Six years of PUBG – celebrating Erangel, the most important map of the decade

PUBG - Deston map promotional image
(Image credit: Krafton)

From spawn, you can see Stalber’s peak. On that tiny island you mill about, intermittently being punched in the face by girls in dinosaur costumes and run over by McLarens, or leg it immediately and dive into the sea to escape the former, or head to the plane wreckage to pull off a very particular jump from the plane wing into the sea. Everyone has their ritual here.

And then you’re off. Sharing a plane with 99 people who intend to kill you, dropping a waypoint on the map where you’ll parachute down to, sprint into the nearest building, and begin arming yourself. Even if you’ve placed that waypoint on School (once the pinnacle of high-end loot) every match since March 2017 when PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds hit Steam Early Access, what happened in the subsequent minutes would have been different every time.

That’s the thing about Erangel: it’s so familiar, but you always find yourself in a new situation every time you visit. It even felt familiar by December 2017 when the Early Access phase concluded and the game hit 1.0. 2017 was the year of the battle royale, and this game and its hastily repositioned progeny Fortnite were all anybody talked about.

We’d all had hundreds of matches of PUBG before we got the Christmas lights out that year, and Erangel was the only official map until Miramar joined it in 2018. We’d googled ‘best PUBG drop locations’ in our millions, and quickly sussed that Sosnovka Military Base was the apex landing destination. Or was it Hospital? Nah, definitely Prison. Not School, though – only absolute psychopaths start the match there.

The first days

best crossplay games: four soldiers are running towards a target off-screen, one of them vaulting over a car

(Image credit: Team PUBG)

Seriously, I don’t think I even set foot in School for the first three months of PUBG’s Early Access phase. The stories about that place were enough to dissuade me from ever dropping there. I’d hear the gunfire, of course, from the unnamed and nondescript houses where I chose to drop instead, and I’d see that seven people were dead already, before I’d even slipped a Level 1 Backpack over my shoulders. 

By the time I’d tooled up and was in any kind of position to venture nearer to it, the gunfire would have died down, the massacre now over, only wooden boxes that marked fallen adversaries remaining. School gave me the willies. 

There were a lot of old wives’ tales circulating during that first six months or so on Erangel. Bridges, so they said, were the deadliest places on the map. People camped there, ready to shoot out your tires and ambush you, because they knew you’d have to cross that bridge to avoid the damaging blue zone.

That psychological cat-and-mouse play really typified Erangel life in the early days.

Do you know how many times that’s happened to me in PUBG over the last six years? Zero. Not once. Bridges are, statistically (probably) the absolute safest places to be on the entire map. Why? Because everyone avoids them like Covid-soaked charity fundraisers due to those early myths about the ambushes. It simply became de rigeur to swim across any body of water when the playzone dictated it, so anyone employing the bridge ambush technique got terribly bored and stopped doing it. That meant we could all start driving over bridges again. 

That psychological cat-and-mouse play really typified Erangel life in the early days. Catching sight of an open door was cause for a full-on existential crisis at one point:

The door’s open! That means someone’s been in that building. There’ll be no good loot left in there, and oh god maybe they’re still in there! Maybe they can see me right now out of one of the windows! But hang on, why would they leave the door open like that? Unless they wanted me to think someone had gone inside, when in fact they hadn’t at all… There’s probably some great loot in there that nobody’s thought to go in and look for. Unless that’s what the people inside the building want me to think, and that’s why they left the door open!

Dies of decision paralysis outside play zone.

Hunker down

PUBG screenshot - Deston map

(Image credit: Krafton)

Everyone has a spot on Erangel’s map that holds particular significance, too. It’s the place you and your mates bunkered down during… The Game. The exact events of The Game differ from player to player. It might be the hills west of Lipovka where you watched a lone team-mate secure your squad’s first-ever Chicken Dinner. For some people it’s the sharp descent just west of Prison where they pulled off an absolutely sick stunt on a motorbike and then landed ON another player, like right on them, killing them before they even realised. 

Speaking personally, the site of The Game for me and my mates is a cluster of farmhouses on the west coast, roughly level with Gatka. It was one of the first matches we’d all played together and we decided to hunker down upstairs in one of the houses. We all had decent guns and scopes, the zone was on our side, so we each took a window and just… sat and waited. It was a glorious feeling, sharing that space together, chatting about nothing in particular, each keeping vigil on a different angle. In that moment, I realised that Erangel was a hangout space, not just a multiplayer map. 

Rob spotted an enemy squad out of his window. We all snapped into action, throwing grenades at nothing, running about in a panic, broadcasting our location to all and sundry. But this was 2017: the standard of play was lower than the game of FIFA you let your 4-year-old cousin win every Christmas out of politeness. We shot and killed them all anyway, all four of them. 

But there was a new problem. Someone else nearby had heard all the commotion, and knew we were still up in the farmhouse. Now without any grenades and stuck up there, we reloaded and prepared for the next onslaught. I wish I could tell you we fought our way out and went on to secure a succulent poultry dish, but this is no fairy tale. They battered us. Smoke grenade. Frag grenade. Two of us down. A hail of AK-47 fire (remember when people used those?) left only Rob standing. Rob was never one to risk his neck to revive us then, and he hasn’t revised that stance in the intervening years.  

We could only watch as he exchanged 7.62 rounds with an assailant in all the smoke, and came out worse off. We hadn’t won; we hadn’t even placed as runners-up. But that farmhouse became something like a sacred place to me after that. It was the exact spot on Erangel where I realised battle royale games’ profound impact.

Never change


(Image credit: Krafton, Inc.)

You might argue that Fortnite did it all better. Epic’s brand of battle royale might have taken all its initial cues from Brendan Greene’s wildly successful mod-turned-standalone, but it also took it much further into different directions, and for some people that made it the superior place to meet up with friends. You’d chill in the Moisty Mire, practicing your builds, or lay low in the Wailing Woods without any aspirations of killing anyone. Fair enough. That was fun, too. 

Fortnite’s map has changed dramatically since 2017, the scars of its topography telling the story of the last six years. It’s gone on an epic journey, that place, and you can’t deny Fortnite’s forward-thinking approach – this is a place that’s hosted record-breaking virtual concerts and fashion collabs.

But Erangel – simple, dour, almost always overcast Erangel – is all the more valuable for having hardly changed at all in six years. Even as the world around us did, to a degree we never imagined possible, and when virtual hangouts were all we were allowed to do, it held steadfast, refusing to make anything but the most minor tweak to a particular doorway or the placement of a ditch. 

And that really adds to its cultural cache. We all hold special memories here, and even though it’s a location where we literally do nothing other than fight for our lives while strangers hunt us ruthlessly until none are left alive, it’s a strangely comforting island. Don’t go changing, Erangel.

Phil Iwaniuk

Ad creative by day, wandering mystic of 90s gaming folklore by moonlight, freelance contributor Phil started writing about games during the late Byzantine Empire era. Since then he’s picked up bylines for The Guardian, Rolling Stone, IGN, USA Today, Eurogamer, PC Gamer, VG247, Edge, Gazetta Dello Sport, Computerbild, Rock Paper Shotgun, Official PlayStation Magazine, Official Xbox Magaine, CVG, Games Master, TrustedReviews, Green Man Gaming, and a few others but he doesn’t want to bore you with too many. Won a GMA once.