To promote their cheesy action flick The Old Guard, Netflix sponsored an all-female Apex tournament

This the The Final Circle, a newsletter for competitive Apex

A new Charlize Theron movie and competitive Apex made an unlikely pairing yesterday during The Old Guard Invitational, a female-only Apex tournament sponsored by Netflix, who are distributing the movie.

The format was a kill race in public matches that took the top 4 highest-kill games over a set time. Team Bliss, fielded by Apex commentator and streamer Ninjayla, aspiring pro Mulvana, and variety streamer BlissKai dominated the competition, with almost double the score of the second place team.

While it wasn’t much of a struggle for the winning team, The Old Guard Invitational was fascinating for much more than the Apex action on display. In many ways it functioned as a testing ground for some underused concepts that could substantially improve the health of the Apex scene.

The possiblilty of bringing corporate sponsorship to broader competitive Apex is interesting on its own. As bigger games like League of Legends get in-game ad banners, I’ve been wondering about the giant banners that cover Kings Canyon and World’s Edge. This is fruitful virtual space for advertisers to use, as ESPN’s Arda Öcal pointed out on Twitter the other day, making the comparison to hockey’s use of board space for ads. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see both more sponsored tournaments in the future, as well as creative use of in-game space to promote products.

While in-game banners bring additional revenue to the scene, sponsored tournaments like this Netflix one can also bring in new viewers, both from the audiences of variety streamers, or just randoms—I don’t know how the guy below got here, for instance, but he seems hyped.

Another rarely-seen aspect of the ‘tournament’—though it was more of a promotional event, really—was the prize pool. There was none. Ninjayla suggested on her stream that the winning team would get some props from the movie, but since these streams were marked with the FCC-friendly hashtag, #sponsored, I assume all participants were paid directly for their time. While the lack of transparency is frustrating, it’s refreshing to see all players in an event get paid, as in, receive compensation for their labor promoting billion-dollar companies, regardless of how they do performance-wise. EA, with a tidy $3 billion in 2020 profit, could afford to pay top Apex teams for their time—but they don’t.

At the same time, the money coming from Netflix was heavy-handed, leading to some seriously awkward sponsored content moments.

As an ad popped up on the Netflix Twitch account after the end of the tournament, Ninjayla instinctively complained “Crap, we gotta watch an ad,” and muted it. Realizing it was for the movie the tournament was promoting, she quickly unmuted the ad and praised it: “I do love ads…oh wait, it’s a Netflix ad. That’s so dope.”

When Ninjayla switched to the official competitive channel on the Netflix Twitch account, commentators Pancakepow and GlitterXplosion were dicussing how appropriate the strong female leads of the movie were for our cultural moment. Later, in a post-tournament interview, GlitterXplosion asked the streamer Bnans if she would tell her friends and family if she had died and then come back to life, like the characters in the movie do.

“Now that we’re on this topic, how would you feel being immortal?” asked Pancakepow, as a follow-up.

While these breaks from commentary to provide ad space are common in professional sports broadcasts now, they felt frequent and disruptive here. Interviews were peppered with references to the movie, and each interviewee, asked whether they had anything else to say, inevitably said how great the movie was. There also seemed to be required practice hours for the tournament, with associated social media endorsements.

These incredibly cringe moments might be the price Apex viewers have to pay if we want higher pay for players and higher viewership numbers. Expanding beyond the base of hardcore fans is crucial and these kind of events, with any luck, reach outside that core audience.

Finally, with almost comforting regularity, the official Apex twitch account kept up its cash donations to anointed streamers, this time to a player in the Netflix tournament.