Fortnite’s potential as an esport shouldn’t even be a point of conversation. Until recently, Epic Games’ latest title was meandering along in early access as a decent, if somewhat unremarkable, co-op survival shooter. When it was first announced in 2011, its mix of crafting and resource gathering in a PvE zombie horde mode checked about every single box on the list of ‘things popular in games right now’. However, enthusiasm for punching trees and blasting the undead had dulled during the six year gap leading up to the game’s launch, and Fortnite looked like one of the shambling monsters it tasked you with killing: the reanimated corpse of something long-dead.
Then, its fortunes changed. The free-to-play launch of a new mode, Fortnite: Battle Royale, gave the game a jolt of new life and the timing was impeccable. H1Z1 was still lingering around, but it was PUBG that stood as king of the hill and the gaming community was caught up in a battle royale fever. Suddenly, with Fortnite: Battle Royale, a more colourful and less janky option was available – and best of all, it was free. Whether you think it was an opportunistic move or a smart reaction to gaming tastes, it’s catapulted the game’s popularity. And with Epic’s other competitive titles such as Unreal Tournament and Paragon either still in the works or retired due a lack of healthy interest, it seems they might finally be onto a winner.
Right now, Fortnite: Battle Royale’s consistently the most viewed game on Twitch. In February, it edged past PUBG’s record and peaked at 3.4 million concurrent players. Updates continue to roll out to address problems with the game and add new features. Esports organisations are showing interest in the game too, picking up teams and players for competitive play or content creation. Gather that all together and it’s clear that now’s the time for Fortnite: Battle Royale’s big esports push.
To start with, though, you have to consider one of the most important aspects for a game’s potential as an esport: the viewing experience. Fortnite: Battle Royale’s design moves away from the gritty and militaristic tone of PUBG in favour of something more jovial and light-hearted. It’s a game of dumb costumes, silly taunt dances and meme-worthy moments. It’s immediately a more accessible game at first glance.
Gunning for a victory royale
Take the weapons, for example. In Fortnite: Battle Royale, an assault rifle is an assault rifle; a pistol is a pistol. Variations in rarity and use are there, but the pool of weapons is much smaller and self-explanatory so that you can work out how well-equipped a player is and how they might approach an upcoming fight with a quick look.
PUBG, on the other hand, gains a lot of added depth in terms of loot and attachments, but it means there’s much more information that needs to be conveyed to get an understanding of a player’s position in the game. Sure, once you’ve gained more experience with the game it might be obvious when someone’s wielding a Kar98k, but do they have a decent scope to go with it too? What other attachments do they have? There’s far more detail you need relayed to fully grasp the current situation in a match.
Yet, where Fortnite: Battle Royale can be argued to lack depth in terms of weaponry, it can be found elsewhere with its building mechanics. It’s an element that’s heavily underused by beginners, but when you watch some of the game’s best players, you see how rapidly they can assemble a secure mega-base or a handy sniping tower in a matter of seconds to give them an advantage in gunfights.
Where these mechanics truly shine, though, are when players catch each other out in the open and try to outsmart one another with their builds. A one-on-one duel is rarely two players firing potshots at each other from a pair of bushes, but a tense scramble of fast ramp and platform building to claim the high ground and outmanoeuvre their opponent.
Building a new esport
There are wild plays that might see players circle around trying to outbuild each other as they climb further and further into the sky. The peril of falling to their doom with one misplaced platform becomes just as threatening as the shotgun in the hands of their opponent.
Highlight reel-worthy playmaking potential lies in many of the game’s other items too. The recently introduced Impulse Grenades, which send players flying with a blast of energy, have been expertly employed by the game’s top players with stunning results. Sure, you can lob them at your opponents to knock them off buildings or scatter them in a fight, but we’ve seen players drop them at their feet to gloriously arc through the air into enemy structures and take out the unsuspecting target inside with a clutch shotgun blast. Truly the most majestic way to deal death. Meanwhile, launch pads, traps and the high-risk play of ‘rocket riding’ offer other ludicrous options to outsmart opponents.
All of these sorts of skirmishes occur even more often in Fortnite: Battle Royale, too, thanks to the game’s smaller map. There are more hotspots within a much closer proximity to each other, which ensures there’s frequent action. That’s not to say there aren’t any moments of calm trudging across hills and cliffs to reach the next circle, and there may need to be some tweaks to discourage the current meta of half the bus dropping at Titled Towers, but these are the challenges tournament organisers will need to overcome.
The good news for anyone hopeful for the game’s competitive future is that the potential hasn’t gone amiss with esports organisations too. TSM got the ball rolling with a team built around popular streamer Ali ‘Myth’ Kabbani as captain, while Method have already added a Fortnite: Battle Royale team to their roster. More recently, esports giant FaZe Clan have confirmed their Fortnite squad, featuring Dennis ‘Cloak’ Lepore, Thomas ‘72hrs’ Mulligan, Thang ‘SpaceLyon’ Phan and Brendan ‘Jaomock’ O'Brien.
It’s clear that with big orgs entering the fray at an early stage, there’s a reasonable degree of confidence in Fortnite: Battle Royale’s competitive future. There seems to be no signs of the player base falling either, as it’s broken outside of the niche gaming world and into the mainstream conversation. With Epic recently dropping Paragon to devote their time and energy on their breakout hit, everything’s in place for that success to carry into esports too.