I started writing about Australian esports in 2003, back when Counter-Strike 1.5 reigned supreme, Brood War was setting standards for professional leagues, and the word esports hadn't been solidified in the gaming lexicon. Since then, much of the scene's core characteristics has remained surprisingly consistent. New devices and consoles have arrived, and there's some new games on the scene, but much of the structure replicates the building blocks of years past, and many of the old faces are still around in one form or another.
What's new to Australian esports is kids - specifically young kids - screaming, begging for autographs.
Fortnite has always been a strange beast in the world of esports. The game's constantly changing nature is often at odds with the traditional orthodoxy of what makes a good esport. There's the inherent problem with the game's competitive structure, which still heavily favours placement over eliminations, resulting in matches where players are content to camp it out until they reach the final 20 players. And then you've got the spectator nightmare of trying to follow players through the final zones as walls, traps and towers constantly grow and disappear in the game's final few minutes.
That's the traditional orthodoxy, anyway.
Similar to those who flocked to the Arthur Ashe tennis arena in Queens, New York for the Fortnite World Cup, the most predominant force around Melbourne's Margaret Court Arena last weekend was the fresh pre-teen faces of Fortnite fans and their parents. I saw the occasional groups of two or three teenagers wandering the halls by themselves, but mostly the true fans were ones in need of obvious legal guardianship. They were the faces traditional TV has warned was most vulnerable to the wiles of Epic's cartoon battle royale adventure.
It was their screams of "MUSELK" and "FRESH" that livened proceedings. Walking around the floor of the venue, chatting to one veteran esports organiser and another veteran of Australian esports, all three of us couldn't help but look at the children.
For those jaded with the state of esports, worried about the future viability of Australian teams and the direction of local leagues, the energy was a breath of fresh air.
The figures for the Fortnite Summer Smash, the official name for the tournament attached to the final two days of the Australian Open, are a mixed bag depending on your perspective. The stadium was half full at best on both the days I attended, with maybe double the audience attending for the $400,000 Solos tournament on the Sunday.
Compared to the official figures for bums on seats throughout the tournament, that's a paltry figure. The official Tennis Australia media room has a rolling list of attendance figures for every day and night session, comparing 2019's daily, weekly and overall figures to the current year. Last year's grand slam had more than 796,000 people attend over the course of two weeks, and while the final figures weren't complete at the time, the first week's attendance was a marginal increase on the week prior, and figures from January 21 onwards were all better or on par with their 2019 equivalents.
— Lachlan ⚡️ (@LachlanYT) February 2, 2020
But there are a few ways to break the numbers down. One observer pointed out to me that Tennis Australia had sold around 600 tickets just for the Fortnite event, a crowd that's buying drinks and eating greasy food that wouldn't otherwise be there. There's the international exposure, which holds value for tennis in a way that it doesn't for a lot of other Australian sporting codes. The official Australian Open TV channel had 291,000 views on YouTube alone for the 2019 stream, while this year's event has over 215,000 across two videos. The Twitch channel has another 59,000 views after the broadcast, and Twitch Tracker recorded 219,000 unique views and a peak of roughly 30,500 concurrents for the AusOpen Twitch stream while it was live.
"It's crazy, even just financially the revenue you can generate from that," AFL player and sponsored streamer Mitch Robinson told me.
When your mission is to increase the worldwide association with tennis, rather than focusing on any single demographic, conversion or metric, that's a success.
"We’ve been looking at gamification of our tennis content since 2016 when we began working on a year-round fantasy tennis product," Mark Riedy, event organiser at Tennis Australia, told Kotaku Australia over email. "Since 2017 we’ve also been working closely with Big Ant Studios in Melbourne to develop and launch the AO Tennis video game franchise which again is a project designed to bring not only the Australian Open, but tennis as a sport into living rooms all around the world, all year round."
