In many ways, Fortnite still has a lot to prove as an e-sport. But exactly one year after the game’s first officially sanctioned tournament and just one month ahead of its $30 million World Cup event in New York, the battle royale hit is starting to look like it can hold its own as a competitive game. Developer Epic Games hosted its second annual Pro-Am celebrity tournament this past weekend in Los Angeles, which happened right at the tail end of E3 and capped off a weekend fan celebration it called Fortnite Summer Block Party.
It felt like a preamble to the World Cup, if only because the charity event highlighted key elements of Fortnite’s competitive community and live production chops. Those will be on full display, and determine the popularity and success of what will be the world’s biggest e-sport competition by prize money, come July.
This year, the Pro-Am event was hosted in the Forum, a gigantic circular stadium in Inglewood, California known for hosting big-name music acts. Outside, Epic erected an amusement park where participants could compete to fill up a challenge card, taken straight from the game itself, that could be exchanged for exclusive prizes.
There was also Fortnite’s signature roster of mascots roaming the grounds and taking photos with fans, all donning popular in-game skins like Peely the banana, the rainbow-adorned Brite Bomber, and the Durr Burger hamburger man. Walking around and looking at the faces of eager young Fortnite fans who must have felt like they were walking into the video game itself was enough to illustrate why Epic spends the money it does to host these real-world extravaganzas.
But once you walked inside the 17,500-seat Forum, the event transformed into a high-production affair with a spectacular light show, sound system, and stage setup. To showcase its production and live event skills ahead of the World Cup, Epic debuted a new, custom-built structure the size of a large house featuring a dizzying number of screens viewable from any angle and designed to hold 100 players simultaneously. It was split into two sides, each with screens of various sizes dedicated to transmitting a variety of information. One showed you the currently alive players, another kept track of points and standings, and one was a narrow, ticker-style screen that displayed a steady stream of in-game happenings that weren’t caught by the cameras.
Meanwhile, multiple large displays were switching between player viewpoints and cameras floating in the virtual sky, catching fights from multiple angles to give the audience a unique look at the action. The sheer breadth of technology and live talent Epic is now using to monitor this fast-moving game mode, which can involve a half-dozen critical events occurring simultaneously, has come a very long way from last year’s Pro-Am.
It’s even many steps above the recent seasonal tournaments. It never felt like I was missing something that I would have liked to see, and the casters have somehow managed to keep up with narrating events that have, understandably, become much more chaotic and fast-moving in the year since competitive Fortnite first kicked into high gear.
Most importantly, however, just being present at the second Pro-Am reasserted Fortnite’s mainstream popularity with young, impressionable gaming fans, many of whom were ecstatic to be watching their favorite game played by their favorite streamers in such glamorous fashion. Epic made sure to introduce every duo in the 50-team event one by one so fans could cheer for their favorites.
The roster included Fortnite stars like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, Turner “Tfue” Tenney, and Dennis “Cloakzy” Lepore, among dozens of other streamers each paired with a celebrity, athlete, musician, or popular internet personality. (The celebrity list wasn’t as star studded, but it did feature Marshawn Lynch, Brendie Urie, Joel McHale, and Hannibal Buress, among quite a few other recognizable names.)
There were also a number of serious competitive players that, while lacking the influence and popularity of Twitch’s bigger streamers, have qualified for the World Cup and were there to showcase their skills. That included former League of Legends pro Karim “Airwaks” Benghalia of Switzerland who’s currently signed to European e-sports team Solary. Alongside his partner, electronic music producer RL Grime, Airwaks won the whole tournament, thanks largely to a stunning 16-kill win in the first of the four rounds that earned the pair 26 points. RL Grime, to his credit, was responsible for two of those kills, and he played shockingly well given the circumstances.
But it was clear that watching these players perform was a dream come true for a whole generation of very young gaming fans who are growing up with competitive Fortnite as their first ever e-sport. These are fans that will, over time, grow into the lifelong e-sports viewers that will drive the influence and popularity of the market in the coming years, and Epic is basically winning them over when they’re in elementary school. Some of these fans are young enough that they will go on to become streamers and even competitive Fortnite players themselves, something that older Overwatch, League of Legends, and Dota 2 fans cannot reasonably say for themselves.
The Pro-Am also highlighted how the competitive Fortnite community now has a sizeable roster of well-known superstars to root for, many of whom were virtually unknown a year ago. Ninja hasn’t qualified for the World Cup yet, and some of the most popular Fortnite entertainers, like Jack “Courage” Dunlop and Ben “Dr Lupo” Lupo, have forgone ambitions to be competitive pros in favor of building streaming careers. But that still leaves hundreds of highly competitive players eager to earn the title of best in the world.
For instance, the biggest Fortnite player right now is Tfue, who came in third in the tournament and is headed to the World Cup next month after a controversial contract dispute with his employer Faze Clan. There’s also controller player Aydan Conrad, another qualifier who earned the spotlight by winning one of the four Pro-Am matches in spectacular fashion and almost winning his very next match until he was taken out by Mason “Symfunny” Lanier, who came in sixth.
There are even players who, while not World Cup contenders quite yet, are becoming rising stars in the scene, and the Pro-Am was a great opportunity to see them shine. One of the best moments in the tournament belonged to one such player, 13-year-old Soleil “Ewok” Wheeler. A deaf gamer, Ewok plays without sound and uses Epic’s built-in visual synthesizer to compete. She was paired with Atlanta Falcons backup quarterback Kurt Benkert, a friend of Ewok and her family that learned American Sign Language specifically to communicate with her.
In one moment that Epic’s production crew was lucky enough to feature on the big screen, Ewok worked with Benkert to take out Dr Lupo. When his teammate, musician and actor Jordan Fisher (who also happens to be a huge gamer), tried valiantly to escape, Ewok followed him through two rifts and multiple wind tunnels to hunt him down with cold, calculated precision. The chase was captured in full live at the event, and the crowd erupted with cheers and laughs. Ewok then communicated her position to Benkert using sign language, unaware that her performance had been broadcasted to hundreds of thousands of viewers around the world. In a later game, Ewok claimed a top 10 finish against some of the best players on the planet.
Ewok was later brought onstage by Epic’s on-camera casting talent for a brief interview using ASL, and she has undeniably become one of the faces of Fortnite’s younger competitive community. Her infectious optimism, combined with her astonishing skill and her activism for gamers with disabilities, is earning her a meteoric rise in the broader Twitch community, too.
Her Twitter stream over the weekend was full of viral moments of her meeting her biggest role models in the Forrtnite scene, and she was profiled last week by ESPN. It’s clear Ewok is the kind of organic, teenage star Fortnite is cultivating, and she’s proof the game’s younger audience is capable of producing talented players who can grow up to be the Ninja’s and Tfue’s of the next generation.
Right now, Fortnite is the only game that can realistically do all of this: it can produce stars like Ewok and give them a massive stage to perform on while also being the home of Twitch’s most popular streamers and some of the most competitive players in the scene.
So while it may not have been a proper e-sports event like you’d find at the Blizzard Arena for Overwatch League, the second Fortnite Pro-Am looked, sounded, and felt like one in all the ways that will matter next month when Epic hosts two 100-player tournament finals at Arthur Ashe Stadium with tens of millions of dollars on the line. That will mark the end of year one for Fortnite e-sports, but it’s also just the beginning.