Insights is a weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
This past week’s wide release of Fortnite on iOS proved that, while not everyone plays games, sometimes it can seem like it. More specifically, it can seem like everyone’s playing one particular game that punches through the pop-culture background noise into wider conversations, much as Pokemon Go did in the summer of 2016. And in Fortnite’s case, they’re not just playing the game, they’re skipping school for it, they’re posting videos, watching it endlessly, pulling in NBA players and rap stars and even making it onto daytime TV and sports-talk radio.
Fortnite shot to No. 1 on the iTunes Store list 12 hours after becoming widely available April 2. Five days after coming out of beta mode, Fortnite remains the store’s most-downloaded app, and No. 3 in gross revenues, behind entertainment giants Pandora and Netflix.
Sensor Tower, a game industry analyst, estimated the game already had made $15 million in its first three weeks. As in most online games these days, the money largely comes from in-app purchases of “Battle Pass” subscriptions and virtual goods such as a prized avatar outfit called The Raven and matching “Feathered Flyer Glider” (combined cost is 2800 “V-Bucks,” the in-game currency, or about $28 ). Not a bad little business.
Back in July, the cartoon-y first-person shooter from Epic Games released on PC and console (where, in February, Fortnite has grossed an estimated $128 million). The original game is built around what’s called “co-op sandbox survival mode,” as you build a base with three colleagues to shelter against a zombie apocalypse and killer storms while saving civilization..
But what really made Fortnite take off was a standalone, free-to-play battle royale mode, pitting 100 players against each other, that released on most platforms in September. The identical iOS version launched as an invite-only beta version on March 15.
Battle Royale is essentially King of the Mountain with guns (and guided missiles and pickaxes and crossbows and whatever else you can find while scrambling to survive). You also can build things, like walls, for cover. Fortnite Battle Royale cribbed many features from, among other titles, Players Unknown Battlegrounds, known as PUBG, a competitor that grabbed gamer love last summer despite crummy graphics and other glitches.
Epic’s version has much of what made PUBG so engaging, with better looks and a healthy dose of goofy humor (Easter season brought an “egg launcher,” temporarily replacing the rocket launcher).
The game already has become a disruptive force in the already dicey attention spans of American teens. Some schools call frequent student sickouts “Fortnitis” as kids blow off class to play at home all day. Now, so many mobile players are kludging up school WiFi systems that some districts are blocking both Fortnite and Twitch.TV, used to watch top players such as Ninja do their thing.
The mobile version (an Android version is promised “within a few months”) will only push the game further out into the culture, even if its technical demands mean it only works on newer and more powerful devices (iPhone 6S and up, newer iPads).
Ninja, whose real name is Tyler Blevins, earns a reported $500,000 per month from his endorsements and ad revenues. He’s streaming Fortnite pretty much full time these days, but also has been a top player of PUBG, another battle royale title called H1Z1, and classic first-person shooter Halo.
Ninja grabbed headlines recently when pop superstar Drake joined him during a Twitch live stream that drew 635,000 concurrent viewers. Drake’s Fortnite skills were later dissed by another rapper, Logic, while performing on that most mainstream of outlets, the Ellen TV show. It is, as Inverse.com put it, perhaps the first-ever video game rap feud. At least this pair could settle their beef with virtual rather than real weaponry.
Ninja also has a big presence on YouTube Gaming, including one post that drew 19 million views of him killing nearly a third of all his competitors in a single game.
According to Tubular Labs’ data, that post drew the most views of any Fortnite game video yet, though Ninja is only third behind Ali-A and BCC Trolling in total views of all their respective Fortnite videos. British gamer Ali-A has drawn 397 million views for 99 Fortnite YouTube videos.
A live stream on YouTube Gaming featuring Spanish player ElRubiusOMG also set a record, drawing 1.1 million simultaneous views of his match against 99 other YouTubers. The fact that Ali-A and ElRubiusOMG are not Americans further suggests the game’s international reach.
And the game is definitely making a splash all across the Internet. All told, Fortnite videos have been watched more than 10.1 billion times on YouTube and another 903 million times on Facebook, according to Tubular. It’s every bit as big on Twitch, where audiences for live streams of Fortnite game hosts routinely double those of any other titles.
And Fortnite’s blossoming success only caps what has been a good few months for the entire game and esports business, and ancillary businesses such as online video.
Ready Player One, the Steven Spielberg film adaptation of a best-selling book about a virtual-reality-infused future, is stuffed with gamer homages, from the classic Street Fighter to the more recent mega-hit Overwatch. RP1 debuted March 29 and had collected $241.7 million in worldwide grosses in 8 days of release. It’s already fifth among U.S. films this year in cumulative gross, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.
Meanwhile, in esports, two weekends of championships sponsored by ESL One and Intel Extreme Masters drew 173,000 people attendees. That was a particularly impressive turnout given that the matches were held in the small southern Poland city of Katowice (population 297,000).
More impressively, live streams of the championships – for long-time competition titles such as Starcraft 2 and Counter Strike: Global Offensive – drew as many as 2.2 million concurrent viewers online worldwide. That’s roughly the size of a prime-time audience for any of the 24-hour cable news stations. All told, 46 million people tuned in at some point to watch the championships, according to ESL.
Meanwhile, pop-culture references to Fortnite keep cropping up in unexpected places. Sports-radio host Dan Patrick, for instance, spent virtually an entire 9-minute interview recently with NBA rookie Josh Hart of the Los Angeles Lakers, talking about Hart’s love of Fortnite.
When Patrick asked Hart what was better, winning the NCAA national championship in 2016 while at Villanova, or winning a Fortnite game for the first time, Hart hesitated. Eventually he said the first Fortnite win was better, because he did it himself, without a team.
It’s comments like that which make me think Fortnite’s moment in the pop culture spotlight may last far more than the two weeks of a real fortnight. Now, where’s that egg launcher?