Under the handle PlayHard, São Paulo–based Bruno Bittencourt has amassed 13.3 million subscribers on YouTube. He started out seven years ago, gaining a modest fan base playing games like Clash of Clans and Clash Royale. He realized early on that he did not have the fast twitch muscles to be a professional gamer but could attract followers by doing strategy videos in Portuguese — an untapped market at the time.
He catered to his viewers, passionately cursing whenever he lost, so that they could experience the catharsis secondhand. He would make virtual unboxing videos of the various paid loot options that the games offered. Even so, by early 2018, his growth had slowed to a crawl, with videos garnering around 200,000 views and his subscriber count hovering around 3.5 million.
Then, on April 13, 2018, Bittencourt posted his first Free Fire video — part of an experiment in dabbling in the realm of battle royale games. It was rapturously titled “FREE FIRE! THE GAME THAT THE WHOLE WORLD IS PLAYING!” It got a million views in a day.
For those versed in the garish genre of battle royale video games, in which players parachute into virtual arenas and are tasked with murdering each other until only one remains, the mobile title Free Fire would seem, at best, derivative. It lacks the cartoon whimsy of Fortnite, the polished graphics of PUBG, and the calculated killing mechanics of Call of Duty: Warzone.
And yet, since the Singaporean developer Garena launched Free Fire in 2017, it has become a global phenomenon and the most downloaded mobile game in the world in 2019 and 2020, thanks to its low-end smartphone-friendly design.
This demand is not driven by only Garena’s homebase of Southeast Asia; Brazil is one of the top countries in terms of both monthly active users and revenue. Through a conscious effort of joystick diplomacy, Garena has managed to conquer the country, one of the world’s top gaming markets, with almost 100 million active players and $2.8 billion in annual consumer spending.
For Sea, Garena’s parent company, Free Fire is the beachhead. Just over a year after launching the battle royale title, the conglomerate set its eye on conquering the Brazilian e-commerce market. So, in late 2019, Sea launched Shopee — an e-commerce app that was already taking over Southeast Asia — in Brazil.
The app shared similarities with Free Fire, filled with mindless minigames, with the key difference being that they came with real-life rewards that could be redeemed in the app. Still, Shopee’s entry was met with skepticism by e-commerce analysts, with the platform competing against a roster of competitors that included regional heavy hitters such as MercadoLibre and Magazine Luiza, as well as Amazon. But, just like Free Fire, Shopee thrived, taking just two years to become Brazil’s most downloaded shopping app.
Free Fire and Shopee were both successes for Sea for the same underlying reason: they emphasized accessibility, mobile-first apps, and above all else, adapting to local audiences. While most tech companies try to prosper in their home countries and maybe their neighbors’, Sea has managed to launch hit apps in countries many time zones and language groups away. In the process, it changed Brazil’s relationship with gaming.
After dabbling with Free Fire, Bittencourt’s subscriber growth went from linear to exponential, almost doubling by his debut of Free in April 2018 to the end of year, as he began to focus almost exclusively on the mobile title.
The other battle royale videos did well, but something was special about Free Fire. Other games were targeted for consoles, or at least needed expensive smartphones to run their sophisticated graphics. “When I promoted the [other] games to my audience, I noticed they were like, Okay, my phone doesn’t have enough space,” Bittencourt told Rest of World.
“They were able to play Free Fire on a hundred-buck phone,” he said. “That’s why the game got so popular.”
With PUBG or Fortnite, all his followers could do was watch his videos. Free Fire was not only designed to be mobile-first but to be played on lower-end phones. The graphics weren’t as good and the maps were smaller, but it was accessible. It even had voice chat functionality built in.
It was not a coincidence. Garena had the resources to build a massive AAA game, with revenue topping $4 billion in 2020, but it decided to create one that addressed middle-income countries like Thailand, India, and Brazil.
Brazil is particularly important to Sea because, outside of Southeast Asia, it is the company’s main international testing ground. In India, for example, Sea is still in an earlier phase, with Free Fire sitting in the number two spot for free games, and Shopee still preparing for its launch.
After starting out in 2014, Bittencourt had previously worked directly with Supercell, a Finnish gaming studio, and Tencent, a Chinese studio, to make sponsored videos. Garena was different. Free Fire became so popular because its developers built a full ecosystem around it, from e-sports tournaments to streaming platforms to fantasy companion apps. Its game specifically catered to a Brazilian audience.
Just a few months after Garena’s December 2017 entry into Brazil, it noticed the game gaining traction. The company reached out to creators, including Bittencourt. Two main producers for the game contacted Bittencourt directly, to discuss creating content and business opportunities for his channel.
