Respawn testing improvements to ranked Apex matches

Netcode and region locks may help, but do they solve the real issue?

Image via Respawn Entertainment

At the highest levels of Apex Legends’ ranked mode, players playing on servers outside of their region is a long-argued debate. Now, Respawn Entertainment seems intent on making sure no one in the game’s highest levels can gain an unfair advantage due to high ping.

The developer announced today that it is working on improving the game’s netcode and testing region lock to guarantee competitive integrity at the highest ranked tiers.

In the past, several players who have achieved the game’s rank one Apex Predator position have been accused of gaining an advantage over other players by playing on servers in regions considered “weaker” by the majority of the player base. More recently, however, several top players have voiced their displeasure at constantly fighting players from other regions who have very high ping to the server. Such high ping can cause these players to lag and teleport in the middle of a fight. And while those players with high ping also have to deal with the same visual stutters in their gameplay, it can make fights feel like they come down to random chance as opposed to skill. And, most importantly, it just doesn’t feel very good to play against.

The reasons players choose to play on servers far from their own regions are many, but one large reason is still cheating. Several regions, most notably in Asia, are known to be full of cheaters, so much so that players from those regions often seek to play on European or North American servers simply to find lobbies with less cheaters. 

Respawn also addressed this aspect of the non-native server issue, acknowledging that many players aren’t looking for a competitive advantage at all, but rather a fair game. And the fact that Respawn is seeking to improve the netcode of the game to make playing against players on high ping more fair should be encouraging for those players in regions where cheating is rampant.

Online games and netcode have been widely discussed over the last year, especially as many gaming competitions were forced to move tournaments that would be held in-person to online formats. One solution fans of Apex might be familiar with is rollback netcode. Rollback is widely-used in fighting games, as it predicts upcoming action to reduce input lag. If the predictions end up incorrect, the game actively “rolls back” the game state to adjust. The overall effect is that players on high ping don’t appear to stutter and lag across the screen. Notably, the 2021 Esports Awards awarded a Panel’s Choice award to Fizzi for implementing rollback netcode in Super Smash Bros. Melee and the massive impact rollback had on Melee’s popularity.

It’s unclear whether rollback is feasible for a game as big as Apex Legends, which features up to 60 players all sending inputs to a server. But it is encouraging to see Respawn taking a look at the game’s netcode, which needs improvement if players are allowed to continue playing outside of their regions at the higher levels of the game. If not, region lock might be the only answer to high-ping players. 

Forcing players to play on cheater-infested servers feels almost worse, however, and brings the conversation yet again to cheating in Apex, and how best the devs can stamp it out. Respawn has announced several rounds of large bans this year, as well as advertised jobs to help Conor “Hideouts” Ford, who has historically been responsible for most of the manual bans in the game.

Cheating and exploiting remains a problem, however, and one that is integral to the question of how best to help players that want to play a fair and competitive game. Does Respawn simply move forward with region lock at the game’s highest levels and risk alienating their player bases in regions that see the bulk of the cheating that occurs in the game? Can the studio fix the cheating problem the game still sees to the point where the amount of players that play on non-native servers goes back down to a manageable level? Or can they improve the game’s netcode to the point where ping isn’t so much of an issue, a solution which might also carry benefits to the game’s overall feel and the integrity of online pro play?

The fact that Respawn is looking into all this is positive, yes. But the issues with high ping players are inherently tangled up in other problems facing the game, and if the studio’s solution isn’t comprehensive, it likely will only help a very small number of players.