Special Briefing: The Game That Took Over the World
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This video game has hopped from platform to platform, and now it’s getting ready to dominate esports.
By Fiona Zublin
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What happened? Though the game was introduced last July, Fortnite’s popularity skyrocketed after it introduced Battle Royale, a free-for-all shoot-’em-up version, several months later. When it comes to gameplay, imagine The Hunger Games: You’re dropped, alone, somewhere on an island, with 99 other players. You all try to kill each other, and the last person standing wins. Experts note the game isn’t exactly revolutionary — it’s just really fun to play, helped on by elaborate narratives, clever design, ease of use and opportunities for personalization. But that winning combination has made it the most popular free-to-play console game in human history, with 125 million people playing less than a year after launch.
Why does it matter? Fortnite may be free, but it’s still a financial juggernaut. Nearly 68.8 percent of users have spent money buying clothes or dance moves for their avatars in the game, an average of more than $58 each, bringing in $318 million in revenue in May and $1.2 billion since its launch. Unlike Pokémon Go, which launched big in 2016 but saw revenue decline shortly after, Fortnite appears to have more staying power, with fans saying it combines the most addictive features of role-playing games and first-person shooters. Organized into seasons like a TV show — the fifth season begins July 12 — Fortnite’s creators also offer weekly challenges to keep players logging on.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
Next-level. Fortnite creator Epic Games announced in May that it would put up $100 million in prize money for competitive Fortnite events this year. Fans got a preview at the Fortnite Pro-Am tournament two weeks ago, which paired Fortnite celebrities with actual celebrities to win a total of $3 million for charity as more than a million fans watched online. As with any sport, Fortnite has already developed a few superstars — like Pro-Am winner Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, currently pulling in $500,000 per month from Amazon Prime subscriptions — who may be a draw. Upcoming tournaments may uncover more heavy hitters, and qualifying matches for next year’s planned inaugural Fortnite World Cup will begin this fall.
His-and-her controllers. Female gamers, who make up 46 percent of the gaming population, were likely in mind when Fortnite expanded to iOS and mobile versions. Women account for 63 percent of the mobile gaming market and are 36 percent more likely than men to make mobile in-game purchases. Fortnite’s reached out to female players in other ways: Of the game’s available avatars, 35 percent are female, a high proportion for the gaming industry. Fortnite is also one of the few shooter games to feature female characters in its ads, which can be a fraught proposition in an industry where disgruntled male gamers have been known to lash out at franchises for so much as featuring female characters.
Bait and switch. As the game has hopped from platform to platform — PC to iOS to Xbox to Nintendo Switch — gamers have taken their curated characters (and all those in-app purchases) from console to console with them. But Sony drew fire from players when it blocked such cross-play on the PlayStation 4, something the company’s done before with previous games. So far Sony’s response has been tepid, with PlayStation head honcho Shawn Layden promising this week that the company is “looking at a lot of the possibilities.” Meanwhile, Android will finally get its own Fortnite later this summer.
What about the children? Dumbfounded parents are again worried about the potentially addictive properties of violent games, especially after the World Health Organization classified gaming addiction as a mental illness earlier this year. And while a 9-year-old girl in the U.K. made headlines when her parents sent her to addiction counseling for playing the game too much, psychologists largely seem unbothered by Fortnite, comparing it to game crazes of the past. Meanwhile, the U.S. again revisited the possible connection of violent video games to real-life violence this spring when President Trump met with industry executives and the Parents Television Council after the Parkland school shooting.
WHAT TO READ
How Fortnite Captured Teens’ Hearts and Minds, by Nick Paumgarten in The New Yorker
“What people seem to agree on, whether they’re seasoned gamers or dorky dads, is that there’s something new emerging around Fortnite, a kind of mass social gathering, open to a much wider array of people than the games that came before.”
I Played Fortnite and Figured Out the Universe, by Robin Sloan in The Atlantic
“Sometimes, we have a lever against the vise of game theory, and in this case, it is a single bit of communication. I mean “bit” in the programmer’s sense: a flag with a designated meaning. Nothing more.”
WHAT TO WATCH
How Fortnite is Transforming the Gaming Industry
“Fortnite is impacting how modern games are developed, and how they get popular, stay relevant and make money.”
Watch on The Verge on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATER COOLER
Educational value. While some schools have banned Fortnite from their classrooms, others are embracing the game: Ashland University in Ohio is the first institution in the country to offer an esport scholarship for the game. “Honestly, I’m still somewhat in shock,” said 22-year-old Devin Sharp, the first player signed.