The Fortnite Phenomenon is Eating the World

One of the most popular games on the planet is holding a World Cup

Fortnite on iOS

 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

There’ll be no Serena, no Nadal, no Djokovic, just thousands and thousands of anxious, excited gamers stuffed into the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, NY, a venue more closely associated with nets and rackets than networks and controllers.

These gamers, many of them youngsters accompanied by their parents, are headed to the stadium starting Friday. They'll stay throughout the weekend for what promises to be one of the biggest (if not the biggest) events in eSports history: The Fortnite World Cup Finals.

In addition to the thousands watching some of the biggest names in gaming playing in person, Fortnite is broadcasting the event all over the world and, yes, inside the Fortnite game itself. You can play your own game and watch the tournament at the same time if you possess that kind of multi-tasking skill.

What’s a Fortnite?

I came to Fortnite the way I do most other cultural tech phenomenon. I started hearing about the game on social media more than a year ago and noticed how people were imitating game dance moves in the real world. Fortnite is not a dancing challenge game, but sick dance moves are a fun part of its world.

Fortnite is the rare game that’s available on virtually all platforms including iOS and Android. Its relatively intense graphics and cross-platform capabilities made it perfect for testing the performance of new smartphones. I think it was the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 that briefly turned me into a Fortnite: Battle Royale addict.

Screenshot from Fortnite
That time I outlasted everyone else on Fortnite.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I think the reason Fortnite has amassed a reported 250 million players is that it has the scope of a console game without all the usual complexity (and sometimes laborious storytelling). The goals of the undeniably cartoonish game are simple. You fly to a remote island with 100 other players, parachute in, and fight to be the last one standing. Throughout the match, the calm center of a storm (rather like the eye of a hurricane) contracts. As a result, you not only have to avoid getting shot and killed by other players, but also make sure you stay within that safe zone, so the elements won't slowly kill you.

Throughout the game, you collect weapons, ammunition, gear, and other loot. You can also buy outfits. You see, Fortnite is free to play, but it is a money-making monster, generating most of its revenue through micro-transactions (you trade in real money for the game's V-Bucks virtual currency) for all kinds of crazy costumes.

There’s even a little bit of Minecraft in Fortnite. It lets you collect materials to build insane, physics-defying structures that you can use to traverse landscape gaps, use as fortifications where you can hide out, or use as platforms to snipe at enemies. In fact, building such structures (known as Forts) is almost considered an art itself.

The Battle of Battles

Epic and Fortnite didn’t invent this gaming style. In fact, before Fortnite, there was Players Unknown Battleground (PUBG), which I now prefer because of features like the ability to lie flat on the ground while still being able to shoot at your attackers. There was a copyright suit between the two companies that was ultimately dropped for what remain murky reasons. Most people believe Fortnite raced ahead of PUBG because PUBG was slow to update and add new features, something Fortnite's developer Epic has excelled at.

Epic has kept the game fresh by constantly updating it and launching new seasons (we’re up to 9, I think) with new challenges and even wilder environments. People are so obsessed with the oddball creations like the Durr Burger they find in Fortnite that Epic has recreated them in real life.

And while the majority of Fortnite: Battle Royale players are pouring money into the platform, there are many pro-level players who make hundreds of thousands of dollars by streaming their exploits on Twitch, garnering sponsorships, or winning money in tournaments like the Fortnite World Cup.

This time, there’s $30 million in prize money for the tournament.

Field of Play

Arthur Ashe Stadium, which was still mostly empty when I checked online feeds this morning, has been transformed into an almost unrecognizable gaming stage. The courts are filled with dozens of boxes, ostensibly for players, and above them are an array of giant screens so those in the stands can follow all the action.

Fortnite World Cup Billboard
The Fortnite World Cup Final ads are everywhere.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

And that action is spreading far outside of Queens with Fortnite influencer merchant drops in Manhattan, World Cup ads appearing on almost every Wi-Fi hookup ad screen in the city, and World Cup Attendees dressing like characters from the game.

I often play Fortnite as a solo player, preferring to keep to myself and pick off competitors one-by-one, but Duos, where paired players can cover and save each other, are just as popular. The World Cup gets going in earnest on Saturday with 50 of the best Duo teams. The tougher Solo tournament (100 of the World’s top players) kicks off on Sunday. Friday, or Day One of the World Cup, is a collection of creative challenges and a pro-am tournament.

Perhaps you’re not headed to Arthur Ashe Stadium right now and you think Fortnite is just for teens and tweens. You may be right about not going (it's gonna be a madhouse), but Fortnite is arguably more popular than tennis (and many other pro sports) and the average age of a Fortnite player is between 18 and 24. Perhaps you should spend a little time practicing your “Floss Dance."