Commissioner of Apex Legends Esports John Nelson Talks Balance, Esports, ALGS
We interviewed John Nelson, the Commissioner of Apex Legends Esports to find out more about the inner workings of the professional scene. With the ALGS entering its second year, a lot has changed both in game and out. How does John’s work affect one of the fastest-growing games and esports scenes out there?
Hotspawn: Could you introduce yourself?
John Nelson: I’m John Nelson, Commissioner of Apex Legends Esports. To go a little bit deeper, I’ve been in esports for almost 20 years now. Very briefly as a competitor and quickly transitioning into an event organizer. I worked for Major League Gaming for 12 and a half years prior to coming to EA (Electronic Arts) where I’ve been now for the last five and a half years.
Hotspawn: First question, Commissioner of Apex Legends Esports is a very broad title. What are your responsibilities as the Commissioner of Esports?
John Nelson: It’s a title that I’ve held for many years of my career, the entire time I’ve spent with MLG and a good portion of now the time I’ve spent with EA. It hasn’t always had the same level of responsibility, it’s definitely grown over time. But now as the Commissioner of Apex Legends Esports, I’m responsible for the growth of the sport, the business of Apex Legends Esports and everything that goes with it.
Hotspawn: That’s certainly a lot of responsibility, especially as the scene is constantly expanding and heading into the new season of ALGS. I’d like to know how much impact you have on Apex Legends itself. Do you get to have communication with the balance team at Respawn about how Apex should be balanced to help the pro scene develop?
John Nelson: Yes, myself and other members of my team have regular communication with the Respawn development team. That team has been receptive to our feedback from the moment that we began working with them roughly a year before the game launched. We’re obviously not the only voice when it comes to the decisions that are made around the game and its balance. There’s a lot to be taken into consideration for all players and not just those who compete in ALGS, but we’re happy to have the seat at the table we’ve been given in order to have an impact in how the game works moving forward.
Hotspawn: Do you have any examples of discussions that have happened or changes that have been made since the release of Apex that has found their way into the game for the purpose of esports?
John Nelson: I can think of a couple things. First, there are a handful of things where gameplay within the ALGS can be slightly different from the experience between pubs and ranked. One of those is Gold Knockdown Shields which haven’t been in the ALGS now for over a year I believe. That was a specific item that we felt as though had a place in the game still, but wasn’t the best for high-level ALGS competition and how was rewarding teams who were able to acquire one or multiple Gold Knockdowns.
In terms of specific elements of the game that have been created for esports, a lot of the spectator mode functionalities that we have that are used for delivering the ALGS broadcast were created for esports. The free cam is one of the most obvious of those, which really allows us to tell a story that blends the first-person perspectives that everyone is used to when watching or playing Apex along with the contextual third-person perspectives that allow you to see all of the positionings and strategies being set up.
Hotspawn: You mentioned the Gold Knockdown Shields being one of the specific changes you’ve made. One of the things about battle royale esports that’s hard to manage in general is RNG (random number generation). What are your opinions on some of the current aspects of RNG that are pretty talked about, sometimes even complained about, such as hard shifts in Zone and Beacon spawns, and how they should be managed?
John Nelson: So, RNG is something that from a competitive perspective that we simultaneously lean into and embrace, but also that we look for potential places where its okay for ALGS competition to be different from what all of the Apex Legends players and viewers are accustomed to. We have an understanding that we want to ensure that ALGS competition LOOKS like Apex Legends, FEELS like Apex Legends, IS Apex Legends. In specific, Gold Knockdowns were an example where it made sense to divert from what the normal Apex Legends experience. We’ll continue to look at the game through that sort of lens, deciding what elements are essential to stay true to the battle royale experience, and what elements are an opportunity for us to limit the RNG in a positive way.
Hotspawn: That’s definitely understandable, you want to make sure players feel like they’re watching the game that they love players when they view the esports. If it’s too different, they might feel a disconnect. Still, there will be some differences that are unavoidable due to how the pro teams will play. As the game has evolved, a lot of new things have been added. One of the more controversial additions was the new Legend Valkyrie and how they allow for play that isn’t “normal.” What’s your opinion on how Valkyrie’s release has affected the game and has she caused you to think about how new strategies should be implemented?
John Nelson: I think that every time that new content is added to the game, it offers opportunity. Opportunity for players and teams to come up with new strategies, to approach the game in a different way, and to change the way that they approach compiling points and winning. It offers an exciting change of pace for players to find new success or continued success in the ALGS. It also offers a new way of consuming the game for viewers.
It goes without question that whenever new content is released, everyone involved from my team to the Respawn development team need to take a hard look at how it changes the way the game is played. Things like, “do we need to adjust the out-of-bounds timers?” as we see that in practice, or “have we gone far enough, or do we need to limit the out-of-bounds more?” Those are the sorts of conversations we have on a daily basis.
Hotspawn: One thing that Valkyrie has done is help to add more Legend diversity to Apex, especially for pro play. Back in the old days of pro play, we had a stable three Legend meta. They never really diverted from that until Gibraltar and Bloodhound got buffs and started being implemented into comp. How much impact have you had in developing the Legend meta, and how do you like how it’s shaping up, and how will you continue forging the meta moving forward?
John Nelson: So, the development team obviously have had a big hand in it, but the players themselves are the ones that have had the greatest impact on the meta with how they use Legends, in some cases in ways that were not predicted. It’s in how the players use the Legends that changes the meta and creates the realization that certain Legends need their power increased or decreased over time. I have enjoyed the ALGS in its entirety through all of its meta. It was incredibly exciting when everyone was using the same three Legends, as repetitive as it was. I know there are a lot of players and viewers who think back fondly to that time. I’ve even seen community tournaments that have been throwbacks to that Legend meta.
