The people who filled Queens, New York’s Arthur Ashe tennis stadium for this weekend’s Fortnite World Cup were people who love Fortnite, or at least those people and their parents. The bulk of the attendees I saw were young kids, swimming in soccer shorts and baggy Fortnite t-shirts.
They performed the game’s emote dances. They played miniature golf holes designed after in-game icons like the Durr Burger mascot and the Battle Bus. They competed in Fortnite trivia contests, demonstrating so much knowledge of the game that one young contestant even corrected the host on a prior day’s question. The World Cup, like Fortnite itself, felt like a kids’ world.
As an adult — and as a reporter — I have to be attuned to the cracks: the cheating competitors, developer Epic’s penchant for stealing dances from real-life artists, the V-bucks scams that proliferate on Twitter and YouTube, the in-game bullying a teacher friend once told me goes on among his students.
I’m inherently suspicious of the money swirling around the World Cup, with its $US30 million ($44 million) prize pool, and the juggernaut of Fortnite and the estimated $US3 billion Epic has profited off the game. But I’m also, frankly, afraid to love anything with the openness of Fortnite’s fans.
What I saw in Queens, however, wasn’t a slavish devotion to an astonishingly popular game. The times the stadium announcer referred to “making history,” one of Epic’s well-worn phrases, felt crassly commercial. There was the drummed-up exclusivity and the carefully-controlled branding of any major event. But the purest moments of excitement I saw weren’t about things that came from Epic. They were about people—fans, players, self-made stars—sharing their passion with each other.
The Fortnite World Cup Finals were the culmination of months of worldwide qualifying matches, hype by Epic Games, and awe at the millions of dollars on the line for winners. The three-day event brought together hundreds of competitors in solo and duos finals, as well as a competition in various creative modes and a Pro-Am featuring celebrities like streamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, wrestler Austin “Xavier Woods” Creed, and boy band NSYNC alum Joey Fatone.
According to Epic, the event sold out, but I saw an unexpected amount of empty seats and closed sections in the approximately 23,700-seat stadium. Lines for the accompanying outdoor fan festival were long, with some attractions having posted wait times of over an hour, but the event felt mobbed to me only once: before a concert of electronic DJ Marshmello, for which an event security person told me fans had lined up two hours ahead of time to score some of the limited Marshmello bucket masks, cardboard signs, and noisemakers promised to the earliest attendees.
The crowd surged forward the moment the arena doors opened, and the security person told me he’d stopped several people from trying to sneak in before opening time.
The stadium itself was a wall of sound (Epic provided attendees with Fortnite-purple earplugs.). Players sat on a multi-story stage fenced with images of Fortnite’s wood and metal building materials, with overflow on the ground. The stage was topped with giant monitors and ringed with screens showing match details. Players’ face cameras appeared in front of their seats; when they were eliminated, the virtual fences replaced their images. The acoustics were terrible, and the casters’ voices echoed unintelligibly.
I watched Saturday’s duos finals from home, where Epic’s website featuring match stats, player profiles, and multiple streams gave me insight into the proceedings that I and other viewers had longed for during the 10 weeks of qualifiers. In the arena, only the main cast was available, and without being able to comprehend the casters, much of the game was just swirling colours and headache-inducing noise.
The crowd’s energy focused things. Friday’s creative finals and Pro-Am were the least attended. More showed up for Saturday’s duos and Sunday’s solos, which were six matches each. People didn’t trickle in and out much, even when ultimate solos winner Bugha headed into game six with a nearly-untouchable 15-point lead. One of the strengths and weaknesses of the World Cup has been the sheer amount of unknowns, with most of the big-name Fortnite streamers failing to qualify.
While this could make it hard to have a favourite, it also gave the event a communal feel. It felt like a scrum of people who all play Fortnite, with some being better than others. I saw a few signs in the stadium for particular players or teams, but it felt like attendees were happy to cheer (and sometimes boo) just about anyone who showed up on the big screens.
It seemed like many people didn’t care too much who won. They just wanted to watch each other play.
On Friday, I was sitting in the grass outside the stadium trying to surreptitiously vape without kids noticing. (This futile task continued throughout the weekend.) A short, blue-haired kid milled nearby, looking like every other dyed-hair kid I’d seen in the crowd. I watched a young person approach him and ask cautiously, “Are you Sceptic?” It was in fact the 15-year-old duos player. In the finals, he’d jump in childish alarm when smoke cannons went off during the pre-show, triggering all of my uncle instincts even through my computer screen.
In competition, he braggadociously flashed the “take the L” emote during the finals and then almost immediately got killed by player Mongraal, a moment that spread widely on social media.
On Friday, he wasn’t that person yet. He graciously took a picture with the fan who spotted him. The telltale selfie pose attracted others, who recognised that he was a player even if some of them might not have known which one. Sceptic was polite and well-spoken in the way grownups praise kids for being.
Adults hovered in the background, a protective audience to a crowd that was, in many ways, peers. Sceptic is a professional esports player, but he’s also a streamer with over 1.3 million YouTube subscribers, someone kids can spend virtual time with whenever they want.
Many of the World Cup qualifiers have made their fame on Twitch and YouTube, and while they all made more money in a weekend than most adults at the event—every competitor was guaranteed to take home at least $US50,000 ($72,728)—they didn’t feel as inaccessible as traditional sports or television stars. Security was tight at the finals, but there was a collegial air to most of the event, a lack of separation between players and fans.
Fans held up signs with their creator codes, a name Fortnite players can enter in the game’s shop to fiscally support their favourite streamers or themselves. More than one person introduced themselves with their creator code during the trivia contests.
