The Battleborn Die-hards Staring Down Extinction

Mourning the end of FPS, hobby-grade coop campaign, genre-blended, multi-mode competitive e-sports, meta-growth, choice plus epic heroes.

Robin Kiss saw the message from his friend in Playstation Network chat: a link to the Gearbox forums. He followed the link and read the news on the other end. A game he had played religiously when it came out, Battleborn, was shutting its servers down and would become unplayable.

Not many people took notice. There were only a few comments in the forum from the players who had lingered—a max concurrent player count on PC of just 38 in the month prior to the announcement, according to Steam Charts data.

The official statement, released on November 25th, 2019, announced that in January 2021 the game’s servers would be deactivated, rendering it unplayable and leaving its remaining players locked out of a world that they had come to love.

The fallout

“It wasn’t all together unexpected,” Kiss said. “It was quite obvious ever since the beginning that the player base was dwindling. The game did not seem sustainable, but that did not stop me from investing my time.”

Kiss wasn’t the only remaining Battleborn player to share this sentiment. The game’s impending demise did not come as a shock to many of them, but it was a letdown for a game they thought could be great.

“I am disappointed,” said Sam Lichtman, a self-proclaimed “Gearbox stan” and Battleborn player since the beta. “Battleborn had great bones. I think all of Gearbox’s games have great bones. It had great structure, great combat, but there were just things that they never got right.”

Battleborn was released on May 3rd, 2016, advertised as a first-person hero shooter with MOBA elements. It came out to mixed reviews and had a slew of issues including its learning curve and lack of help for new players.

Kiss and Lichtman both reiterated that for those who don’t remember, Battleborn was the first game to have this first-person, multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) style of gameplay.

Unfortunately for Gearbox, it was also later outshined by Blizzard’s Overwatch, which featured some significant genre overlap with Battleborn and released only three weeks later.

“Shutting down in 2021, it [will] only [have been] online for five years,” said Tyrell Sargent, a player with 160 hours in Battleborn. “So, having a game only active for five years is pretty disappointing.”

Regret and disappointment weren’t the only emotions players expressed. Many were angry about spending money on a game they would never play again. One such player was Anthony Waymen, a Twitch streamer who, until recently, consistently played Battleborn for his viewers.

“It stinks that you pay for something and you can’t even use it anymore,” Waymen said. “I think in anything you may buy, like a car or something, anything that you pay for and you expect to work, and [Battleborn]’s not, so it sucks.”

Lichtman also didn’t shy away from his disdain for buying what has now become a dud of a product. “I think my first reaction was that I guess I don’t own a game that I paid lots of money for,” he said. “I am no idiot, I am fully aware that with online-only games, you are paying for a service that they promised to be there.” Several of these diehard Battleborn fans even bought the game multiple times to try and boost numbers and get more players involved.

The emotion that players kept referencing, though, was sadness. Many, like Kiss, saw this coming and were prepared, but losing something you care about is never easy.

“I said, ‘If the game is gonna shut down, then it is gonna shut down. I got my money’s worth, I’ve got my time’s worth,’” Kiss said. “My time on this game has been great, but it is still just a little depressing to think about it.”

Continuing to play

For most gamers, Battleborn shutting down its servers isn’t really a big deal. When the shutdown announcement came, Steam Charts data showed it had been 18 months since more than 100 players had logged on at the same time on PC. Based on anecdotal evidence, the situation on consoles wasn’t much different.

But for the few dozen holdouts, there were a multitude of reasons to still be playing Battleborn. For Twitch streamer Waymen, he just had lots of fun in the game, loves MOBAs, and his friends were playing, too.

Battleborn is a game with customization for and several builds for each hero. Kiss mained one hero in particular, the stealthy assassin and rebellion leader Deande, and learned the character so well that he had done statistical breakdowns for her and posted them to the Gearbox forums. The breakdowns would be used to help players who were new on the forums understand what the best overall version of the character was. Kiss spent hours comparing builds to do this.

Lichtman loved the characters and the humor. Battleborn also fit his lifestyle well. “Gearbox has great writers. They have funny lines and all of their one offs,” he said. “They are 30 characters all with a distinct personality, all with different combat styles. It was also that, if I want to play for five minutes or I want to play for three hours, there are modes that work for that.”

While an afterthought for many, the single player and co-op missions were what kept players like Tyrell Sargent and Pete Johnson coming back for more.

Of the 160 hours that Sargent played Battleborn, 140 of them were in single player. “I absolutely loved those story missions and the dialogue always made me laugh,” he said. “So this summer, I went to the local game store and they had Battleborn for $8, so I spent 16 bucks and bought my two friends copies and played through the story with them.”

Johnson, a fan of couch co-op with his family, loved Battleborn because he felt it filled a gap that console was having with MOBA-style games. It also allowed him the chance to play a game with his wife or family when they had the chance.

Being a general supporter of anything co-op, Johnson ended up buying six copies of Battleborn to try and get others involved and playing.

