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If you think Fortnite is just a video game, you’re missing the big picture

Heads up, Disney: Fortnite’s unprecedented success means as much for the future of media as it does for the gaming industry.

If you think Fortnite is just a video game, you’re missing the big picture
[Illustration: Jean-pierre Le roux]

With mere seconds to go before 1:30 p.m. ET, on a mountaintop overlooking Snobby Shores, Muselk scrambled up a makeshift ramp, lowered his sniper rifle, and peered down at the launchpad below. Like everyone else, he was here to see the rocket.

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An alarm sounded. Boosters rumbled. Fiery orange jets began pushing the missile skyward.

“Oh. My. God. Yaaaaaaaaow! It’s going, boys, it’s going!” Muselk shouted to his friend LachyDachy. He peered through his rifle’s scope to get a better look as the rocket disappeared into the night sky.

For a moment: silence. But then the rocket returned, first as a drifting star, and then—suddenly—as a murderous projectile, bearing down on the world below. The missile careened low across fields, buzzed buildings, and then shot upward to crack the sky itself, leaving behind a shimmery blue fracture.

“Do you see that crack?” LachyDachy breathed.

“Do I see the fucking giant crack in the sky? Yes, Lachy, I do. I physically can’t believe what we just saw.”

“And the servers didn’t crash.”

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Muselk and LachyDachy (whose real names are Elliott Watkins and Lachlan Power) had stayed up until 3:30 a.m. local time in Australia to live-stream the June 30 rocket launch, which took place in the island world of Fortnite Battle Royale and was orchestrated by developers at the video game’s North Carolina-based parent company, Epic Games. Across the world, millions of fans logged on to watch the event, and within seconds streaming platforms such as Twitch and YouTube were filled with their awestruck reactions, from Avxry in the U.S. (“I have chills!”) to ItsGrefgYT in Spain (“Oh, Dios Mio! Oh, Dios Mio!”). By the following week, streams and other videos of the launch, which kicked off the next season of play, had been viewed tens of millions of times.

Like its sky-shattering rocket, Fortnite Battle Royale has captivated the gaming and technology worlds for the past year—and left them scrambling to understand its implications. Within nine months of its debut last September, the free-to-play game had attracted 125 million registered users, more than 40 million of whom play every month, from sixth graders to pro gamers to NBA all-stars. Meanwhile, users are popping into Fortnite’s in-game Item Shop to buy outfits for their survivalist characters to wear, as well as emotes (funny dances and gestures) for them to perform. As a result, Epic Games has reportedly already generated more than $1 billion in revenue from Fortnite, which—once again—costs nothing to play.

Every so often, a game breaks through the muddle of similar titles to become a cultural phenomenon. With hindsight, it’s often possible to see how its success foretold a massive future trend: In 2009, FarmVille demonstrated the huge potential (and underlying risk) of building an audience on top of social networks like Facebook. In 2012, Candy Crush showed off the sheer amount of time and money people were willing to spend while on their mobile devices. While some predictions haven’t panned out—ask any Pokémon Go player who anticipated a world of augmented reality—Fortnite seems to signify another profound shift. It’s a game where more than 100 million people are connecting with real-life friends to compete, spectate, and experience a story together in real time. “I think we’re on the verge of a new form of entertainment,” says Tim Sweeney, Epic’s founder and CEO.

Every Fortnite Battle Royale session starts the same way: 100 players skydive onto an island, where they have less than 30 minutes to forage weapons and supplies and then fight to the death as a storm closes in. It sounds bleak, but in reality, Fortnite feels lighthearted, almost silly. Unlike its grimmer peers, the game contains no blood or gore (players simply vanish), and its island setting is lush and cartoony, as if the Hunger Games had been made into a children’s TV series. While the most skilled gamers fight for victory, there are plenty of ways for inexperienced ones to enjoy themselves before their inevitable demise: building forts, exploring neighborhoods, goofing off with little dances. (According to a survey commissioned by BTIG Research, 21% of Fortnite players were previously non-gamers.) Perhaps because of the ample sources of bonhomie, the player community is unusually friendly and supportive.

What makes Fortnite even more remarkable is that its fans don’t simply play the game. In May alone, they logged more than 574 million hours across the web simply watching others play; they generate more than 130 million video views each day. Last summer, a weekly Friday Fortnite tournament starring some of the game’s biggest streamers pulled in 8.8 million live viewers one night, more than the most recent Walking Dead finale on AMC (7.9 million). When word went out last March of an impromptu game with Ninja, Fortnite’s top player, and the rapper Drake, 635,000 viewers swarmed to watch. For streamers like Ninja, this is big business: With nearly 10 million followers on Twitch and another 16 million YouTube subscribers, he makes a reported $500,000 a month in endorsements. In May, Epic announced it was funding a prize pool of $100 million for Fortnite competitions, a move that is sure to stoke larger audiences.

Fortnite’s broad appeal is both unprecedented and built from the ground up. Not only can it support a full 100 players on the same map, but also gamers can log in and play from almost any device, including PCs, iPhones, Nintendo Switches, Xboxes, and PS4s. “[Fortnite is] an engineering marvel,” says Roland Lesterlin, creative director at New York City’s Defiant Studios. Developers like Lesterlin are salivating because Epic Games now makes its suite of game-building tools, called Unreal Engine 4, available to outsiders. That means you can expect more titles to aggregate large audiences in ways that weren’t possible before. “[Epic’s] core business is the game engine: The technology is what they sell, the game is just an advertisement for that,” says Ethan Levy, a game maker at N3twork, based in San Francisco.

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Of course, a platform that is supremely accessible, hosts millions of people, and connects them with everyone—from real-life friends to celebrities—is enabling more than just video games. Those are all characteristics of a social network, one far more interactive than an endlessly scrolling news feed. Imagine a world where games will be played, enjoyed as e-sports, and serve as mediums for immersive storytelling. With Fortnite, we may be witnessing the first time a video game wasn’t simply popular entertainment, but its own form of mass media, akin to television, radio, or the web.

For the past couple of years, mainstream media companies have been dipping their toes into e-sports in various ways. Disney’s ESPN, for example, recently began broadcasting the popular Overwatch League from gaming giant Activision Blizzard; Turner Sports began airing e-sports tournaments on TBS last year. That may not be enough. “A company like Disney, instead of buying Fox, probably should have tried buying a [gaming] company like Activision,” says Brandon Ross, media analyst at BTIG. “They need to own where the eyeballs are going, rather than doubling down on where they’re coming from.”

That missile hurtling toward the sky? It could be headed straight for legacy media companies.

A look at Fortnite’s explosive growth

$1.2 billion: Revenue from in-game purchases between September 2017 and June 2018

$2 billion: Estimated revenue for 2018

100 million: Number of iOS downloads in five months following launch of mobile version

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1.1 million: Concurrent live views of a Fortnite match starring 100 YouTubers in March 2018

152 million: Hours of Fortnite-related content streamed on Twitch in July 2018

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