As the Fortnite Fan Festival began to wind down on the afternoon of July 28, a crowd of approximately 18,000 began to file into New York’s Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, Queens, for the first-ever Fortnite World Cup solo competition. One hundred highly skilled players, whittled down from an eye-popping 40 million participants across 10 weeks of qualifying rounds, would be competing against each other in Fortnite’s Battle Royale mode, in which the last man standing wins, for millions of dollars in prize money. Having witnessed the duos competition the day prior, my nephew/consultant/sidekick, Jake, and I were pumped.
Each attendee held a ticket with a seat within the arena, so there wasn’t much of a need to rush the stadium. However, hours before the fan festival closed, kids and families queued up in line to receive a special giveaway. Ticketholders learned just days before the event that dj and electronic music producer Marshmello would be performing during the pre-show before the solos (the day prior was the duos competition and on the event’s first day attendees watched the celebrity Pro-AM and Creative finals). They also learned that the first 2,500 in line would get free cardboard Marshmello masks to wear during the show, and the next 10,000 would get thunder clappers to cheer with. (For the unfamiliar, the entertainer wears a marshmallow-shaped helmet on his head while performing. He’s particularly popular with Fortnite fans because he staged the first-ever live virtual concert within the game on Feb. 3.)
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Entering the stadium, which typically holds US Open tennis matches, our eyes were immediately drawn to the multiple JumboTron screens hanging from the roof and the two-story, hexagonal structure below it built to house 100 players and their game consoles. Its exterior and individual player boxes were covered in wood, brick and metal decals, the same materials used by players to build structures in-game. Once gameplay kicked off, an image of each player’s face was projected onto the wall behind them—as long as they were alive and well.
During the half-hour pre-show, players were introduced in small groups by the event’s on-the-ground hosts before entering the players’ lounge and taking a seat. The crowd cheered for fan favorites, friends and fellow team members while smoke effects blasted upward and lasers flashed. Intermittently, heartwarming player profiles ran on the JumboTron screens, connecting audience members to the personal journeys of these 13- to 17-year-old players from across the globe. One in particular caught our eye: duo and solo player “Dubs,” a clear fan favorite judging from the reaction of the crowd, was a hardcore skateboarder before getting into gaming. But then he broke his leg and learned he’d be confined to a cast for a year. As a way to lift his spirits, his mom bought him a gaming console. The rest is history.
Meanwhile, a broadcast stage on one side of the stadium served as home base for the competition’s commentators: for the duos, we heard Ninja, a rainbow-haired Fortnite streamer who had recently vacated his massively popular Twitch channel for Microsoft’s streaming platform Mixer; and for the solo finals, popular Twitch streamer DrLupo. In addition to calling the six consecutive matches of Battle Royale play, they broke down the unique scoring system of the event.
At the end of each game, players earned points for placing in the top 25 (with higher ranks earning more), points for eliminating players (or “kills”), and 10 points, the greatest number possible in a match, for winning a Victory Royale as the last man standing. At the end of the six matches, points were tallied and the winners declared. In this tournament, it paid to qualify. Not only were the players flown into New York from their respective countries, all expenses paid, but each solo player automatically won $150,000 for taking part in the competition. Not a bad consolation prize.
Then, it was time for Marshmello to do his thing. With marshmallow heads bobbing and inflatable pickaxes waving in the audience, the dj led a singalong to one of his most popular tunes, “Happier.” Then, finally, the countdown to the competition began. Let’s play!
Throughout the competition, graphics on the screens alerted the audience to the number of players out of 100 who were still remaining; which stage of play we were in; which players were alive; and how soon “the storm” would arrive.
Game Note: In order to encourage confrontation and ensure that players don’t hideout the entire match as a survival tactic, a deadly storm shrinks the map down to a final circle of play.
As for player viewpoints, a showrunner behind-the-scenes would switch back and forth between different players, sometimes splitting the screens with two players currently battling each other for extra drama. All the while, players’ faces appeared in the corner of the screen. When there was a great kill—or better yet, a succession of kills—the crowd went wild. Other times, players would make cheeky in-game moves, like 13-year-old player “King,” the youngest athlete in the bunch, who took the time to laugh hysterically after eliminating an opponent.
I can say with confidence that these kids are a talented bunch. They move within the game at dizzying speeds, not easily tracked with an untrained eye. Thanks to my nephew/consultant/sidekick and the commentators’ explanations, I learned how and why certain moves exhibited super skill. And, thanks to Fortnite’s Replay Mode, commentators could revisit epic moments during play. This often occurred after a Victory Royale was awarded. Given the high skill level, a large number of players tended to remain alive in the final circle of play. We were able to watch the crowded battlefield in-game with a birds-eye view projected onto one of the screens, which enhanced our anticipation and reeled us in during the final moments.
Toward the last couple of matches, a potential winner began to emerge. And by the last round, Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf, a 16-year-old from Pennsylvania, was leading by so many points that his win appeared imminent. In the end, he was 26 points clear of second place and took home the $3 million prize. The reticent teen accepted his trophy from event host “Goldenboy” with pride and humility amidst the flashing lights and blasts of smoke effects, shaking his head in disbelief.
But perhaps the best prize of all? Epic Games has immortalized his winner trophy within the game itself, in his landing spot of choice. Not bad for a video game. Agencies: Endeavor, iam8bit.