like EA and PUBG Corp are doing nothing to lessen the impact of these technical problems. "They address it as much as they can," Linn said. "They take feedback from us after every tournament. They are very open about it."

Bugs aren't new to esports, but as PUBG and Apex Legends tournaments swell in quantity, prize money and visibility, it's important that more rules address them. PUBG Corp is launching the PUBG Global Series, four tournaments spread throughout 2020, that'll culminate in another multi-million-dollar championship. EA is launching the Apex Legends Global Series in March with more than $3 million in the prize pool. Technical roadblocks won't disappear as these competitions grow.

Yet, despite showing incredible frustration whenever they've encountered a bug, all the players I spoke to believe bugs have a minor impact on the game in aggregate. "I think if they had a bigger impact, you wouldn't see Gen.G and FaZe Clan dominating as much as they do," Linn said. "It would be more random."

Images: Twitch / playBATTLEGROUNDS ('Rocketman' glitch); PUBG Corp (PUBG Global Championship)

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