Playerunknown's Battlegrounds puts teamwork above competition

A chicken dinner tastes better with friends.

Played solo, Playerunknown's Battlegrounds is an amazing survival horror game. You collect resources, try to hide from a world that wants you dead, and jump out of your chair at the slightest bump that implies someone might have seen you. But as a group effort, Battlegrounds is a whole different ballgame — one where teamwork and friends truly are more important than winning and losing. As much as you may’ve heard about the allure of that celebratory, first place “chicken dinner,” it’s only your friends that Battlegrounds actually celebrates.

Said attention is baked into to the very structure of the game. Unless you’ve been hiding in a bathroom for the last six months, you likely know Battlegrounds is a Battle Royale-inspired shooter. Players parachute to an island littered with armaments, collect them, and generally goof off until all but one (or one team) is dead. Unlike most multiplayer games, however, once you die you’re dead for good. And all that carries over from one round to the next are the skills you honed and/or the friends you brought with you in the first place.

That’s the crucial bit. No matter how many guns you collect, strategies you formulate, or strangers you beat to death with frying pans, nothing tangible carries over between plays. Decent performance might earn you some extra in-game currency, but that’s only good for buying a few bland cosmetic items.

Technically, that’s no different from most team-based multiplayer games. Before Battlegrounds, my competitive game of choice was the similarly team-oriented Dota 2 — another game where intangible skill and player parties are the only connective tissue between matches. I suspect I’ll return to it eventually, but for the time being, PlayerUnknown’s first/third-person shooter has not only drawn in me and my other MOBA-loving friends, it's got my less competitive pals (not to mention a big bite of Earth's population) hooked, as well.

Some of that must be the result of zeitgeist. It is for me, anyway. But a lot of my obsession is thanks to how effortlessly Battlegrounds makes actually playing Battlegrounds with my friends feels, as opposed to the hard work and often disappointing work of playing to win.

Battlegrounds’ one-and-done death system doesn’t shackle you to the outcome of whatever match you’re playing. If your team wipes out, you’re not forced to stick around and finish watching a 20-30 minute match until someone wins. Instead, it’s back to the starting menu. There, you’re greeted by your own custom screen-filling avatars, whose prominence on the screen is only matched by an oversized AK-47 perpetually leaned against the menu’s background (seriously, the thing is comically large enough to be an orbiting battle station in a Mel Brooks movie, and it bothers me).And then you hop into another match.

Winning and losing, by contrast, are incredibly downplayed. Victory is only really marked by that mute (and beloved by the internet) notification: "Winner Winner Chicken Dinner!" Defeat is even less pronounced. My team simply packs up and moves on — either to Battlegrounds’ next deathmatch, or to hang up our machetes and assault rifles for the night. The final result of the game is completely invisible — and therefore unimportant.

Other competitive games have rubbed elbows with this friends-first policy. MechWarrior Online allows you to drop in and out of matches after death, but its complex gameplay makes the very act of playing the de facto most important factor if you want to play well. Meanwhile, the ever-approachable Overwatch doesn’t surface final kill/death tallies. That way gunplay is never championed ahead of teamwork in the objective-heavy game. But just as in Dota 2 — and nearly every other team-based game — winning or losing is inescapable. With a flashy, slow motion finale, and a disembodied announcer’s last proclamation, wins and losses become the most visible consequence of any match.

In Battlegrounds, infinitely more people lose than win. With matches of up to 100 players, split into groups of up to four, that’s just basic math. Defeat comes in degrees: not last, in the top 50 percent, in the top 10, and all the way up to number one. Consistent group play is vital in achieving those milestones, as you learn to communicate and move as a unit. When an enemy strikes, you need to trust that your allies can sharply call out their location. You need to believe they can snipe, suppress, or drive their way out of danger when the situation calls for it.

It doesn’t hurt that Battlegrounds also features some extremely silly, often buggy antics. It’s easy to develop memorable team stories when players can jump motorcycles onto rooftops or launch jeeps 30 feet in the air because they hit a rock at the wrong angle. Battlegrounds doesn’t really know how to process many of these accidents. The resulting stiff and low-grade animations lend the game an accidental “style” all its own.

It’s that impromptu physical comedy that helps Battlegrounds stand apart from the pack, in ways that more polished games simply can’t. Working together as a well-oiled machine makes for a consistent, if not especially distinct background thrum of significance around my allies. But it’s only in these rough edges that we share laughs and swap stories — that we plant flags around specific talking points we’ll reference for days and weeks afterwards.

Battlegrounds doesn’t just put subtle visual weight behind one’s allies. Its need for tactical awareness and tendency to go off the rails — which is tense enough to feel horrific when I’m on my own — compounds the trust I put in my friends through moment-to-moment gameplay. When we lose, which happens more often than not, that implicit importance then funnels back into the oversized silhouettes at the main screen. We rinse, we repeat, and we do it together without much weight being placed on a binary win or loss.

The teammate-centric user interface and sometimes goofy, sometimes serious gameplay create a feedback loop of emphasis on my allies. Battlegrounds’ stripped-down design gets it out of the way of the usual team shooter cycle — even as it “breaks” the game in ways that are more often funny and memorable than frustrating. I’m just curious how long that same lubricated loop will last before my cold, hard competitive spirit overshadows my love of good friends again.