Soon after, fans could find his strategy videos on YouTube and also watch streams of pro gamers play in tournaments in the LBFF, or Liga Brasileira de Free Fire, which officially launched in early 2020.
From favelas to wealthy neighborhoods, they could also play Free Fire on their phones and aspire to become influencers and professional gamers themselves. Bittencourt himself went on to found the gaming company Loud, which manages everything from esports teams to lifestyle brands and continues to work closely with Garena.
All across the world, Garena was deploying a similar strategy. “Free Fire has an ambassador as a character from every large market they’re in, from Brazil, Vietnam, India, Philippines, Thailand,” Matthew Ho, co-founder of Loud, told Rest of World, “to make sure that they are making every market feel like home.”
In Brazil, Garena launched the homegrown DJ phenom Alok as a playable character on Free Fire and invited the pop megastar Anitta to play the game on its own proprietary streaming service, Booyah.
“You can become your idol,” Ho told Rest of World. “And you can take that idol along the storyline — your journey — across Free Fire.”
This year, Garena even inked a deal to become the official sponsor for Brazil’s national football teams — fitting, considering its meteoric popularity in the country.
The market exploded. Through in-app purchases, such as skins for new characters, Free Fire became the highest grossing mobile game in all of Latin America, driven by its success in the region’s largest market. Ho estimates that Free Fire caused the gaming population in Brazil to experience a tenfold increase, based on how many people began tuning in to esports events.
“Free Fire changed the culture of gaming in Brazil,” Bittencourt said.
Free Fire was Sea’s first descent into Brazil, gliding into the country like its cartoon avatars. With Shopee, the Singaporean conglomerate is charging the battle area.
Shopee may not be a mobile game, but gamification is central to its appeal. Unlike the comparatively minimalist interfaces of MercadoLibre and Amazon, Shopee’s home screen is a frenzied display of bells and whistles. It features minigames ranging from a “spin the wheel” lottery to a Tamagotchi knockoff, where users care for virtual pets. Each of them comes with prizes that equate to real-world — albeit nominally material — currency in the app.
Both apps tap into a national obsession. “Brazilians are addicted to these smartphone games,” said Thiago Macruz, the Brazilian head of research for the financial services company Itaú. And in Shopee, “they found one that actually gives you money.”
Free Fire’s developer, Garena, is an entirely separate entity from Shopee, even though they have the same parent company, Sea. The profitable Free Fire does help subsidize Shopee’s global operations, which are still in cash-burn mode. The two products share common DNA beyond just gamification, including an emphasis on a mobile-first app — over 90% of its orders are placed via smartphones.
“The rapid rise of mobile internet penetration in many markets over the last few years has brought more people into the digital economy and unlocked a wave of transformation and opportunity,” Santitarn Sathirathai, Sea’s chief economist, told Rest of World. “Each of our businesses is built on a commitment to helping more people to benefit from these opportunities.”
Like Free Fire, Shopee also has social functions, including a chat where buyers can communicate directly with sellers before making any purchases. In Southeast Asia, Shopee has livestreaming as well, which could make its way to Brazil soon.
According to Macruz, Shopee has managed to carve out a niche in Brazil by selling low-ticket items with free shipping. The low cost of both products and shipping was designed to appeal to a market still warming to e-commerce. That, combined with the minigames, means that people want to open the app on a daily basis, precluding the need to rely on marketing channels like Facebook or Google Ads.
“Suddenly a company was linking leisure — playing games — with eventually buying stuff [for] cheaper,” Macruz told Rest of World. “That made Shopee go from nonexistent to being installed in one-fourth of the smartphones in Brazil.”
Free Fire in this sense is just another marketing channel. Shopee sponsors Free Fire tournaments, including for the LBFF. Sea “can advertise freely across these platforms for Shopee and really drive that integration for the end users themselves,” said Loud’s Matthew Ho. “[Players] can be purchasing skins inside Free Fire and then watching a stream, and all of a sudden purchasing a microwave.”
Free Fire is not directly responsible for an increase of traffic referrals to Shopee, as the app’s growth has been largely organic. Even so, the two companies together represent a new kind of interactive ecosystem that combines entertainment, gaming, and e-commerce. Somewhere, Mark Zuckerberg is beaming.
Ho argues that Free Fire primed Brazil for a gamified e-commerce app like Shopee. “Wherever Free Fire goes … it’s not necessarily a green light that Shopee is going to expand to that market, but it gives them everything they need,” he told Rest of World. “It becomes their localization and infrastructure.”
Macruz believes that with Shopee’s injection of gamification, other e-commerce platforms in Latin American will begin to introduce it as well.
Ho was less sparing in his assessment. “Gamification is going to be [used] across every single product for the foreseeable future,” he told Rest of World.