Fame and ‘Fortnite’ — inside the global gaming phenomenon
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At first, it seems like any other sporting event. Parents sip beer from clear plastic cups. Children eat overpriced soft pretzels and pizza, holding giant red styrofoam hands I recognise from baseball games.
But instead of a grassy field, today the Arthur Ashe stadium in Queens — best known for hosting tennis stars for the glitzy US Open — is anchored by a massive three-tier purple stage attached to the roof by cables. Tens of thousands of spectators are here to witness 200 players fight to the death on a virtual island. In reality, this translates to watching teenage boys — and they are all boys — pound their keyboards for roughly four hours. The last boy standing will be crowned a millionaire.
I am at the first-ever Fortnite World Cup. At this three-day, Disneyland-esque festival, the virtual monsters and online memes of Fortnite, the global gaming phenomenon, have been transposed into the real world. This is Woodstock for a generation raised on smartphones and iPads.
Fortnite is technically a video game, and one with a simple premise. At the start, players drop on to an island and shoot each other until only one person is left standing. Each match lasts about 20 minutes and slowly, the numbers whittle down. A storm approaches, making the map smaller and smaller. If you jump off the island you die. Antoine Griezmann, the French football star, said playing Fortnite makes him more stressed than professional football.
But Fortnite is so wildly popular that it’s become more than just a game: today it’s a social media platform in its own right, driving pop culture among teenagers — everything from clothing to dance crazes. It’s also at the forefront of esports, competitive online gaming that is attracting ever more sponsors to sell to ever bigger spectatorships. With more than 250m users across the globe, if it were a country Fortnite would be the fifth largest in the world. The Fortnite World Cup drew 2.3m concurrent viewers on YouTube and the streaming platform Twitch, according to Epic, the game’s developer.
The prize money for the competition is equally outsized. Wanting to create high stakes, Epic, backed by private equity group KKR and Chinese giant Tencent, shelled out $30m for prizes. The winner — Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf, a 16-year-old from Pottsgrove, Pennsylvania — walked away with $3m. That is almost six times more money than the cyclist who wins the Tour de France. It’s closer to the $3.8m taken home by the professional tennis champions of the US Open, which will be held at this same stadium later this month.
But on this July weekend, the stage belongs to Fortnite. I will spend the next 48 hours immersed in a world that, for all its cultish popularity, remains alien to most childless people over the age of 30.
In the stadium, huge screens project the players’ faces to the crowd, so the audience can watch them furrow their eyebrows and bite their lips in concentration. Unlike the dynamics of other sports, where athletic prowess is considerably higher than average, the players here look identical to fans in the audience: pubescent faces ridden with acne and braces. The sounds of combat are so thunderous that journalists are handed earplugs upon entry.
Next to the stage, commentators try to drum up the drama. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” they repeat breathlessly. The median age of golf fans is 64, for English Premier League football it is 43 and for esports it’s 25. Fortnite skews even younger, for both fans and participants: the average age of the players on stage is 16. Sunday’s second place winner, a 24-year-old LA native called Harrison Chang, said he was “representing the old dudes”.
Epic claims that it sold out the stadium, but the cavernous room is only about half full at any given moment. There are many children and parents in the crowd, with older audience members ranging from delighted to bewildered. I ask a boy next to me what the value is of watching other people play video games. “It’s like any other sporting event,” he says, as though it’s obvious.
A 15-year old from Essex also becomes a millionaire that afternoon. Jaden Ashman, who goes by “Wolfiez” in Fortnite, says his mother had previously taken his Xbox console away so he would spend more time on schoolwork. Now he has won $1.1m, coming in second place during Saturday’s doubles game. He plans to spend his prize money on a new house and Gucci shoes.
Lorrine Marer, a British behavioural specialist, warned last year that Fortnite is “like heroin”. Prince Harry has called for a ban, arguing that it is “created to addict”. They are not wrong about the game’s habit-forming properties. One parent told me he sleeps with his kids’ iPad to prevent them from playing all night. Successful players typically practice five to eight hours a day.
Fortnite is about avoiding death. Players told me that the “winner takes all” dynamic fuels a sense of urgency and intensity that keeps them going for hours on end. But there are also silly dance parties interspersed with the shooting, resulting in a tone that veers more towards childish than violent. Fortnite is free to play but people pay to customise their outfits — known as “skins” — and celebratory dances, using a virtual currency that pulls in millions of dollars for Epic.
