“Fortnite” is not and may never be esports-ready.
As online multiplayer titles increase in popularity and competitive gaming racks grow progressively larger in viewership and investments, video game developers are increasingly tantalized to push their game as the next “big esport.” Games such as “PUBG,” “Overwatch,” and “Rainbow Six Siege” spawned professional leagues and held major tournaments within a year of their release.
Frequent title franchises such as “Call of Duty” and “Super Smash Bros.” have historically begun competitive play from the day of release. Even mobile games, such as “Clash Royale,” have ventured into esports with sizeable prize pools and legitimate competition. Developers are now, more than ever, engaged in a speculative “gold rush” — an unrelenting pursuit of the cash cow that is esports.
Thus, as “Fortnite” begins its entrance into competitive play with an announced $100 million prize pool and organized events such as the Summer Skirmish, it begs the question: is “Fortnite” the next big esport — the football of video games?
As it stands now? Absolutely not.
Perhaps the biggest problem “Fortnite” has is the genre itself. “Battle Royale” games are a relatively untested market in the esport industry. Games such as “League of Legends,” ”Counter-Strike” and “Super Smash Bros.” have established MOBAs, first-person shooters and fighting games, respectively, as marketable genres.
But “Battle Royale” games have a different history. Predecessors to “Fortnite,” “H1Z1” and “PUBG,” struggled to make inroads in the market, as buggy gameplay and inconsistency plagued their esports into obscurity. The reputation of “PUBG” itself has become a meme, with people on social media platforms often mocking the game and its esports-ready approach. And while the polish and relatively bug-free gameplay of “Fortnite” has freed itself of the disastrous “Battle Royale” past, it has yet to rectify the other problem of the genre — that exciting and aggressive gameplay does not lend itself to winning.
In almost every other esport, at least semifrequent clash is needed to win the game. In “Counter-Strike,” clash occurs every round; in “League of Legends” and “Dota 2,” there are frequent teamfights. Games such as “Super Smash Bros.” and “Rocket League” are all clash, all the time.
But in “Fortnite,” clash — if necessary at all — typically occurs at the end of the game. Getting into gun battles and build fights may grant a player a better weapon or other strategic resources, but it also opens up the opportunity to be “third-partied” or attacked by other players. Often the best strategy, paraphrasing the movie “WarGames,” is simply not to play. Hiding until you cannot hide anymore gives you the best chance to win, as the number of players remaining toward the end have decreased dramatically.
Without clash, viewers are left yearning for action and excitement. The meta of building, editing and hiding doesn’t equate to high entertainment value, and thus the vast majority of games are simply boring.
While “Fortnite” has attempted to counter this issue by rewarding kills and aggressive gameplay with more money and points, its solution creates problems of its own. If winning is not the most important and sole factor, then the games themselves lose meaning. If, for example, someone only needs the points from two kills to secure first place at an event and if they get those kills early on, who cares about who ultimately wins the game? The rest of the match becomes a consolation prize, a less-valued competition.
The models presented in events, such as the Summer Skirmish, where winning is not the main focus, don’t bring about the same excitement that victory in games like League and “Counter-Strike” do. No other sport or esport has a platform built on rewarding the losing players, and current models of “Fortnite” must grapple with that deep-rooted flaw.
Beyond the issue of the genre, there are faults within the presentation of “Fortnite” as well. Maps on games such as “CSGO” and “League of Legends” are subdued backgrounds designed to make the gameplay clear and focused. They alter the approach to the game but do not become the game itself, instead allowing the gun battles and team fights to be the focal point of spectating.
But with building and editing being integral to “Fortnite” fights, the background becomes the foreground, and it leads to a cluttered and overly complex spectator experience. With multiple teams and players fighting at the same time in an increasingly changing landscape, viewers struggle to discern exactly what happened in fights and why one player ultimately won.
Finally, “Fortnite” also suffers from a narrative problem. What drives fandom in sports and esports are underdogs, rivalries and dynasties. Lakers vs. Celtics, FaZe vs OpTic, “NA” vs “EU” and countless more are all story arches, tapestries weaved together to make a “history.” But in “Fortnite,” there is minimal possibility for narratives or storytelling. There is so much inconsistency at the top that while certainly a top brass of elite players exists, there will never be true rivalries, dominant players or upsets. Rather, every match played feels more like “Any Given Sunday” in which anyone can win. Without foundational legacies to make games historical and impactful, “Fortnite” events will lack the zealotry that make sports/esports matter.
This is not to say that the esports venture of “Fortnite” is without hope. Large viewership numbers and an unprecedented player base give “Fortnite” and the industry its best chance to rival mainstream sports in viewership and positive public opinion. But unless it addresses these core concerns within the genre and the game itself, it may go the way of many games before it — here one day and gone the next.
Michael Brust covers esports. Contact him at [email protected].