Reimagining Esports in the Shadow of Fortnite

Epic’s approach is a welcome departure from the formula

With Blizzard’s wildly successful inaugural season of the Overwatch League coming to its Grand Finals this week, and League of Legends’ NA LCS in full swing, it’s hard take so much of a glance at anything even gaming-adjacent and not see esports everywhere. In a few short years, esports went from something people only took seriously in Korea, to a thriving industry that attracts the eyes of more than 400 million worldwide. Esports is a serious business, with real leagues and real franchises, with real athletes and real stakes. So naturally, when a game like Fortnite struts out and accumulates over 125 million players in less than a year like it’s nothing, people get curious how they’ll factor in on the competitive gaming stage.

Turns out, by setting the stage on fire.

A little over a month ago, Epic announced that they wouldn’t be selling teams or franchises, instead opting to pour $100 million into community-organized events that will culminate in the Fortnite World Cup, an event based entirely on merit. This came just as its closest competitor in the Battle Royale genre began to ramp up for its first PUBG Global Invitational — a far more traditional competitive esports event featuring established pro esports teams. While it’s sure to be wildly successful, it’s not garnering the kind of attention that Epic’s grassroots strategy is, and for good reason. Fortnite’s event is one that isn’t just a spectator event, but one that literally anybody can participate in, and anybody with the skill and perseverance can make a name for themselves without the need for a major league backing them. Where its competitors are striving to garner legitimacy as professional sports by emulating their practices, Fortnite is carving its own path and dropping the cash to bring everybody along with it.

Footage from Epic’s Summer Skirmish Series.

Epic’s strategy for competitive gaming is not just disrupting the status quo for esports, but also reshaping the landscape for what the future of gaming can look like. Gaming has always been a weird industry that doesn’t seem to understand the power it holds. Like a Great Dane trying to squeeze into a cat bed, it’s an industry that doesn’t know how big a deal it really is. Whether it’s begging to be recognized by the movie industry for its cinematic achievements, or acting like a professional sports business with jerseys and mascots, the games industry has always tried to prove itself to what it perceived to by the titans of entertainment. And it’s still doing this, even after it surpassed the movie industry in 2017, with no signs of losing that position anytime soon. So it is refreshing when we see a game like Fortnite using its enormous success to challenge the expectations set by its peers and do its own thing. Indiana Jones isn’t referencing the journal of the guy whose corpse is rotting on the wall of spears, so why should the games industry take notes from those that they’re surpassing?

Even if you don’t care for Fortnite (and I’m sure we’ve all heard enough about it by now [sorry]), anybody can appreciate the goal of making its competitive presence about nobody but the players themselves. All the players. Games have the rare opportunity to transcend gender barriers, age gaps, disability limitations, and geographic hurdles that would otherwise keep opponents and teammates alike separated from one another in any other competition, so it only makes sense to foster those qualities and push forward into new places. While much of the esports industry is comfortable reinforcing the barriers between players and spectators, Epic is staying hungry. That’s not to say professional teams, or the games they play, have done anything wrong up to this point. It just means that anybody’s Fortnite team has the chance to prove themselves, regardless of who’s backing them — and who isn’t.

Fortnite has thrown the playbook out the window, and is showing the games industry that it can cut its own path in the process. They can show that there can be more than an industry of isolated pros, but that everybody is on equal footing to prove their worth. A grassroots series of competitive tournaments might not be the right direction, but we now have somebody with the balls — and the money — to give it a shot.