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A sold-out crowd in the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens roared as Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf lifted the Fortnite World Cup Solo trophy above his head on July 28. Inside the arena, which usually hosts the U.S. Open, purple and blue lights cut through the smoke and confetti filling the air to focus on the 16-year-old as he celebrated winning the first-ever Fortnite World Cup, a tournament for players of the popular Fortnite online game. The $3 million first-place prize was the largest ever awarded at a gaming tournament.
Forty million people had competed for 10 weeks to try to reach the World Cup finals in New York City. The finals lasted three days, awarded $30 million in winnings, and showcased the hottest e-sport right now. Colleges, including Christian ones like Olivet Nazarene, have begun offering e-sport scholarships.
In just two years, Fortnite has become one of the most popular video games in history. As of March 2019, the game had amassed almost 250 million players. It pulls in billions of dollars in revenue, even though it is free to download (developer Epic Games makes money through in-game purchases).
Fortnite’s design appeals broadly across age groups. It differs from other popular shooting games by refraining from showing blood. It combines the appeal of online multiplayer games with virtual storytelling: Players can attend live events like concerts with other players inside the game. The colorful design, thematic costumes, and trendy dances that players can earn for their characters have set Fortnite apart as a brand.
None of these concepts is new to gaming, but Fortnite has expanded their reach. It contains three game modes: Fortnite: Save the World (a post-apocalyptic survival game), Fortnite Creative, and the most popular, Fortnite Battle Royale.
Fortnite Battle Royale, a third-person shooting free-for-all, was the focus of the World Cup. In Battle Royale, 100 starting players build their surroundings and then battle. A purple storm slowly closes in, forcing the players into a smaller and smaller space and killing those who cannot move quickly enough. Those who manage to avoid the storm and take out all of the competition earn a “Victory Royale.”
As serious competition began on the second day of the finals, anxious parents, gaming teams, and players’ agents filled the stands. Media swarmed the lower levels of the stadium. In place of the usual tennis court, a two-story gaming station towered above the crowd. The walls were covered with video screens, allowing the audience to see each player’s face as he competed.
Cheers and moans rose with each player’s elimination. Matches often came down to the final seconds of play, accompanied by the announcers’ excited commentary. On the last day, Bugha overwhelmed his competition with elimination after elimination.
Kids who score “kills” on Fortnite might consider themselves virtual heroes, but some parents view them as addicts. The enormous popularity of Fortnite has moms, dads, and teachers alike complaining about children and teens playing the game in class (on mobile phones) and skipping sleep in order to battle online after midnight.
Some studies have suggested video games can improve brain function. Others differ. Some players struggle to control their hobby: A LendEDU survey last year found that Fortnite players on average spend six to 10 hours per week on the game, with 35 percent admitting they’d missed school time in order to play.
Parents tell of teens growing angry when made to put their consoles away. Blogger and former teacher Erika Sanzi wrote that she leveraged her kids’ love of Fortnite as motivation: “They’ll race to get their homework done so they can play.”
The appeal is partly social. As they play, Fortnite gamers typically talk to one another on headsets, creating a virtual, after-school meeting place for friends. (The chat function is unfiltered, though, and players may use it to bully or swear at rivals.)
Fortnite’s violence is cartoonish, but game characters, including some sexualized female characters, do shoot one another with realistic guns. Some research has linked violent video games to aggressive behavior in children, but the data is conflicted. China and Japan have large gaming industries but relatively few gun deaths. —Daniel James Devine