Fortnite's Innovative Narrative and Marketing Continues to Differentiate Itself
About a week ago Fortnite began Season 5, with all notable changes here. With each season the hype and user base of Fortnite continues to grow but I wanted to take a look at one aspect of how Epic has grown Fortnite to where it is today.
One of several reasons for Fortnite’s unprecedented success is their ability to innovate and challenge preconceived expectations about FPS/Battle Royales.
Usually for FPS/Battle Royale, once a map is launched and live it remains a constant throughout the life cycle of the game. Outside of possible changes in the weather, the map usually doesn’t evolve or change much outside of necessary patches. FPS historically have released additional maps to offer new environments to engage and further entice users. Competing Battle Royale Game PUBG, for example, utilizes this strategy and faced significant backlash when they launched their second map, Miramar, for its lackluster design and unbalanced weapon distribution.
Fortnite, however, has employed a different strategy. Instead of releasing new maps every few months, Fortnite has had the same map since its launch that they constantly update. Instead of doing these updates to the map internally and then releasing to the public all at once, Fortnite has created events around these map changes. In April, rumors swirled around a meteor hitting the map and destroying Tilted Towers (the meteor struck elsewhere but the community loved the anticipation regardless). More recently, they had a highly anticipated rocket launch that users had to be playing in the game to see. This strategy not only updates the map and develops the storyline but also creates a highly loyal and highly engaged community that loves speculating together about what these clues mean and what will come next. These events foster camaraderie and drive millions of additional impressions/engagements outside of the immediate Fortnite ecosystem and has helped Fortnite enter and become a part of the mainstream consciousness.
Additionally, Fortnite has done an excellent job of marketing Season 5 by transcending the digital space and embracing Alternate Reality Game (using the real world as an additional platform for transmedia storytelling). After the aforementioned rocket launch, Durr Burger’s mascot went missing and was randomly found in the California desert. When random hikers stumbled upon the burger, they also found a police car (modeled after the game) and a live actor pretending to be investigating it who handed a business card with a phone number on it. If you called it, you reached an inaudible voicemail message that Reddit users discovered had meta data to coordinates to find real world llamas. This attention to detail and level of depthcontinues to drive attention and engagement to Fortnite while introducing the game to potential new players.
Overall this innovation and challenge of accepted practices, is one of many reasons for Fortnite’s extraordinary success. It will be on Fortnite to continue to operate at this extremely high level to continue to inspire their user base.
The Term "New Sports"
Tobias Sherman, Foundry IV CEO and former Global Head of Esports at WME|IMG, made waves last week by proposing a fairly drastic shift for the esports industry—namely, retiring the term “Esports” in favor of the term “New Sports.” According to Tobias, “esports has become a loaded term,” one that sports executives cannot relate to, thereby influencing their investment decisions. As a result, Tobias has started to refer to competitive video gaming as falling under the “New Sports” umbrella, eschewing the term esports altogether, and has experienced personal success in doing so.
After publishing his thoughts on the subject, members of the esports community engaged en masse. Prominent figures such as Paul “ReDeYe” Chaloner and Scott “SirScoots” Smith criticized the notion, while supporters included Hector Rodriguez of OpTic Gaming and even Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, who retweeted the article to his 2.8M followers.
So, does the esports industry need a name change to promote sustainable growth and increase adoption from mainstream brands, sports team owners, and investors?
Let’s start with the simple answer: no.
While Tobias makes some fair points surrounding the current state of the industry and the reasons why it can be tough to understand or access for some non-endemics, this simply cannot justify an industry-wide change in nomenclature in 2018.
Esports are no longer niche. We’re selling out the Staples Center and Beijing National Stadium, garnering sponsorships from Chipotle and Toyota, and our teams are owned by Robert Kraft and the Golden State Warriors. Esports panels have gone from the backroom of sports conferences to the keynote address, and esports investments are so hot right now that companies are slapping the word “esports” in their decks and then stretching to show esports relevance when it’s not core to the underlying product.
