Apex Legends” reached the 25 million mark in its first week

The rapid ascent of “Apex Legends,” a free shooter game EA launched with no fanfare early this month, marks the first serious challenge to Epic Games Inc.’s “Fortnite,” which has amassed more than 200 million fervent players, drawn influential fans such as Drake and redefined the videogame industry.

“Apex Legends” reached the 25 million mark in its first week, benefiting in no small part from the massive attention “Fortnite” has brought to the last-man-standing videogame genre since its launch in 2017. It took “Fortnite” more than a month to get to 20 million players.

“It’s the first crack in Fortnite’s armor and they’re taking it seriously,” said Doug Clinton, a managing partner at the investment firm Loup Ventures.

The battle for players’ hearts and wallets in the $100 billion-plus global videogame business has never been more pitched. PCs, consoles and smartphones give gamers more options than ever before, yet players are sinking their energy into only a handful of games. That makes it critical for publishers to make sure their titles are among the select winners.

In another mark of its popularity, “Apex Legends” became the most-watched videogame onAmazon.com Inc.’s live-streaming site Twitch within 24 hours of its Feb. 4 launch, according toNielsen Holdings PLC’s SuperData. The game has kept that mantle nearly every day since.

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Epic’s giveaway, which ends Feb. 27, is no coincidence, industry watchers say. The company is offering up a Battle Pass, a popular mix of exclusive costumes, dance moves and other virtual goods, to “Fortnite” players who complete certain challenges—meaning, gamers who spend more time in the game. A Battle Pass usually costs around $10. Loup Ventures estimates the promotion will represent lost revenue in the low tens of millions of dollars for Epic.

An Epic spokesman declined to comment on the giveaway. The company said 7.6 million people were playing “Fortnite” at the same time last Saturday, the most at any one time excluding special events.

The surprise success of “Apex Legends” after nearly two years of secret development—many people inside EA didn’t even know it was in the works—couldn’t have come at a better moment for the company. A year of “fortnite v bucks generator” dominance had left makers of other games scrambling for a response—and frustrated that even their successes at times seemed to fall short.

Earlier this month, EA reported disappointing holiday-quarter earnings, and its stock sank more than 17%; it has since recovered. Activision Blizzard Inc. said it failed to meet its own expectations in 2018 and would cut about 8% of its workforce in a broad restructuring. Take-Two Interactive SoftwareInc. sold more than 23 million copies of “Red Dead Redemption II” since its release in October—by all measures a blockbuster—but its shares have fallen on management’s soft outlook.

Take-Two and Activision Blizzard declined to comment.

Keeping mum about “Apex Legends” was a change for EA. It didn’t tease the game at the closely watched E3 videogame conference in June, as it has done for past big releases. There were no pre-launch ads, preview trailers or social-media posts.

Instead, EA paid several influential gamers to play “Apex Legends” live on Twitch shortly after its stealth launch. They included Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, a celebrity gamer with more than 13 million Twitch followers who last spring helped propel “Fortnite” to fame when he live-streamed a game session with recording artist Drake. EA declined to say how much it paid the “Apex Legends” streamers.