High ranked Apex Legends players noticed something strange recently. At the end of a hard-fought match they were facing off against six players instead of three. Typically, an Apex Legends game features 20 teams of three fighting on a large map that shrinks a little every few minutes. In at least two games this month, players noticed top ranked players leading independent teams of threes and collaborating. It’s called teaming, and it’s a kind of scandal particularly common in sports.
The videos posted to Reddit show Xynoa and Skittlers, then the number one and two ranked players on the Apex Legends leaderboards, seeming to collude to ensure a first and second place victory in a ranked match.
Apex Legends developer Respawn Entertainment did not respond to our request for comment, but its community manager Chin Xiang Chong replied to a thread about the controversy on Twitter. “Yes, we see the articles and the claims and will take appropriate action after doing appropriate investigations,” he said.
Users uploaded the videos to Reddit on May 13 and Chin Xiang Chong responded the same day. According to Apex Tracker, a site that watches Apex Legends matches and sorts the leaderboards, both Xynoa and Skittles had their progress reset shortly after the footage hit the internet. Neither has played a match in two weeks as of this writing. Xynoa and Skittles did not respond to a request for comment.
Apex Legends isn’t alone. One year ago, Fortnite pro XXiF was disqualified from the Fortnite World Cup Finals following accusations of teaming. At the end of March, Epic Games suspended players Kreo, Bucke, Keys, Slackes after the duos took home the top positions in the opening rounds of the Fortnite Champion Series. Other players discovered the two duos teaming up to protect their top positions.
Why do this? There are a number of reasons, but it boils down to the fact that these matchmaking systems end up creating and defining an elite class of players, who suddenly discover they have common class interests. If nothing else, having put in all the work to become top-tier players, they dread being kicked out of the club. After all, only 500 players can achieve Apex Legends’ highest ranking. If you’re in that tier, there’s an incentive to collaborate with other top tiered players to keep out the competition and continue playing with people you regard as your peers.
But having a high matchmaking rank can mean a lot more than just bragging rights. Apex Legends publisher Electronic Arts is aggressively pushing its competitive scene and giving away prize pools worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. To enter the big money tournaments, players have to reach Gold Rank IV, at least. More popular streamers go to invitationals thrown by companies like Twitch, which can pay out big. Timothy “Overpowered” Liang pulled in $24,500 from a Twitch Invitational. When you play at that level, people want to watch you and when you have an audience, businesses want to monetize that audience. Players like Liang make cash from Twitch partnerships and YouTube ad revenue as well as the tournaments. At the highest levels, your Ninjas and Shrouds, the players are making brand deals with companies like Nike and earning as much as traditional star athletes.
But none of that can’t happen if you aren’t good and the clearest sign that a player is good is their standing in a game’s ranked mode. It’s a quick way to let viewers the skill level of the player and a barrier for entry to official tournament play. It can also be a fast-track into the serious competitive scene. The esports organization Team SoloMid often draws its competitive rosters from the highest ranks of their games: its Apex Legends team is drawn from that “top 500” tier in Apex or similar games, and the team just signed a high-ranking Teamfight Tactics player. For those players in the highest ranks, the 1 percent of the 1 percent, matchmaking rank can open doors to sponsorships, big streaming money, and an elite tier of pro tournament play.
Life is a lot less glamorous for those who aspire to this success, but haven’t quite achieved it. While it’s a good gig to be one of the five best players in Apex or Fortnite, or to be one of the two or three most popular content creators for a game like that, the rewards for being the twentieth best or fiftieth most-popular personality are vast poorer despite the incredible effort it takes.
When there’s that kind of discrepancy between rewards, opportunities, and competition, there’s a good chance corruption is not far behind. It’s why teaming scandals like what happened in Apex Legends have happened before, repeatedly, in traditional sports.
In the 2005 book Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner applied statistical analysis to sumo matches and noticed an anomaly. When wrestlers fought and one had won only seven matches and his opponent had already won eight, the wrestler who needed a victory to stay in their tier won 80 percent of the time. That was a suspicious coincidence because in sumo, wrestlers are divided into tiers. In a tournament, wrestlers in the top tier fight 15 matches. Wrestlers who win eight matches stay in their tier. Any less than eight, and they’re demoted. The implication was that, their place secure, wrestlers who’d already won eight matches let opponents win who were on the edge.
Not all of Dubner and Levitt’s work has held up to scrutiny and many of Freakonomics' assertions later fell apart. But they were on to something when it came to sumo. The collusion accusation hung around until 2011 when text messages between wrestlers confirmed Levitt and Dubner’s accusation. The texts were on phones seized by Japanese police during an investigation into allegations of match fixing. The investigation implicated 13 wrestlers and 2 coaches in match fixing.
The world of sumo is hierarchical by design and has roots in Japanese religious traditions. Wrestlers at the top of the system live lives of resplendent luxury and earn lots of money from sponsorships and tribute. Wrestlers at the bottom of the system tend to “stables” where they board with other low tier wrestlers and live like indentured apprentices. The incentives are stark.
The pressure isn’t quite as intense in competitive games because established players and creators do not live-and-die by ranking systems the way sumo wrestlers do. But ranking systems can leech games of their fun at the highest level, something that top battle royale players have commented on before. And while players don’t necessarily have to fear declining in the rankings quite as much, they do struggle with knowing that they are especially likely to be targeted by aspiring competitors who are trying to break into the elite. The pressure, and the low margin for error, gets tiring even for people who have achieved enduring success.
Which is, of course, increasingly the structure of modern society and the entire point of the “battle royale” conceit. In the film Battle Royale, Japan’s rulers kidnap a random high school senior class and force them to participate in a fight to death on an isolated island. The winner gets to go home, but the game is rigged. Along with the high schoolers, the government has installed two mercenaries. They’re there to make sure the winner is someone the elites can control.
Battle Royale stories such as The Hunger Games and Battle Royale literalize a truth of our age: our meritocratic systems are a competition where we tried to claw our way to secure comfort. But the entire game was overseen and administered by a ruling class that wants both to perpetuate its rule and the myth of upward mobility, and uses precarity to turn people against one another.
The Apex Legends teaming scandal actually underscores this theme. Spots are limited at the top and people who have found success there will find they have more in common with their peers than the people striving to join their ranks. That still means a lot of hard work, yes, but it also means gaming the system in ways big and small. It’s true in sumo, and Apex Legends.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.