Illustration by Gavin Spence.
"However, let me warn you ahead: This is unfortunately not a success story."
The Discord icons lit up. Players were hopping on. It became routine for weeks leading up to May 3, 2016: the regulars would log on to the Discord, boot up the Steam client and start matchmaking. The Battleborn closed test server, open to a small subset of streamers, content creators and close friends of Gearbox Software to play Battleborn in near-entirety prior to launch, was a place where everyone knew each other, by both name and reputation.
This was a tightknit community that, for a few hours every night, saw Battleborn the way few ever would in the months to come. Pages of numbers, wikis and theorycrafting, team compositions posited and refuted, new metagames discovered and reinvented overnight.
The story of what Battleborn was, is and could have been is a story of missed potential. But there are people keeping the hope alive, months after the industry zeitgeist had moved on.
Battleborn is many things at once, a veritable melting pot of genres. A first-person shooter, a cooperative wave-survival game, a competitive multiplayer game, a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) with persistent unlocks akin to role-playing games. From the beginning, it was difficult to parse exactly what Battleborn was, and what it wanted to focus on. Longtime player "Sk3l10n" echoed this sentiment, discussing the game's struggle to define what made it unique.
"Ultimately I think that people aren't as interested in one-stop shop games these days," said Sk3l10n. "Battleborn failed to deliver a co-op campaign up to the quality of Borderlands, while simultaneously failing to be a well-polished PvP experience. It still faces issues because characters need to be made to work well in four PvP modes and PvE missions, on two different control schemes. They gave themselves a massive job that I don't think any studio could've delivered."
The cast of Battleborn consists of 25 heroes, gathered from many factions and walks of life, to defend the last star in the universe from the hordes of darkness. Each "Battleborn" brings something different to the table, from Galilea's sword-and-board medieval approach to Toby the penguin's mechanized combat suit. General distinctions are easy to draw between tanky frontliners, damage dealers and supports/healers. Shards, a gold-like currency, litter the battlefield, and minions march up and down designated lanes, mindlessly towards their final goal.
A push-back of the game's release from February to May, however, put Battleborn in direct contention with a titan. Blizzard Entertainment was set to release Overwatch soon—a game that also happened to have heroes fighting each other in colorful, first-person arenas—and while the games differed greatly in practice, first looks didn't provide the clearest distinction between the two.
At every turn, the popular narrative pitted Overwatch and Battleborn against each other. Gearbox ended up trying to go round for round with the first new Blizzard IP in a decade. As each new trailer came out for either side, the talk became less about what Battleborn was, and more what it wasn't.
"When you're up against a giant like Overwatch, every little thing can be used as a way to downplay Battleborn," said "woof," a one-time competitive (and still casual) Battleborn player. "While I think people still would have been critical of Battleborn if Overwatch wasn't a thing, it would not have received nearly as much negative attention as it did."
The rest played out in headlines and news stories, coalescing on May 3, when Battleborn launched on the same date as Overwatch's open beta. The rest is infamous: a 69 average on MetaCritic, punctuated by constant cries of imitation, led to a less-than-ideal launch. For Randy Varnell, creative director of Battleborn, and his team, watching it play out was disheartening.
"2016 was hugely disappointing for the dev team, watching that competition play out and reading the same stories," said Varnell. "Sometimes you do your best, and it doesn't turn out like you want and you let it go. But we believe so much in Battleborn."
That's the story of Battleborn that most are familiar with: a unique idea, beset by identity crises and dashed against the rocks of a game many would label the best of 2016. The story doesn't end there though, and months later, Battleborn is still alive.
The heart of any competitive game is, at its core, community. When an eSport is wielded haphazardly, it can quickly become a case of marketing to a genre that does not exist. eSports contains a menagerie of fighting, shooting, strategizing, racing and even block-climbing. Varnell tells me that Gearbox was hesitant to initially come out with Battleborn as a competitive-focused title, but that if a competitive scene flourished, the team would be there to support it.
In both the days of the early test server and post-launch, Battleborn tournaments came and went. Teams formed and competed, establishing rules and precedents undefined by the game itself. There was no drafting of heroes, set map pool or facilitation for best-of series matches. Many aspects of the early Battleborn competitive scene were cobbled together haphazardly, by a community that wanted to see how far it could push the limits of the game.