But it’s also been really exciting to see the diversity of Legends that has taken off since that time. I believe 12 different Legends were used across the EMEA Pro League last weekend. A stark difference and I’m excited to continue seeing that diversity. I’m sure also for viewers at home that have their own “main Legends,” seeing players in the Pro League using them and giving them a level of skill to aspire to or even opportunities to learn from the pros and incorporate what they see into their own play at home.
Hotspawn: Speaking on how Legends bring different things to teams, different maps also allow for different Legends and playstyles to be successful. For a year now and moving forward into the ALGS Split, we’ve seen a lock on Worlds Edge being the only map played. While it is a very beloved map and a favorite of many, what are the plans on handling map rotation moving forward? Will new maps have test time for pro play and eventually a chance in the sun? How would you determine which maps would qualify for this eventual rotation?
John Nelson: In terms of determining what maps are in ALGS, player feedback plays a really big part in that. We want to make sure that the ALGS community is satisfied with the number and the specific maps that are a part of the professional map rotation. It’s a goal of ours to branch out beyond World’s Edge in the future and we’re working to see that happen. However, I can’t share the specific details as to when there will be more maps in the ALGS.
Hotspawn: Moving into questions about how the ALGS itself operates, what were the biggest challenges of last year due to the sudden global pandemic and the shift to online play?
John Nelson: I’d imagine that this is a story that many have heard or told over the past year and a half. Specifically for the ALGS, we announced an ecosystem that would have at least 12 live events, and the first of which was meant to be in March of 2020. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to hold a live event for ALGS yet. It was a significant challenge to reorganize an ecosystem that was built so heavily around live events.
I can’t be more thrilled with how we’ve ended up. How we’ve ascended into the upper echelon of esports despite not having a live event. Everything that we were able to do in terms of record-setting viewership in Year One of the ALGS, having more than 180 thousand AMA (average minute audience) during the championship back in June. Everyone in and out of esports has had a lot of trials and tribulations when it comes to COVID, but despite all the challenges that it brought, I’m proud of where we are.
Hotspawn: One of the things we did see during that time was that a lot of organizations and players came and went, citing things like not being able to sustain themselves in that environment, players needing to move on to find more opportunities. With the rise back up and the success that ALGS found in the end, how to you plan on continuing to incentivize orgs and players to flock to Apex and stay in Apex for a long time to come?
John Nelson: I think that incentivizing interest in Apex Legends is something that comes from both the studio as well as my team. We are going to continue to grow this esport over time, we’re going to eventually return to live events when conditions allow. The Pro League format that we have, the addition of crossplay, we will continue to bring a lot of interesting aspects to our esports that will continue to foster its growth which should, in turn, make it more and more attractive to esports teams.
The other side of this is the game itself which continues to grow and grow. Earlier this year, we surpassed 100 million players worldwide. With every season launch, the game is growing bigger and bigger. I believe that it was number five overall on Twitch in terms of viewership in August. The game is attractive to players, viewers, influences, and esports professionals alike. I’m really excited about the team growth when it comes to Apex Legends.
Hotspawn: What is your vision for Apex Esports and the ALGS moving forward? What is your end goal for this esports league that you and your team are building?
John Nelson: The end goal is to reach the full potential of the esport. I don’t put limits on the potential growth of Apex Legends esports. We’ve risen to tier one status within the industry and there is no reason why Apex esports can’t be the biggest in the world.
Speaking to the current Year Two ALGS format, we’ve launched a Pro League and the Challenger Circuit. It was important for us to have a healthy ecosystem from amateur to professional play. We’ve been very encouraged by the amount of participation we’ve had through the Pre-Season Qualifiers and the registration that we’ve had for the first weekend of Challenger Circuit. In the future, we plan to create an ecosystem that allows for continued growth at a professional level, but also creates a space for aspiring pros and players who just enjoy competing to have a place to do just that.
Hotspawn: While the Apex Legends esports scene has grown, the general player base is still very casual skewed. What are ways that you plan on incentivizing fans on staying with Apex esports? How do you plan on giving more exposure to the professional scene and bringing more players to learn about it?
John Nelson: You’ll see this in our broadcast come Year Two, but we’re really committed to making stars out of our players. There are incredible players across the world within the ALGS and one of the things that was difficult in an online only Year One was showcasing these players to viewers. We didn’t have the opportunities to be physically in the room with them. Recognizing these incredible players, where they came from, how they got here, and what makes them the best of the best is something that you will see a lot of from us.
One of the things that I wanted to speak to briefly was the global nature of this esport. It’s incredibly exciting that we have so many teams and players across the world that compete at such a high level. When we are able to return to live events, we’ll have players there from Japan, Thailand, the United States, Russia, the U.K., Sweden, Brazil. To have all of these players who have a shot at being the best in the world coming from everywhere and competing against each other is a really special thing that not every esport has.
Hotspawn: Yeah, one thing that every Apex pro gets asked on their streams is “What was your favorite moment competing in Apex?” Many of them will say “Oh, Poland (Pre-Season Invitational LAN) for sure.” When LAN does roll around again, I’m sure they’ll be very excited to meet all of their friends and rivals.
Hotspawn: Lastly, what would you say to the fans of Apex Legends esports, both players and viewers alike, about why they should continue their investment in Apex?
John Nelson: We are just getting started. It’s been an incredible ride with the momentum that we’ve seen throughout 2021. Everyone has come out and shown their support of the players, the esport, and of us. And we haven’t even gotten back to LAN yet. When we do get back and crown an ALGS champion at LAN in July of next year, these will be incredible moments. There is so much that my team and the folks at Respawn are working on. We are just getting started.
The ALGS Pro League continues with Week 4 of Split 1 on November 19th.