Fame, Fortnite and teenage boys: How this online video game took over the world

Anna Nicolaou

CNA/THE FINANCIAL TIMES – At first, it seemed like any other sporting event. Parents and children ate overpriced soft pretzels and pizza, holding giant red styrofoam hands I recognise from baseball games.

But instead of a grassy field, the Arthur Ashe stadium in Queens – best known for hosting tennis stars for the glitzy US Open – was anchored by a massive three-tier purple stage attached to the roof by cables. Tens of thousands of spectators witnessed 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 crowned a millionaire.

I was at the first-ever Fortnite World Cup. At the three-day, Disneyland-esque festival, the virtual monsters and online memes of Fortnite, the global gaming phenomenon, were transposed into the real world. This was 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.

MORE THAN JUST A GAME

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 e-sports, 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 was equally outsized. Wanting to create high stakes, Epic, backed by private equity group KKR and Chinese giant Tencent, shelled out USD30 million for prizes. The winner – Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf, a 16-year-old from Pottsgrove, Pennsylvania – walked away with USD3 million. That is almost six times more money than the cyclist who wins the Tour de France. It’s closer to the USD3.8 million taken home by the professional tennis champions of the US Open.

On that July weekend, the stage belonged to Fortnite. I spent 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.

With more than 250 million users across the globe, if it were a country Fortnite would be the fifth largest in the world. PHOTOS: EPIC GAMES/AFP
A British behavioural specialist has warned Fortnite is ‘like heroin’, while Prince Harry has called for a ban, arguing that it is “created to addict’
Bugha’s family members celebrate after his victory as the first solo World Champion at the Fortnite World Cup Finals e-sports event at Arthur Ashe Stadium. PHOTO: USA TODAY SPORTS
Bugha of the US celebrates with the trophy after winning the final of the Solo competition at the 2019 Fortnite World Cup inside of Arthur Ashe Stadium, in New York City

REPRESENTING OLD DUDES

In the stadium, huge screens projected 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 looked identical to fans in the audience: Pubescent faces ridden with acne and braces. The sounds of combat were so thunderous that journalists were handed earplugs upon entry.

Next to the stage, commentators tried to drum up the drama. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” they repeated breathlessly. The median age of golf fans is 64, for English Premier League football it is 43 and for e-sports it’s 25. Fortnite skews even younger, for both fans and participants: The average age of the players on stage is 16. The event’s second place winner, a 24-year-old LA native named Harrison Chang, said he was “representing the old dudes”.

Epic said that it sold out the stadium, but the cavernous room is only about half full at any given moment. There were many children and parents in the crowd.

A 15-year old from Essex also became a millionaire. Jaden Ashman, who goes by “Wolfiez” in Fortnite, said his mother had previously taken his Xbox console away so he would spend more time on schoolwork. Now he has won USD1.1 million, coming in second place during the doubles game. He plans to spend his prize money on a new house and Gucci shoes.

ADDICTION TO AVOIDING DEATH

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 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.

AN UNLIKELY E-SPORT

E-sports 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. E-sports generated more than USD900 million 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 USD3 billion 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 e-sport. 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.

TFUE VS NINJA

I ended up spending much of the weekend talking to Carlos Orozco, a 23-year-old student who became 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.)

Ninja, despite his cotton-candy dyed hair, is more wholesome. Ninja, who is sponsored by Red Bull, sat 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 dangled overhead begging for autographs.

FORTNITE AND YOUTUBE CULTURE

“(E-sports) are on a hockey stick growth curve right now. It owes a lot to Fortnite,” said Stuart Saw, vice-president of e-sports at Endeavor, the Hollywood and sports mega-agency that is managed the event, as we talked 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 were studiously filming the game on professional cameras. They work for Faze Clan, one of the larger e-sports teams that doubles as a lifestyle brand. Jordan Barton from Faze Clan told 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.

‘WE GOT LAZARBEAM!’

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 recently 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, walked out of a private suite wearing an orange T-shirt. A stampede of young boys panic, trying to capture him on their phone. He threw up a peace sign and was then whisked away backstage like a pop star.

PASSIONATE TEENAGE BOYS

Carlos, along with thousands of other fans, arrived at the stadium at 6am to line up for exclusive merchandise. He had no regrets. He showed me his bounty proudly: A cap and a plastic imitation of a game parachute.

I retreated 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 e-sports platform.

“This is the biggest ever (e-sports tournament) by a long way, in terms of the amount of people who tried to qualify, price purse, and viewership,” he said. “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 USD15 billion 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,” said 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 e-sports coverage to the least popular slots in their schedules.

Although the overall sums spent on e-sports advertising today are minuscule by the standards of regular sports, it presents a tantalising opportunity for marketers.

‘I WOULD BE LOSING MY MIND’

As Sunday afternoon turned into evening, we approach the end of the three-day marathon. Parents tried to pry their children home early to beat traffic. After the 20th battle royale of the weekend, we had a victor.

Wearing a short-sleeved jersey and black Adidas sweats, Bugha walked across the stage towards a cartoonishly large trophy, beaming.

He hoisted 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 said to the camera.

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 reported. “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 said 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.”