Fortnite’s celebrity tournament felt like a trial run for Epic’s grand e-sports ambitionsJune 17, 2018
Under the scorching California sun last Tuesday, 50 celebrities and 50 professional video game players gathered near the north end of a soccer stadium in Los Angeles to play Fortnite for $3 million in prize money. It was the very first officially sanctioned tournament for developer Epic Games’ mega-hit battle royale game, organized by the company itself and geared toward raising money for charity. And it was a monumental success by most metrics: It handily eclipsed the first official day of the game industry’s E3 expo, which was happening just two miles north at the city’s convention center, and drew more than 1.1 million viewers live on Twitch.
The line to get in sprawled across every available stretch of sidewalk around the Banc of California arena, the 22,000-capacity home of the new Los Angeles FC soccer team that opened back in April. Inside the gates, past the check-in area and robust security, a gigantic replica of Fortnite’s ocean-blue Battle Bus, with its hot air balloon propulsion system, sat openly out on the pavement. Characters dressed as popular Fortnite characters, including a man donning an anthropomorphic tomato suit, wandered the lot taking pictures with fans. Onward into the stadium, the letters F-O-R-T-N-I-T-E could be seen spelled out in white against the purple backdrop of the entire eastern half of the venue’s seating area.
In a waiting area before the contest began, blue-colored vodka-infused mixed drinks with the words “Slurp Juice” emblazoned on the cups were handed out freely at the bar, a nod to the in-game item that replenishes your health and armor. (The real-life version did not, however, appear to make anyone more capable of withstanding bodily harm.) After all, this was an event devoted as much to spectacle and celebratory marketing as it was friendly competition. Throughout the pre-show, young fans mobbed streamers like Alastair “Ali-A” Aiken and Ali “Myth” Kabbani for photos, while reputable news outlets and photographers struggled to keep up with the dizzying number of notable names milling about.
The Fortnite Pro-Am, as the event was called, featured big names like NBA player Paul George, rapper Vince Staples, and Twitch superstar Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, with everyone competing both in a solo contest and in teams of two (one celebrity and one professional player on each squad). A large part of the fun was seeing these people in the same room among friends and fans, breaking down the barrier between casual player, internet celebrity, and bonafide A-lister. Another aspect of the event’s momentous appeal was the sheer cultural enormity of Fortnite, a game that did not exist a year ago, and how it could possibly sustain such an affair.
Yet seeing the amount of money and time that went into Epic’s display, including its lavish afterparty that evening on the grounds outside the LA Memorial Coliseum, should have been enough to convince even the most skeptical non-believer that Fortnite is a force to be reckoned with. Epic’s game won’t be on top forever, certainly, but it’s riding a wave that feels far from cresting any time soon. And with the launch of the company’s competitive e-sports circuit later this year, an event like the Pro-Am felt like only the beginning of an ambitious plan to transform the game’s online popularity into offline staying power.
Fortnite launched only in July of last year. Two months later, Epic released a free game mode that let 100 players parachute onto a deserted island in a last-person-standing contest. Replicating the success of smash PC hit Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, Fortnite quickly rose to prominence as a leading online multiplayer game due to its free nature and Epic’s breakneck and creatively radical development cycle, a combination that sees the game updated every week and hot-fixed almost daily to respond to community feedback.
As far as revenue goes, Epic doesn’t sell digital or physical copies of the game. Rather, the company sustains the product through in-app purchases of cosmetic items like costumes and dance emotes, much like the most successful mobile hits of the last half-decade.
In the month of April, Epic raked in nearly $300 million, making it one of the most lucrative games in the world. Earlier that day, just hours prior to the tournament kicking off, the game launched for the Nintendo Switch. In under 24 hours, it would be downloaded more than 2 million times for that system, while Epic boasted on Tuesday that it now counts 125 million registered players. Last week, Epic investor Tencent confirmed at least 40 million of those players log in at least once a month or more.
Now, as the game continuously reaches new heights of popularity, Epic’s next mission is to change Fortnite from a compulsive pastime into a competitive e-sport. The company has pledged $100 million in prize money for the game’s first year of competitive play, and strategically announced its intention to host a Fortnite World Cup in 2019 in the middle of the Pro-Am stream to ensure the news had the maximum impact to its most valuable audience. In light of Epic’s grand plans, the tournament now feels in retrospect like a crucial way for the developer to test competitive formats and trial its ability to use big names and splashy event-planning to dominate the gaming news cycle.
On the surface, the concept of a streamer-celebrity tournament was a no-brainer. For months, Fortnite has enjoyed headlines about obsessed MLB players, basketball pros’ self-described addictions, and its cross-over pop culture appeal. Big names in hip-hop and EDM like Drake and Diplo have participated in record-breaking live streams with Ninja, whose rise to stardom has been more meteoric these past nine months than any other internet celebrity in recent memory. Close behind Ninja is a whole new generation of YouTube and Twitch personalities making a name for themselves as competitive performers and tireless entertainers. Putting those two worlds together — on the same stage and even on the same team with one another — was a recipe for instant success. It’’s hard to imagine the Pro-Am is the last of Epic’s celebrity tournaments.
Most of those streamers, and quite a few of those celebrities, were all present at the Pro-Am, giving it the electric feel of a destined collision of stardom from across a vast array of industries and subcultures. Though the $3 million prize pool was for charity, many of the players took both the pair of warm-up matches and the final duos game quite seriously. Fun-to-follow narratives around Fortnite’s competitive scene are also already materializing around Ninja, Myth, and other popular streamers, and the Pro-Am feels like the start of a storied path for the game’s community of up-and-coming pro players.
Unlike with Ninja’s own tournament at the Esports Arena in Las Vegas back in April, which focused heavily on following the Twitch star’s own performance across 10 sucessive matches, the Pro-Am tournament was filled to the brim with notable names. Catching all the action, or even the most entertaining slice of it at any given moment, was a near-impossible task in such a scenario. Yet Fortnite commentating is improving rapidly, thanks primarily to standout streamer Ben “DrLupo” Lupo, who also commentated for Ninja’s Vegas. Epic is also fine-tuning new tools, like heat maps, to let broadcasters more easily capture crucial fights, display alternative viewpoints, and generally keep better track of a match’s chaotic and unpredictable progression.
That said, watching the action from within the crowd was still an exhilarating experience,. Moments like MMA fighter Demetrious Johnson knocking out rapper Vince Staples, or Ninja facing off against the extraordinary Swiss player Duong “Kinstaar” Huyh to an audience palpably on the edge of an auditory explosion, were equally surreal — exchanges that would have felt inexplicable just six months ago. And when Ninja and helmet-wearing DJ Marshmallow clutched victory at the end of the third and final match, it felt like an ordained moment for Twitch’s golden boy that net him and his EDM companion $500,000 each for the charities of their choice (and a pair of exclusive golden pickaxe trophies).
In the aftermath, hundreds of fans crowded the stage, eager for a chance to hand Ninja, Lil Yachty, and other famous faces their phone to take selfies with. Players embraced one another, shook hands against their previously unrecognizable . In the middle of it all, Ninja stood posing for the cameras before waling over to the edge of the stage, where he began signing autographs and taking photos with the throngs of ecstatic kids in the background.
To Twitch viewers and Fortnite players everywhere, Ninja isn’t just a newly-minted celebrity among a sea of other well-known names. He’s the biggest celebrity of them all, with the world’s biggest game now his stage. And if there’s any takeaway from the Pro-Am event, it’s that the stage is only going to continue growing.