"Hosting the Fortnite Summer Smash at the Australian Open gives us yet another offering to add to the wealth of entertainment options available and attracts an entirely new demographic to the event which would not have otherwise attended."
And it's a demographic that few games have, something that's keenly on the minds of everyone involved.
As much as the Fortnite Summer Smash was an international affair - and the first international tournament to be won with a player using a controller - it was also a showcase for influencers. It was the presence of faces like Loserfruit, Muselk, Lachlan and even sporting adjacent stars like Mitch Robinson, that became the face of the event in press footage and pre-release videos.
Fortnite, after all, is more than a game. It's a platform, something many of its biggest stars are keenly aware of. Speaking after the end of the charity ProAm, where most of those involved pledged money to the Australian bushfires - although nobody on camera could remember what organisation they were donating their winnings towards - Elliott "Muselk" Watkins explained his apathy towards the current state of Fortnite.
"I think it's in a bit of an interesting spot right now where, I know every content creator right now feels like there is no more content, it's dried up, everyone's repeating old stuff or really getting to the bottom of the barrel," Watkins said. "This season, they haven't updated the game basically at all. But I'm confident that next season they're going to be introducing some big stuff - obviously there's an engine change coming in - it's probably reflective of the fact that they want to do some big, big things in the next season, so I'm hoping the future is them expanding on creative mode, making the game more diverse, making Fortnite more like a GMod, a sandbox where any kind of game and game mode can be possible."
Watkins didn't make his initial break in Fortnite - he was one of the first Overwatch YouTubers to really get popular, but it wasn't until Epic's battle royale took off that the Sydneysider became one of the world's biggest Fortnite content creators. But it's natural to have a bit of stagnation with the game after three years, despite the immense correlation and impact its had on Watkins' life.
"I'm always pretty versatile: I make the videos I want to make. I didn't jump on Fortnite because it was getting views; I was one of the people to start making videos for it. I think I made my first ever Fortnite video within two days of the game coming out, and I got no views at all back then," Watkins said. "For me, I don't really look at demographics: obviously when your job is to get views on YouTube, you have to at least some respect pay attention to what's getting views. But at the end of the day, especially at this stage of my career, I've done the grind, I've had that initial onslaught. I'm just looking for what kind of content I'm enjoying making, and what makes me feel happy."
But there isn't a game - or really an ecosystem - that connects so many careers the way Fortnite does. And the international draw could have been much larger than it was, with Tennis Australia's Riedy saying that there were plenty of international tennis stars interested in Fortnite, but because the ProAm was scheduled at the very end of the grand slam, the organisation no longer had the ability to showcase them through the video game.
"There’s definitely a scheduling benefit [to holding Fortnite at the end of the Australian Open], as later in the tournament there are less tennis matches needing to be completed and so we’re able to transition our stadium from a Grand Slam level tennis venue into a world class competitive gaming arena with no impact to the tennis," Reidy told Kotaku Australia. "It’s less of a strategic benefit, in that there are many tennis players who are also gamers and love Fortnite but we lose the ability to have them involved in the event once they are eliminated from the tennis."
Even the merchandising opportunities right now are massive. A couple of staffers at the stores around Margaret Court Arena told me everything would have been shut if it wasn't for Fortnite - and as it turns out, most of the stores closed anyway before the first matches on the Saturday began. But what if those stores were stocked with tie-in Fortnite merchandise, tennis balls re-skinned with something from Fortnite? Or what if there was an increased amount of stands filled with shirts, logos or limited edition swag from favourite YouTubers, international stars and more?
That was probably the most evident, particularly on the Saturday walking around Margaret Court Arena. The event was self-contained, existing within its own bubble with little advertisement or promotion. Fortnite doesn't need it, especially when you factor all the re-streams of the offical channel throughout Twitch and YouTube.
If anything, everyone else needs Fortnite - or something like it.
