When I was a kid, anything that would affirm my love for video games would make my day blissful. Gaming was still relatively niche and questionable in schoolyard conversation, and I’d rarely see my cousins who also played with the Nintendo 64. Every short trip to GameStop was a profound event for me because it was a rare opportunity to be fully inundated in my favorite pastime.
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Fast forward two decades to now, skeptical as I was going into the Fortnite World Cup, I’m not one to quell a spark of joy if an event has earned it. I mean, I’d take a happy “cringe kid” over one who can’t share what they love.
So instead of shrugging it off because it disagrees with your sensibilities of what a real “game” or “esport is,” imagine walking through one of the world’s most famous sports venue, into the unavoidable energy of kids who get a whole weekend of activities like it’s a giant collective birthday, and experiencing an atmosphere of legitimate pride and happiness. If that doesn’t vibe, there’s plenty else to do in gaming and esports. But if you’re willing to lean into it… well, welcome to the Fortnite World Cup.
Epic Games really pulled out all the stops to make this past weekend one to remember. From the Fan Festival, which featured a slew of carnival-like activities, to a stage with enough LEDs to make Times Square look over its shoulder, fans were immersed in the Fortnite world every second of the event.
Even from an esports production perspective, this event was genuinely impressive. Everything esports wished it could be four years ago, Epic Games accomplished this weekend. A lot of esports types might not be happy that the primary target audience was probably about the age required to own a Twitter account (13), which is to say “not the age of the average try-hard esports fan.” (Studies place the average esports fan in their late 20s to early 30s.) But if that’s what it needed to take, then by all means, maybe it’s time to let it happen.
The work and polish checked out, for the most part. Minus Friday’s Creative and Pro-Am competitions that ran far later than expected, with a 90-minute delay to the latter competition, the event flowed mostly as expected.
The casting and commentary were top-notch and approachable for the everyday viewer. Observers had a fantastic eye for what was happening each match, utilizing replays and picture-in-picture to tell stories. The stream even appeared in Fortnite itself over the weekend in a toggleable window. There was a Marshmello concert or two, there were fan-cams, and there were random DJ stings between matches. And they provided each attendee earplugs if it was a little too much. Attending in-person felt worth the energy and effort, and if I were a paying fan, I would have the time of my life.
Penetrating through the high-tier production are hints of the ways Epic Games treats this as a stunt, and not a genuine competitive endeavor (despite them insisting on calling this “competitive,” and actively avoiding the contentious word “esports”). For one, after the delays to the Pro-Am competition, they decided to go on with literally an hour of individual celebrity-expert duo introductions, plus some video bonuses. What was supposed to start at 4:00 only saw introductions at 5:30.
Parents may have been frustrated about a 9:15 PM end time, but dedicated fans had their moments of clear disgust during the main event. While duos competitor Damion “XXiF” Cook was found cheating at an event and briefly banned, he managed to get into the World Cup. Then, he was accused of, but not punished for, cheating again in the process with teammate “Ronaldo.” So when Cook and Ronaldo appeared on the screens, the crowd booed – until the moment they were eliminated, which was met by an eruption of praise. In the end, they placed 28th, and the two will walk out with a combined $100 thousand for qualifying at all. (Epic explained it as not wanting to change their set rules so far into the competition.)
There are some controversial hiccups about competitive gameplay decisions from Epic itself. During a preview event, players also expressed a mixed reception of the scoring system. Ten points are rewarded for a Victory Royale (last man, or boy, standing), but a single point is handed for each elimination. This forces players to be more proactive, but also punishes those who have managed to learn the ins and outs of the map and capitalize on patience and position.
In the wake of duos, some viewers noticed that the second place winners were controller players — who were utilizing aim assist. And meanwhile, the infamous “gameplay patch two weeks before an event” situation was also discussed, but Epic seems to be making changes regarding this. Slowly.
Then, perhaps most importantly to prying “endemic esports” eyes, there’s the overarching question of sustainability. That is, will Epic be able to provide this – with the prize pool, massive event grounds, engagement and energy – every single year? After all, they’re keep labeling this the “first-ever,” as if a second and perhaps third are yet to come.
It’s not a “no.” During the event, Epic announced the “Fortnite Championship Series,” which sounds like it’ll be the future of competitive Fortnite. (Or “Fortnite competitive,” as I overheard them say as I was finishing this sentence.) And with ex-Overwatch League commissioner Nate Nanzer at the helm, there’ll probably be sweeping changes to talk about soon. Plus, it wouldn’t be surprising if they turned to a “crowd-funding” solution, bringing Dota 2‘s six-year-old Battle Pass/Compendium concept full-circle – and connecting the bridge between casual fans and the competitive scene.
But that’s a conversation that will continue later. For now, the future of Fortnite is exactly that: the future. The polish and initial charm of Fortnite has worn off. And somehow, now that the dust has settled, it’s become a part of mundane life for plenty of teens and pre-teens. “Influencers” paid millions to show off the newest and latest eventually find themselves back in the eye of the storm where it’s safest. And Epic is doing their best to keep it this way.
This weekend, Epic held a massively expensive festival about a single video game. Fortnite will continue to make more money than you and I could cobble together in 25 lifetimes. As some have joked, they’re worth more than God. And maybe most importantly, they’re taking that money making a lot of kids happy, on and off the stage, in the arena and at home.
For better or worse, the Fortnite World Cup was too dazzling to ignore. By some means, it’s what esports has been working towards. And frankly, it wasn’t bad. A 16-year-old just won $3 million with his family in the stands. Some money was won for charity. And there was some really good video gaming from a relatively diverse set of players. Why look away?