Unfortunately for Sargent and Johnson, Battleborn is a game that is always online—even if you are only playing single-player. Gearbox hasn’t announced any plans to update the game to remedy this issue, and an official FAQ stated that “once the servers are offline in January 2021, Battleborn won’t be playable in any way.”

Sargent was well aware of this fact. “I am not holding my breath that they will make story-missions available offline,” he said.

Credit: Activision Blizzard

Why Battleborn failed

The reasons each player had for why Battleborn failed were similar in a multitude of ways. The game was too hard for people to learn, it didn’t have much of a player base to begin with, it got old quickly, and the matchmaking services either took way too long or didn’t work all together.

Even through all of those complaints, one main reason came up over and over: Overwatch.

Overwatch released on May 24th, 2016, just three weeks after Battleborn, to an outstanding reception and a large, rapidly growing playerbase.

“[Gearbox] released things too early and there were bugs and problems all over the place and they never got ahead of it and ended up getting smacked by Overwatch,” Lichtman said.

Battleborn (2K Games) on the left, Overwatch (Activision Blizzard) on the right.

Not all players blame Overwatch’s success for Battleborn’s failure. Kiss thinks pointing to Overwatch as the main culprit is a “convenient answer.” He blames Gearbox. From the beginning, Kiss thought Battleborn wasn’t marketed well enough. The word didn’t really get out. 

On an October 2019 podcast, Battleborn’s creative director Randy Varnell said that, based on rumored figures, Blizzard spent more money just on marketing for Overwatch than Gearbox spent on the entire development of Battleborn.

Gearbox was also working on the next big game in its extremely popular Borderlands franchise when Battleborn was released. As an online game, players expected updates and changes to Battleborn, but some felt Gearbox was too busy with Borderlands.

Lichtman said he definitely saw a correlation between the release of Borderlands 3 and the reasons for the announcement that Battleborn was dying.

“When Borderlands 3 released their first big patch the Battleborn servers were down for two or three weeks,” Lichtman said. “It was not a coincidence. I filed a ticket with 2K and they were like, ‘Is your internet down?’ I said, ‘No, this is not a coincidence.’ Then when they released their second patch, the game went down again and then like two days after that, they were just like, ‘Yeah, we are just going to shut down the game.’”

Being part of a dying community

Having a video game community fade from existence isn’t exactly new. There have been plenty of online worlds that have died out leaving their players abandoned. The remaining few of the Battleborn community have handled it differently.

Waymen has never been part of a community like this, where the people who really love it stick around even though the end is nigh and the writing is on the wall. Despite the odds, he said he’s holding out hope for the future of the franchise.

“I don’t think they are going to give up on it entirely,” Waymen said. “I am hopeful they are going to have another Battleborn, even though some people would think I am crazy. I am hopeful.”

Lichtman mentioned the 10- to 12-person groups that would get together to play Battleborn together in private matches since the matchmaking was so poor. He also said that people had been trying to save this game for a long time.

“Someone posted on the forum like a year and a half ago and someone was like this game is not dead and this is how to fix it. People were trying to gather all the players,” he said. “There was like Battleborn Day, and it was fun to do those things.”

He felt the sense of community that was still there especially strong when 2K announced the ending of Battleborn.

“When they made the announcement on the forums and everyone came back and was posting, there were a lot of people who were posting that hadn’t posted in six months or three years,” Lichtman said. “It was like a five-year high school reunion type of thing. It was nice seeing those names and reminiscing.”

Kiss was sad he would never be able to return to a world that brought him so much joy and where he met so many new friends. “To think about never being able to come back to this place where I’ve met hundreds of people. People I have later met in real life,” he said. “I have made montages of some of my favorite moments with some of my friends and they have them stashed on YouTube. Like a photograph to go back and witness what happened to hold those memories close, but it is not the same thing as having the actual property that I paid $60 for back in 2016. It is depressing and it sucks.”

Sending off Battleborn with words to Gearbox from the fans

Through 2K PR, Gearbox declined to answer any questions or provide comment for this story, instead directing me to the original November 25th statement when the studio announced Battleborn would go offline. But the players I spoke with did want to send along a message to Gearbox: a thank you and a send off to the studio, to Battleborn, and to the characters they’ve come to love.

Although many of the players are upset and disappointed to see one of their favorite games go, they understood. A video game publisher and studio also need to make the best financial decisions to keep going.

Lichtman, Kiss and Waymen all voiced their understanding and told Gearbox to keep doing what is best for the company, but also not to give up on the property.

“Well first, I would thank them for taking the risks that they took. Not all of them paid off, but I think that they probably learned some valuable lessons in it. They just did things that were unconventional which I loved,” Lichtman said. “The second thing would be that this is a fantastic IP. Don’t just sit on it.”

Kiss just wants to see Battleborn return somewhere else because of his love of the characters. 

“It doesn’t even need to be through another video game. I just want to know at the very least what happened at the end,” he said. “I would ideally love to see all of these characters at one point. My one thing I would love to say to Gearbox is do what you need to do from a financial standpoint but please do not give up on this IP. It can work, you just gotta do it a bit differently.”

All uncredited images: 2K Games

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