Under the unforgiving LA sun, in front of a crowd of thousands, the first ever pro/celebrity Fortnite tournament took place on Tuesday afternoon, and anyone still mystified by the success of this brashly colourful multiplayer shooter would perhaps have been a lot wiser by the end. It was a fun spectacle, put on by the developer, Epic Games, for fans who screamed their support throughout the hour-long contest.
The set-up was simple. Fifty well-known Fortnite players – young adults who play every night for countless fans on YouTube and Twitch – were teamed up with 50 celebrities from the worlds of wrestling, television and music, with each pair taking part in an all-or-nothing match of the world’s most popular video game. In Fortnite’s famed Battle Royale mode, 100 players land on a giant island and must fight until only one player – or team – is left standing. Usually the prize is simply kudos, but here there was a $3m (£2.2m) pot to aim for, the money to go to charities chosen by the top-finishing duos.
The competition took place on a vast stage at one end of the Banc of California Stadium. Epic invited about 15,000 fans to attend and they duly queued outside for hours, rewarded for their enthusiasm with free pizza, burgers and hot dogs at concession stands themed to look like in the game’s fictitious franchises. There was even a real-life battle bus – the flying vehicle that delivers characters to the island – hung from a crane in the parking lot.
All the game’s most famous players took part including Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, the blue-haired streamer with more than 8 million online followers and Fortnite’s superstar player. He was matched with the EDM star Marshmello, a DJ and producer who wore his signature white marshmallow-shaped helmet throughout the competition. Other hot favourites were Kinstar, who was paired with the UFC fighter Sean O’Malley, and Britain’s Ali-A, who was matched with the Fall Out Boy bassist, Pete Wentz.
Before the action began, the crowd, gathered on rows of chairs reaching back toward the centre circle, were entertained by a roving camera that projected unsuspecting fans on to two huge screens at the rear of the stage, at which point they were expected to perform one of the signature in-game dances that have now become beloved of sports stars around the world. They did so with gusto.
After two exciting warmup matches, with dozens of fast-paced shootouts breaking out in congested areas, the prize competition saw the tactics chane, the teams parachuting out all over the island in an attempt to survive as long as possible rather than engage in immediate conflict. The best builders had the advantage as Ninja, Myth and Muselk all raised vast wooden towers, where they hid away like paranoid medieval monarchs. Other players stayed at the edges of the map until the game’s storm circles came in, forcing everyone together. Suddenly the pace accelerated, with celebrities falling by the dozen as pro players used their lightning-fast construction skills to gain crucial height advantage.
The final four players: Kitty Plays, CouRage, Ninja and the last surviving celeb, Marshmello, found themselves trapped along a vast cliff overlooking the island’s Shifty Shafts area. They built neighbouring towers and traded gunfire until finally Ninja and Marshmello, atop the tallest tower of all, took out CouRage to claim victory. And Marshmello did it all without removing his mask.
Throughout the whole baking hot affair, the crowd ensured the atmosphere remained exhilarating and good-humoured. “We get to see the best players and some big celebrities,” said Anthony a 15-year-old fan from Glendale, wearing the purple cap that came in goodie bags distributed to every attendee. “No other game has done this kind of event – they’re giving us all this free stuff because they love the community, this is amazing.”
So what is the distinct appeal of the game? “There’s something about going up against 99 other players and getting that victory – it’s so much sweeter than every other game,” said George Adams, 20, from LA. “I know H1Z1 and PUBG really started the battle royale genre but Fortnite has taken it to a new level. And Epic is constantly updating – every week there’s some kind of community event, there’s a lot of creativity.”
This is only the beginning of Epic’s competitive gaming plans. During the event, the company announced its 2019 Fortnite World Cup, a global competition open to everyone, with $100m in prize money. The online audiences will be huge.
As the stage cleared, Ninja and Marshmello were handed their golden trophy and embraced as the crowd started to drift away. Selfies were taken while parents milled around, arms filled with merchandise. Anthony, on his way out when asked about the Fortnite phenomenon and how the game has amassed 45 million players since its release in September, stopped to consider his answer carefully.
“The building element and the costumes make it different from every other game,” he said. “It’s just crazy, it really pops; and it’s new every time you play – you’re always going to land in a different spot and find different weapons.
“Everybody’s talking about it; not just at school, everywhere. It’s taking over the world, man.”