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The Fortnite World Cup was a success because it showed the gaming world that major events can be held around the series while also using the game’s cachet to bring esports closer to the mainstream, industry executives say.
Epic Games held the inaugural three-day event at the U.S. Tennis Association’s Arthur Ashe Stadium two weekends ago before a crowd that the North Carolina-based game maker put at more than 19,000. Not only was the event held at a major stadium, it also came as NFL teams report to training camp and MLB nears its pennant chase, underscoring the confidence that Epic had in the event.
Epic said that between Twitch and YouTube, a maximum number of 2.3M people digitally streamed the solo final competition simultaneously, making it the most-watched competitive gaming event ever outside of China. MVPindex said five streams on Twitch showed the solo finals, and the top one averaged 362K viewers.
While the event was seen in the esports industry as a big first step for Fortnite’s competitive efforts, it also got significant coverage in mainstream media outlets, emphasizing how Fortnite’s potentially unrivaled cultural resonance could end up being a boon to all of competitive gaming. Of particular interest to those media outlets (see box) was that Epic gave $3M USD to the winner of the solo finals — 16-year-old American Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf.
Epic planned the event for more than a year and chose the USTA venue because the grounds could accommodate a large fanfest and because of the stadium’s retractable roof if poor weather made it necessary.
“We were super pleased with the event — having that much attention on esports is great for everybody,” said Lee Trink, CEO and co-owner of FaZe Clan, an esports team with several competitors in this year’s event. “The event was exciting, but it’s not only the event itself but everything surrounding it. The excitement that existed in New York City around it also tells the story around gaming and esports and how big it is.”
FaZe Clan held a pop-up shop event in the SoHo District of Manhattan with its streamers the day the World Cup started, and thousands of fans showed up to the point police shut down the event, according to Trink and video posted on social media.
Epic had a $30M purse for the World Cup and 40M people tried to qualify for it. The event’s production costs were significant, with a unique two-story stage in the stadium to house 100 competitors and massive screens for fans in the stands. It was not known how much Epic paid to rent the venue. Tickets were sold through Ticketmaster and typically cost between $50 and $100. Merchandise was sold at the event as well.
The inaugural Fortnite World Cup received massive coverage in mainstream media from outlets that included CNN, ESPN, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, People, NBC’s “Today” show, Ad Age, the Boston Globe, Business Insider, The Guardian, Forbes, Marketwatch and more.
Comedy Central’s Trevor Noah:
“Video games used to be the consolation prize for not going to prom. But now, thanks to video games, nerds can buy the prom.”
ABC’s Michael Strahan:
“It’s hard to tell your kids to put down the video games when somebody’s winning $3 million.”
“The Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon:
“People think, ‘Oh, you just play video games.’ … Your parents are proud of you. But at first were they like, ‘Hey, we got to talk. … This is fun, but you got to get working over at 7-11.”
ESPN’s Mina Kimes:
“It fills the stadium, and over 2 million people watch it. … He’s making that much because it’s that popular.”
Team Secret CEO John Yao:
“[Fortnite has] done something that no other game has, which is really pushed esports to the mainstream.”
Epic did not sell sponsorships or linear TV rights to the event, limiting the amount of revenue it could recoup from the tournament. However, industry experts said the strategy focused attention around the event on Fortnite and the competitors. For example, Epic produced dozens of videos highlighting the competitors and their stories of how they qualified for the event.
In a move that drew criticism from some esports executives, players’ teams were minimized, with Epic limiting the number of logos that players could have on their jerseys. Team affiliations were not mentioned on graphics showing the standings after games.
The battle royale-style game is played by 100 solo competitors or 50 two-man duos, which makes it less like traditional esports that have full teams.
Industry executives praised how Epic made the video game come to life for attendees and how the company conversely brought the event to video game players who were not there in person. About 30 costumed figures from the game roamed the grounds of the stadium, dancing and taking photos with attendees. The fan festival included activities for event-goers that mimicked how characters in the game must complete certain actions to unlock rewards. Meanwhile, people playing the game at home had an option to watch the event in real-time.
Stuart Saw, senior vice president of esports for Endeavor, said the combination of the unique fan festival, the way Epic brought the game to life and the scale of the competition with an unusually large stage gave the event a special feeling.
“Just from a feeling and vibe perspective from someone who has been in esports for forever and a day, there was an atmosphere there that isn’t at every event,” said Saw, whose company works with Epic Games on everything from licensing opportunities to helping sell digital media rights for the World Cup.
The event earned about $23M in total media value, according to MVPindex, almost all of which is attributable to Fortnite and Epic Games because there was no sponsorship. Of that total figure, MVPindex calculated that $1M alone came from traditional media coverage from the likes of the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Wasting no time to keep the momentum rolling, Epic announced a new Fortnite Champions Series during the World Cup, and it went viral with a trailer previewing its new Season 10 for the updatable video game. Epic has not announced how regularly it will hold a World Cup. But Trink said he would be surprised if Epic doesn’t start holding a major competitive event annually.
“The Fortnite World Cup was a great example of how esports transcends endemic fans and can captivate the entire nation and world,” said Joey Brander, president and managing partner of First Serve Partners, which has invested in esports. “This will usher in a new group of fans who may not have been fully aware or familiar with esports prior.”
Adam Stern is a writer for Sports Business Journal, where this article first appeared.
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