Small rivalries developed, and the best and brightest established themselves. It's important to reiterate that much of this came from a desire to compete; prize pools were scarce and have been since, with only small amounts of cash (or in-game loot) offered for the winning team. The gameplay was a constant recurring factor, as teams found new ways to utilize heroes and niche strategies to execute on certain maps. "xAbednego," a mod for the Battleborn subreddit, puts it directly: that Battleborn, in a vacuum, is great.
The weeks of marketing and shade thrown towards Battleborn had done its damage, though. The player base was small, and queue times were long. One player interviewed for this piece said matches took a minute to find if you were lucky, often skewing towards ten minutes, resulting in people giving up and moving on to other, populated, games.
This, in turn, affected the competitive base. Players often matched up against each other, so the matches became stale. Performance issues on different maps meant that the only "competitive" options were either Paradise or Overgrowth, as any other could cause lag and frame loss for either side. New players were thrown into a meat grinder against players who had accumulated dozens of hours already, and when you don't have a solid base of players still learning, you're forced to learn quick or leave. Ultimately, the top competitors like "itsalreadygg" and "earlybirds" had few who could push them off the throne, and newcomers weren't adjusting quickly enough to Battleborn's playstyle.
"At the end of day, drafting [became standard], and maybe that actually contributed to killing the competitive scene," said Sk3l10n. "In the first few tournaments on PC, where itsalreadygg and earlybirds dominated, it was painfully obvious that only those two teams were drafting. Everyone else was just picking what they wanted to play and it led to massive blowouts. To put it simply, the top two teams were playing a MOBA, and everyone else was playing an FPS."
"To put it simply, the top two teams were playing a MOBA, and everyone else was playing an FPS."
"From what I have noticed, competitive teams come in waves," said woof. "You'll have one or two really good teams that always end up facing each other in the tournament finals. Over time, those match-ups can get stale, so teams break up, reform, and the same thing will happen again. There's not enough teams to divide up appropriately by skill level, so these newer teams get slaughtered by better teams, and just drop out of future tournaments."
Yet still, the scene persists. On the Battleborn subreddit, users theorize and debate different builds, discussing the best ways to utilize Kelvin's tricky ultimate, or the current status of Benedict in the meta.
Games media, generally, has trouble keeping up with the development of games post-launch. Despite the prevalence of games-as-a-platform in recent years, few games get much attention once the review score has been issued. Though that tone has been shifting in the past few months, Battleborn has fallen by the wayside.
Despite that, Gearbox has stayed hard at work on the game. Varnell characterizes his team as "scrappers," a tough group of people dedicated to Battleborn until the bitter end. New characters, story missions, maps and modes have been added to the game in the months since launch, and even larger updates like a proper observer mode, draft implementation and a performance patch for consoles bumping the framerate up to 60 have all gone largely unnoticed in mainstream subreddits and channels.
"It's about passion. People from the community side love the game, the devs love the game, and we continue to have the opportunity support the game," said Varnell. "While it's not the same size as the team that worked on the game prior to launch, there's a heart of us that are true believers and want to continue working and supporting the game, until someone probably forcibly unplugs our computers and makes us stop."
In response, a small but passionate community has formed around Battleborn. What it lacks in numbers, it makes up for in dedication. Each person interviewed from the community acknowledged the issues the game has had, but still believes it's a game worthy of their own time.
Hundreds of hours logged, these people invested time into Battleborn to look beyond the troubled marketing, the issues of perception, and found something that resonates with them. Playing coordinated matches between teams, coming down to the last second, counterpicking and theorycrafting, Battleborn has everything it needs but lacks in that one final ingredient—the raw numbers to make it happen.
Few games can be like League of Legends or Counter-Strike, taking the world by storm and establishing themselves atop the pantheon of competitive games. Battleborn isn't trying to fight the giants, but it's offering something unique, and its tightknit community is still hosting tournaments and welcoming new players into the fold, keeping the scene alive purely out of passion for the game.
Maybe it doesn't demand your attention, but through months of dedication from both the developers and the community, it at least deserves consideration. Battleborn's story is not a success, but from the days of closed test to now, it's weathered a storm and more.