Apex Fish in a Small Pond

Like a LOT of people recently, I’ve been playing the new battle royale, free-to-play shooter, Apex Legends. Since I am compelled by an ancient curse to ponder the psychology related to every game I play, I’ve also been thinking about how various psychological principles come into play with this game. Let’s review one of them.

Apex Legends forces you to group up with other players into a three-person squad and compete against 19 other groups of the same size. One of the things that caught my eye pretty much after my first match ended prematurely was this screen:

The “Squad Eliminated” screen from Apex Legends

It made me think of a phenomenon in psychology called the “big fish, little pond effect.” The gist is that those who are ranked at the top of a poorly performing group tend to feel better about their performance relative to those ranked near the bottom of a highly performing group. You’d rather be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big one.

I wrote about this extensively in my book Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games (now available in paperback, dontchaknow?). Here’s an excerpt that’s relevant to Apex Legend’s the big fish, little pond:

Ethan Zell and his colleagues Mark Alicke and Dorian Bloom at Ohio University provided additional proof of this anecdote in a study where they split groups of 10 college students into 2 teams of 5 people each.1 The researchers then kept both teams in the same room and asked everyone to watch a series of videotaped statements.

Some of the videos were of liars, they were told, and some were not. The liars and the honest speakers weren’t identified, of course; it would be the subjects’ job to tell them apart. Then, because psychologists are pathological liars themselves, the researchers’ subjects were given bogus feedback about their performance in this task, indicating that they were ranked 5th out of the 10 people in the room. So they knew their rank, but only as it related to all 10 participants and not to their own 5-person team. Students in one experimental condition, however, were given the additional information that they were the worst-performing member on their particular team of five.

The researchers found that relative to the people who were just told they were “5th out of 10” and given no feedback about their ranking in their own group, subjects had lower self-esteem when they knew they were ranked 5th in their 5-person team. This despite the fact that people in both groups were rated 5th out of 10 overall. The study showed that when people rate themselves, they think about how good they are in small groups, and they can easily be made to neglect considering how well they have done overall. The converse is also true: even if your group is terrible, you can feel kind of good about being at the top of it. And more importantly, you can more easily be motivated to keep trying until you get to the top, even if the group sizes are arbitrary.

Notice how the “Squad Eliminated” screen tells you how each person did on kills, damage, and survival time. If the big fish, little pond effect holds true, people who outperform their squadmates should feel better about their performance than someone who was in a squad that finished higher overall but who did worse than all their other squadmates.2

The game’s developer, Respawn, might capitalize on this a bit more by arranging squadmates from left to right in order of kills so that it’s clear who was 1st, 2nd, and 3rd within the squad. Or, if they’re feeling a lot more sneaky and a little more benign, they could show each player a different view of the screen with the same data, but ordered according to a metric (kills, survival time, revives, etc.) that put that player in the #1 spot if possible. So each player gets to feel like they were the big fish in their little pond.


1. Zell, E., & Alicke, M. D. (2010). The local dominance effect in self-evaluation: evidence and explanations. Personality and Social Psychology Review : An Official Journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc, 14(4), 368–84. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868310366144
2. I think we can all agree that everyone in the #1 winning squad are happy as clams, though, since that puts them in a category of its own. I wrote about this idea in the book as well.

2 thoughts on “Apex Fish in a Small Pond

  1. How is the big fish/small pond effect modified when the members of the (arbitrary) group – the fish in the pond – are encouraged to and rewarded for acting cooperatively as a team? This feels like it would present a different context than an arbitrary grouping of individuals who each acts independently and is ranked on performance metrics that are completely independent of any influence from the other members’ performances.

    Also, it seems important in the particular case of Apex Legends that the metrics used for comparison are equally meaningful across all members being compared (in this discussion, the three squad mates). Given the different abilities and gameplay strategies of the various legends, number of kills might understate the contributions of a healer to the squad’s performance, for example. While it’s always good to show concrete, tangible measures of performance, perhaps a rolled up “game score” that integrates scoring of various activities would allow for a more standardized comparison across squad mates (and other groupings of players). While not directly related to the big fish/little pond effect, it is relevant to a discussion of how to meaningfully compare player performances in a multi-faceted, team-based context.


    • Good points! I suspect the effect would occur even with a more coop team (like in Apex). The research I cited was, I think, a cooperative task.

      And yeah, the metrics would need to be meaningful across people regardless of their role. But number of kills in Apex Legends currently fits that bill, I think. Even Lifeline gets out there and shoots people before she heals or revives.

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