I was surprised not to find the promotion cringe-worthy, though I might be numb to it from too much Fortnite on Reddit and YouTube. These self-promoters, especially the younger ones, seemed at home in their moments in the spotlight, like they’d come to expect it from Fortnite’s world of clip-sharing and fan art. The World Cup’s “anyone can win” ethos, certainly a big part of what drove its hype, felt repurposed in their hands.
The youngest player to qualify for the World Cup was 13, the minimum required age, and the oldest was 24. Bugha, who won the solos finals and took home $US3 ($4) million, is 16. Fortnite is a young person’s game.
Fortnite’s adults also skew young. Popular player Tfue is 21; superstar streamer Ninja is 28. During Friday’s celebrity Pro-Am, content creator CouRageJD took a potshot at the age of player and caster DrLupo in a joke announcement for a “Geriatric Gamer Foundation.” Lupo is 32, five years younger than me.
Fortnite’s adults don’t quite feel like adults. Ninja wears brightly-coloured clothes and dyes his hair to match. Tfue spent most of his finals matches in a leopard-print vest. I find Lupo preternaturally fresh-faced. Over the weekend, fans hung off the stadium railings trying to get these adults’ attention, shouting “Lupo!” and “Ninja!” even though they were much too far away to interact in any meaningful way.
These shouts didn’t feel needy or full of awe. They sounded more like people hollering to their friends. At the end of the tournament, I overheard some teenagers trying to sneak into a restricted part of the arena. “I’m meeting someone,” one said, and the event staff member appeared to almost believe them before refusing.
The adults’ accessibility is a brand, obviously. Ninja wore a yellow World Cup hoodie when he cast some of Saturday’s matches, and the next day I saw dozens of kids in it despite the heat. The game’s adults need to portray the family-friendly image that encourages parents to let their kids play and brings in the money that keeps the machine running. They aren’t perfect: Ninja rapped a slur last year and later apologised.
I don’t know if Fortnite’s adults need to be role models, or if that’s just my own expectation as an adult who second-guesses my every word when I squad up with kids. A 24-year-old and a 13-year old aren’t peers, even if they’re competing in the same game. The day before the World Cup kicked off, Sceptic tweeted a selfie with Ninja, their arms around each other. He captioned it “Finally met my Dad.” Ninja retweeted it.
As I lingered at the fan festival after the Sunday crush for Marshmello’s concert had filtered inside, a new crowd appeared. Whispers of “That’s Marshmello!” went up, which attracted more people to the fast-moving cluster. Marshmello is a Fortnite mainstay, having played an in-game concert in February.
His catchy beats and simple lyrics make him popular with kids: The entirety of one song’s lyrics go “I’m so alone/ nothing feels like home/ I’m so alone/ trying to find my way back home to you.” I spotted glimpses of a white bucket mask and a purple sweatshirt, the outfit Marshmello would wear during his performance. It seemed like him, but I wondered how anyone would know if it really was. It would be so easy, I thought, to pretend to be the musician for attention.
“Look, it’s Marshmello!” a mum shouted to her kids, who were busy watching a performance on the fan festival’s small stage. Their dad eventually heralded them over to the crowd, which paused by the end of a zipline ride to form a mass of waving arms and selfie sticks before mysteriously dissolving.
The mum and her family were from Orlando; her kids, ages 10 and 12, love Fortnite and were thrilled to be at the event. She told me she didn’t play but that her kids’ dad played with them. She said her kids had wanted World Cup tickets since the moment they were announced, and when I asked her how she felt about being there with them, she said, “It’s nice to see what they love.”
She told me they hadn’t gotten into the stadium in time to get Marshmello souvenirs, but their dad had somehow scored a poster, though she said, with pride, that she didn’t know how.
Marshmello had vanished, but there was a new crowd. A small kid in a Marshmello mask was wandering by the line for the stage. An adult started up a call of “Hey, it’s Marshmello!” I couldn’t tell if they were related, though the adult had the friendly air of someone used to kids. “Let me know if you need a bodyguard, Marshmello,” he offered congenially.
Some other kids waiting in the line asked for the miniature Marshmello’s autograph. They obliged, marching along the row with their bucket mask knocking loosely.
I expected parents to look out of place, the way I felt. But for the most part, they appeared to be having fun. I watched an adult beaming as he filmed a kid during in-game character DJ Yonder’s music set, rushing up to take the kid’s lanyard and store it around his own neck in a move that screamed “dad.” Parents held bags of goodies and food, ushered kids into the shade and waited patiently in lines. They seemed used to their kids’ excitement and by and large happy, or at least comfortable, sharing in it.
Parents of the competitors beamed with pride. Heading back to the subway at the end of the weekend, I fell behind a couple wearing matching jerseys with “Smeefdad” and “Smeefmom” written on them. They confirmed to a man nearby, with his arm over a young boy in a Ninja Turtles backpack, that they were Europe competitor Smeef’s parents. Bugha’s dad danced unabashedly when his son won; Brazil powerhouse K1ng’s father embraced him as he cried after coming in fifth in solos.
Throughout the weekend, I was impressed with how much fun everyone was having. People were excited to be there, getting pumped not just to see the likes of Marshmello but also a kid dressed as him. They didn’t seem as excited to watch Marshmello as they were to just be excited about him with each other. The Epic-produced event of him, though enjoyable, was secondary.
That’s how the whole event felt. Whatever corporate stuff was going on was an excuse for people to gather, the same way Fortnite can function more like a hangout spot than an attraction in its own right.
The impressive gameplay in the World Cup finals was a worthy draw, but I can imagine a kids’ party with Fortnite balloons having a similar energy. While only some people left with prize money, a lot more had a great time simply being around their fellow Fortnite fans.