This wasn’t always the case. We’ve had to fight well-entrenched stereotypes that gamers are basement-dwelling, Cheeto-eating, unmotivated introverts. We’ve had to slog through the comments sections filled with vitriol whenever ESPN—a platform that promotes poker, competitive eating, arm wrestling, and corn hole—has the audacity to air video game related content. We’ve spent thousands of collective hours on phone calls and in meeting rooms helping major stakeholders from sports teams, brands, and investors wrap their heads around what esports are, the staggering growth, and the unique opportunity. While we haven’t always been successful and there are still plenty of non-endemics that are too weary to dip their toes in the obviously fertile waters of esports, we’ve come too far and built too much to consider adopting a wholesale name change at this stage.
Changing the name of the industry now would be equal parts confusing and problematic. We would set back 10+ years of important groundwork, and jeopardize relationships with the ample number of non-endemics that have already entered the space. Moreover, I’m not convinced changing to the term New Sports will solve any of our problems. If every esports pitch becomes a New Sports pitch, the most common question will only change in form, not in substance: “What are New Sports and how do I translate whatever I do to this ecosystem of which I have relatively limited knowledge?”
It’s worth noting that Tobias’ article raised important issues surrounding how we can make our industry more appealing to major stakeholders from the world of traditional sports, media, and entertainment who have yet to buy in. With that said, the thesis of the article misses the mark. The concept of New Sports may be a useful tactic in certain meetings, but it would be folly to follow Tobias’ arguments as far as he would like us to take them.
Fortnite Summer Skirmish Struggles Early
This past weekend marked the launch of Epic Games’ splashy $100+ million Fortnite esports prize pool extravaganza with the Summer Skirmish series, an 8 week “series of competitions” with an $8,000,000 prize pool. The kickoff event was a $250,000 invitation-based duos competition plagued with issues.
Epic has received a lot of credit for being innovative with its esports approach, and zigging where it’s competitors are often zagging.
Where Riot Games and Blizzard opted to create elaborate LAN leagues with an eye towards high-level competition rather than pure entertainment, Epic has been focused on a much nimbler, entertainment-focused approach leaning on influencers with large audiences and with no live studio or favored structure for its competitions.
This weekend showed why Riot and Blizzard have made some of the choices they have, particularly around infrastructure.
Epic’s Summer Skirmish was marred by unplayable lag for much of the field, very little action, awkward criticism of Fortnite lag issues on stream by competitors, and ultimately the event being cut short by Epic before it could be played to completion due to aforementioned crippling network stability issues.
While it’s very convenient to not build out a studio and let competitors from home, live competitions bring a ton of advantages including:
- Avoidance of lag/latency problems
- On-site communication with competitors and ability to respond quickly to issues
- No risk of competitors being DDOS’d (if esports history is anything to go by, a virtual inevitability in online events with high stakes in the long run)
- A controlled environment where there’s virtually no risk of hacks/cheats/ringing
While the event was without a doubt a rare misfire from Epic, there’s plenty of time for the publisher to iterate and improve.
Although Fortnite’s competitive events certainly fall under the umbrella of esports, given Epic’s focus on inviting popular influencers to compete (though they did have a limited-time Showdown mode with similarities to a ranked system help inform some invites), it’s easy to see how Epic thought that it was worthwhile experimenting with trying high stakes, tier 1 esports events (at least by prize pool) in a purely online setting even given some of the competitive drawbacks of doing so.
Keemstar’s Friday Fortnite series, for example, has been entertaining and overwhelmingly positively received Fortnite esports product despite being an online-only tournament. Many attribute that event’s secret sauce to the format which rewards getting kills rather than simply surviving (the approach the first Summer Skirmish event took, which incentivized camping and boring gameplay over furious action) but it certainly has showcased
This weekend’s event went about as poorly as such an event could reasonably be expected to go, but for perspective, it still easily eclipsed that of both NA LCS and OWL (during its playoffs) combined.
There’s simply no doubting the massive interest in Fortnite content right now, though Epic will have to improve on its performance from last week if they want Fortnite competitive events to be compelling to play and watch. Viewers won’t need to wait long to see how well Epic can iterate and improve, as seven more Summer Skirmish events are scheduled to take place over the next seven weeks.