The Twitch record for concurrent viewers was broken this past weekend, as top Fortnite streamer Ninja hosted Ninja Vegas, a tournament which was watched live by 667,000 people at one and the same time. It’s the first attempt to turn Fortnite, the battle royale free-for-all which is currently the biggest game on the planet, into a competitive spectator sport.
But this event only served to highlight the problems that battle royale games have in transitioning to the huge, stadium-filling spectacles that Counter-Strike, DOTA, and League of Legends have become. We saw it with the invitational Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds tournament last year which failed to take off, and many of the same issues were prevalent here.
First and foremost is simply the format. Battle royale games do not lend well to the kind of tightly controlled play environments that high level e-sports require. They are about bringing order to huge, chaotic maps, with a healthy amount of luck to boot. Often the smartest way to play is the least exciting – that is, crouching in a PUBG bush or camping in a 1×1 Fortnite tower – and that doesn’t bode well for serious competition.
Then there’s the problem of who to watch – with 100 concurrent players, how can you meaningfully invest in any one of them, or allow storylines to grow? The team at Ninja Vegas handled this better than at the PUBG invitational, where large parts of the action were missed by the cameras, spectating somebody running across an empty field while plays were happening elsewhere.
Here, the viewers were watching and rooting for Ninja at all times, while a collection of other prominent Twitch streamers and Youtubers fought alongside him. Anyone who killed Ninja earned $2500, which rolled over to the next game if he survived, and another $2500 was awarded to the winner of each game. This worked reasonably well, but there were still a couple of occasions where Ninja died in the middle part of a match, and we were left watching an unknown player nobody particularly cared for.
Then there was the fact that, because of where monitors were positioned in the arena, some players could clearly see the screen which was broadcasting Ninja’s gameplay feed to the crowd. One particularly hilarious shot caught a player who had just killed Ninja turning to look right at it, betraying the fact that he’d obviously been following it and camping for a chance to earn $2500.
There were also technical issues, which are understandable in a game still in early access, but completely unacceptable if we were to take Fortnite seriously as a sport where huge prize pools of money are on the line. Players (including myself) experienced rage-inducing skipping all weekend, as what appears to be an issue with Epic’s servers would leave them frozen in place for one or two seconds at a time – enough to turn the tide in a frantic shootout.
The introduction of TSM_Myth, Fortnite’s second most popular streamer, was also brought to a hilariously anticlimactic end after a physics glitch sent him flying off the edge of a mountain, where he abruptly fell to his death. And players also reported sound issues, with opponent sounding as if they were above rather than below them – probably more an issue with the venue’s setup than the game itself.
‘More carnival than competition’
None of this is to detract from Fortnite, or to suggest the event was poorly run. The production was high quality, the casting was very good and the whole thing ran very smoothly, bar a couple of awkward interviews and transitions. The issue is just with battle royale games in general, and the way organisers have attempted to fit their sudden and explosive popularity within the confines of existing e-sports formats.
There are other ways it could be done – perhaps we’re heading towards a sci-fi future where viewers will watch 100-strong battle royale leagues inside an Oculus Rift, flipping between different gameplay feeds at will while listening to dynamic commentary that somehow makes sense of it all. But the technical challenges of pulling something like this off would be enormous, and I wonder if the battle royale genre has the longevity for it.
Fortnite certainly has a high enough skill ceiling to support competitive play, and its building mechanics have helped to make the battle royale less defensive, and more exciting to watch. But Ninja Vegas was more compelling as a carnival than as competition, whether it was the pon-pon dancing, the look on Ninja’s wife’s face when he almost said ‘fucking’ in an interview, or the kid who gave him a hug on stage while wearing matching Lil Xan hoodies with his mum. A ten year old in a hoodie that had actual fucking Xanax pills on the back! Did she not Google that shit???
I’d love to be proven wrong, but I just don’t think Fortnite will ever work as an e-sport. This is a game that is best played socially, in a team of friends or broadcasting via a Twitch stream. It’s chaotic and silly nature is precisely the reason for its enormous popularity in an age of memeable Facebook clips and oddshots, but is counterintuitive to both playing and watching the game at the highest level.
Still, that same popularity has the potential to push Fortnite forward as an entirely new kind of viewing experience. Battle royale games are still in their infancy, and as they grow they could become an ever bigger buzzword than e-sports has been for the past decade in the games industry. Only time will tell, but one thing is certain – in the free-for-all that the battle royale genre itself is currently conducting, Fortnite is definitely winning.