Outside the stadium a fan festival has brought Fortnite’s silly memes to life. A zipline propels shrieking children over a water fountain, while others take selfies with a Fortnite legend: a bush. On a stage a few dozen children and parents participate in a “boogie-down challenge”, mimicking a popular Fortnite dance called “Take the L”. Their limbs swing awkwardly as techno beats boom from loudspeakers.
Everything is being filmed; everyone is smiling. Meanwhile the stadium’s security staff have been here in the sweltering heat since 5am. They are sweating so profusely that black eye make-up streams down their faces. Inside, one stadium employee sits in the women’s bathroom, waiting for it to be over.
Esports have exploded in the past few years, helped by popularity in Asia, which is home to more than half of the world’s 454m fans. Esports generated more than $900m in revenue globally last year, according to consultancy NewZoo, which is small change compared to professional sports. However, Goldman Sachs predicts this will grow to nearly $3bn by 2022.
Fortnite’s growth since it launched two years ago has been astonishing. Forty million people tried to qualify for the World Cup, ranging from unknown teenagers to Fortnite celebrities. There were 10 weeks of matches, eliminating all but 200 players, who were flown to New York and put up at the Grand Hyatt hotel in the heart of Manhattan.
As a game, Fortnite is an unlikely candidate for an esport. Most of the video games that are played competitively, such as Riot’s League of Legends or Blizzard’s Overwatch, are set up in a fundamentally similar way to traditional sports. Teams go head to head, making it easy for fans to follow the action and latch on to their favourite players.
Fortnite is much harder to follow. The only score is the countdown from 100 players to one winner; the often random nature of the game means even big-name players can get knocked out early on; and until the final moments of a match, it’s impossible to follow dozens of players at once, let alone make sure the audience sees the dramatic moments as they happen.
I end up spending much of the weekend talking to Carlos Orozco, a 23-year-old student who becomes my Fortnite coach, patiently explaining everything there is to know about this universe — the fiefdoms and celebrities and dramas. Carlos is from Mexico, but his family immigrated to Chicago when he was three years old. He studies graphic design and works at his family’s Mexican restaurant. But the rest of his time is devoted to either playing Fortnite or watching other people play Fortnite. He plays two to three hours at night after work and one or two hours in the morning before school.
Carlos explains that Tfue — aka 21-year-old Floridian Turner Tenney — is the most famous player currently on stage. (Everyone goes by their Fortnite username, not their real name). Tfue has spiky hair and wears a furry leopard-print vest over a black T-shirt.
Tfue is rivals with Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, 28, from Detroit, the most famous player in Fortnite. Ninja played a match with the rapper Drake last year, relayed to a global audience over Twitch. That meeting helped to launch the game into the celebrity stratosphere. Both Tfue and Ninja are blonde, tall and conventionally good-looking — not exactly the nerds of video-gaming past. (Another player, Nate Hill, used to be a Ralph Lauren model.)
Tfue “swears and stuff”, says Carlos, while Ninja, despite his cotton-candy dyed hair, is more wholesome. Ninja, who is sponsored by Red Bull, sits on his throne in a box suite overlooking the stage, surrounded by other famous gamers and his wife, who also serves as his manager. Little boys dangle overhead begging for autographs.
“[Esports] are on a hockey stick growth curve right now. It owes a lot to Fortnite,” says Stuart Saw, vice-president of Esports at Endeavor, the Hollywood and sports mega-agency that is managing this event, as we talk backstage. “Games rise and fall, but the impact Fortnite has had is a generational impact. Drake live-streaming on Twitch with Ninja? That broke down a lot of barriers.”
As our collective attention has shifted online, entertainment is now defined as anything people do with a screen. Fortnite overlaps heavily with YouTuber culture, as many players seem consumed by the idea of getting famous. A clear career path has emerged. A teen starts playing Fortnite. They film themselves playing so that other people can watch on Twitch or YouTube. If they get good enough, a team will notice and sign them. The team promotes them on social media and seeks sponsorship deals. If it works and the player strikes it big, they can stop playing Fortnite altogether and become a “content creator”.
