Earlier this month the world’s best national football teams competed in the Women’s World Cup in France for a total prize pool of $30m (£24m). The United States came out on top, bagging $4 million (£3.2m) for besting their competitors.
This weekend, another sports competition with a $30m prize pot takes place at Flushing Meadows, the home of the US Open tennis tournament. The victor will take home $3m (£2.4m), almost as much as the winners of the Women’s World Cup. Given the competition is being held at the home of a tennis grand slam tournament, it’s fitting that the winner will bag more than this year’s Wimbledon champions did. The sport that can attract such big prizes? Fortnite.
The video game, which parachutes 100 players onto an island and leaves them to battle to the death until only one remains, is a modern media marvel. Played by 250 million people worldwide, just mentioning the game in the title of YouTube videos is enough to guarantee a 500 per cent increase in the number of views above the average, according to data released this week by internet analysts Pew Research Centre. More than 300 million hours of Fortnite was watched on Twitch in the second quarter of 2019, according to live streaming platform company StreamElements.
“It’s the most mainstream game in history,” says e-sports consultant Rod Breslau. “Every anecdote I’ve heard over the last few years is that Fortnite has changed the game. Fortnite has basically increased the valuation of everybody in the entire space. The game has such wide appeal that it’s very good [for e-sports]. It’s the perfect game for people to use as a stepping stone.”
Which is why the first Fortnite World Cup is likely to be a massive moment for e-sports. “While it’s not the game that I would pick as a traditionalist for someone’s first touchpoint into e-sports, it still is accessible and is something most kids are familiar with and can slowly introduce the idea of e-sports and that it’s professionalised,” says Matt Huxley, a lecturer in e-sports at Staffordshire University, who has years of professional e-sports experience, and has organised competitions for games companies.
E-sports have quietly become a huge industry – the Fortnite World Cup’s prize pot isn’t even the biggest in the e-sports world, and will be eclipsed in August by a different competition – called The International – focused around another game, DOTA 2. But competitive Fortnite could be the way for e-sports to break through into the collective consciousness.
While many people unfairly malign e-sports as something for a niche section of the population, Fortnite has become a pervasive phenomenon. It is the most beloved game among British 11-year-olds – even more popular than Minecraft and FIFA on consoles, according to data compiled by The Insights People, a Manchester-based polling company. And the Fortnite World Cup isn’t just a one-off competition: the weekend is a celebration of the world’s most popular game.
There are a number of events taking place around the World Cup, including a fan festival and celebrity pro-am tournaments, before the 100 finalists – winnowed down from 40 million players who competed in the tournament’s earliest stages – play against each other for the grand prize. “This weekend a 14- or 16-year-old might win $3 million singlehandedly,” says Breslau. “I think that’s really cool.”
This isn’t just a tournament. It’s borrowing many of the elements you see in traditional sports – and could eclipse them in scale. The tournament is as international as any other sports competition: players from 30 different countries will be competing this weekend, though they’re generally younger than most professional athletes. Some teenagers no older than 14 or 15 will be in the running, and are guaranteed to win at least $50,000 just for appearing in the final. Eleven of them are British.
And the audience for the competition is likely to be massive. Nearly one in five British children aged between three and 18 said they’d watched e-sports in the last three months, according to The Insights People, and e-sports are more popular among boys aged 10-13 than boxing, motorsport, basketball and cricket.
Four million people watched players competing at The International play DOTA 2 last year, with a combined watch time of nearly 500 million hours across the whole tournament. Fortnite isn’t as big as DOTA in China, which will reduce its viewer numbers in comparison to The International – but a pro-am competition held last year was watched by two million concurrent viewers.
While that pales in comparison with the Women’s World Cup’s billion estimated viewers worldwide, football has a decades-long head-start on e-sports. Fortnite’s name recognition among more casual gamers could stand it in good stead when it comes to viewership – especially when considering that players will be able to watch the competition through Epic’s official stream, on screens within the game itself, should they choose, or via any of the competitors’ personal streams on sites like Twitch and YouTube, allowing fans to watch the action from the perspective of their favourite player.
But Huxley is divided as to the competition’s wider impact on the world of e-sports. The casual observer might lump all e-sports into one bracket, but there’s no reason why a Fortnite fan will tune into watch an e-sports tournament for a different game.
“It’s analogous to sports in that way, in that if there’s this really successful World Cup in football, that’s not going to make more people go down to the Oval to play Test matches,” he explains. “However, the one advantage it does bring is that the marketing around it will reach a lot of people. In terms of the financial sponsorship, a rising tide floats all boats.”
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