Next to us in the stadium, two people are studiously filming the game on professional cameras. They work for Faze Clan, one of the larger esports teams that doubles as a lifestyle brand. Jordan Barton from Faze Clan tells me that they’re making videos so that their players can post them as vlogs. Many of the members live in a Hollywood mansion together called the Faze house, where they make videos that rack up millions of views.
Epic may make most of its money from virtual outfits for Fortnite players to kit out their characters, but the teams that have grown up around the game are hawking real-world merchandise. Their reference points are less football jersey than the limited-edition “drops” of cult fashion items such as Supreme T-shirts or Kanye West’s Yeezy sneakers. Faze Clan last week opened a pop-up shop in New York, but so many people showed up that the police shut it down. Another popular team, 100 Thieves, has also cultivated a premium streetwear brand; Drake is an investor.
Some of the Fortnite teens succeed in getting famous. At one point “LazarBeam”, one such celebrity, walks out of a private suite wearing an orange T-shirt. A stampede of young boys panic, trying to capture him on their phone. He throws up a peace sign and is then whisked away backstage like a pop star. Satisfied, the boys yell “we got LazarBeam!” and scamper off.
In this environment fads move quickly. Fortnite debuted only two years ago but it’s already old, according to my 12-year-old cousin. He doesn’t play — but even this refusenik knows all the dances from classmates.
Carlos, along with thousands of other fans, arrives at the stadium at 6am on Sunday to line up for exclusive merchandise. He has no regrets. He shows me his bounty proudly: a cap and a plastic imitation of a game parachute.
I retreat to the Endeavor suite after getting a headache. Here, agency executives nibble on macaroni and cheese and chicken fingers as they watch the matches on leather couches. Stuart Saw, a smooth-talking Brit, has worked in the esports business since he was 16, when he became a commentator. He hosted shows for Sky TV and Eurosport before working for Twitch, the dominant esports platform.
“This is the biggest ever [esports tournament] by a long way, in terms of the amount of people who tried to qualify, price purse, and viewership,” he says. “I’ve been in the industry for 15-plus years. This venue, this stage . . . it’s all very important.” Endeavor, co-founded by media billionaire and legendary Hollywood super-agent Ari Emanuel, has spent 10 months planning this event.
Epic, which is privately owned and was valued at nearly $15bn in a financing last year, declined any sponsorships for the event. But naturally, advertisers want in. “You have this very hard to reach, passionate audience of teenage boys. The sweet spot is the 14 to 18-year-old boy. And when they’re into Fortnite, they are really into it,” says Allen Adamson, co-founder of the marketing consultancy Metaforce and a former executive at Unilever, the consumer goods group. “There are few ways to reach that audience. Kids today, the one skill they’ve developed is the ability to tune out advertising.”
Esports is both cause and consequence of “cord-cutting”: the kids who watch video game streams on Twitch and YouTube aren’t watching the NFL or baseball on cable, and traditional TV networks are doing little to win younger audiences back, consigning esports coverage to the least popular slots in their schedules. Although the overall sums spent on esports advertising today are minuscule by the standards of regular sports, it presents a tantalising opportunity for marketers.
As Sunday afternoon turns into evening, we approach the end of the three-day marathon. Parents try to pry their children home early to beat traffic. After the 20th battle royale of the weekend, we have a victor.
Wearing a short-sleeved jersey and black Adidas sweats, Bugha walks across the stage towards a cartoonishly large trophy, beaming. He hoists the trophy over his head, tears in his eyes, as smoke machines blow up behind him and confetti falls from the sky, making the tennis stadium look like a kaleidoscope. “Words can’t even explain it right now,” he says to the camera.
People file out of the stadium and walk across an overpass to public transit, the sun still beating down as women sell sliced watermelon and mango on the boardwalk. As I sit on the subway car that will expel me out of Fortnite-land and back into Brooklyn, Carlos texts me about Bugha. “He had under 100k followers on Twitter, and in a few hours he gained almost 100k,” he reports. “Now he is as famous as Ninja and Tfue.”
A group of older boys lean on the subway rails, marvelling about the weekend. “I don’t know how they kept their composure,” one lanky teen says sincerely, eyes wide, shaking his head. “If you’ve never been on that stage before . . . I don’t know, dude.”
“How are you not losing your mind?” his friend agrees. “I would be losing it.”
Anna Nicolaou is the FT’s US media correspondent. Additional reporting by Tim Bradshaw
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