Last year, Fortnite held one of the most groundbreaking events for a live service to date. Instead of airing teaser footage or a trailer through their official YouTube channel, at half-time during a sport or some other kind of mass media event, Disney and LucasArts aired a sneak preview of a scene from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker through Fortnite's creative mode.
It was a slightly bumpy event, with a few days and the inevitable login issues, but it was also the kind of event no other game could really do. Minecraft and Roblox are the two closest games with similar appeal to younger gamers and equally enormous ecosystems. But their appeal as a social space is very different. Roblox's sandbox is more like grassroots video game development, while Minecraft's ecosystem exists in the worlds of mods, classrooms, Youtube entertainment and private servers around the world. It's not connected centrally in the same way as Fortnite, and the two games also don't have that competitive hook and wide eye-catching appeal in the way Fortnite does. You couldn't hold a movie screening of Star Wars in Minecraft without giving the game that voxel, LEGO-esque look. That's not a determination brands have to make with Fortnite, and when it comes to that third-party commercialisation, the potential for careers attached to the game is suddenly a lot easier.
A lot of the content creators and industry observers I spoke to, many anonymously, also couldn't identify what game could practically take the place of Fortnite. It's not just a question of popularity, but that long-term tail, the developer's ability to consistently add new skins, game modes, weapons and other pieces that become the bedrock of streams and videos worldwide. Epic's able to make so many changes to Fortnite because of their sheer head count. The game was shipped by 25 developers at Epic, and in 2018 Tim Sweeney confirmed the majority of Epic's 700-strong staff were working on Fortnite. There's no publicly available figures about Epic's headcount or the Fortnite team right now, but at the time of writing 106 jobs, including 17 internships, were listed on the Epic careers page.
It's the kind of development force reserved for a new Assassin's Creed, a Red Dead Redemption 2 or a AAA game of the biggest budget. But when those games are released, the team often shrinks or splits as developers leave, work on new prototypes or different expansions, whereas Epic is able to continually reinvest their staff into making new content, or massive transitional events like the black hole that enveloped the end of Fortnite's third season.
Fortnite has a modular capacity that a lot of other games, and developers, simply can't match. Other games like Escape from Tarkov, which got a surge of popularity following its successful Twitch Drops integration in January, don't play as well to that teenage and pre-teen audience. And over the course of 2020, there's no game on the horizon that's liable to challenge Fortnite's status any time soon. Some of the most anticipated titles are singleplayer games, like Cyberpunk 2077 or The Last of Us Part 2, or they're not built from the ground up to be a live service the same way Fortnite is. Even studios like Respawn have been vocal about not wanting to create a crunch-like environment for those working on Apex Legends just so they can appease fans with new content.
Even then, there's the demographic problem: the under-18 crowd that makes up most Fortnite events is one of the most desirable demographics for brands and advertisers, and for those who want to connect to an audience that's simply not engaging with traditional TV or sports, Fortnite is still the best option.
So for now, the Fortnite train will continue unopposed. It still has a long-term identity problem. Does the game want to continue its ambitions as a slightly unstructured esport? Or does its future lie, as Watkins and other observers believe, in the full expansion of its Creative Mode? The modularity of the latter certainly has the most potential for turning Fortnite into a fully fleshed marketing platform, and that's what offers the best longevity for those who drive eyeballs towards Fortnite through their streams and videos.
Irrespective of that, it's impossible to understate the impact Fortnite has had in the mainstream audience. Games have always been social, whether they focus on social spaces or not, but Fortnite's success lies in how well it has made that understood among traditional media and non-gamers in general. "Definitely a shift in the cultural aspect, especially in the communites where they see [gaming] as sitting in the house all day," Mitch Robinson said.
"Hosting the Fortnite Summer Smash at the Australian Open gives us yet another offering to add to the wealth of entertainment options available and attracts an entirely new demographic to the event which would not have otherwise attended," Tennis Australia's Riedy added.
Ultimately, that's all that really matters. The gaming community is still seen as an audience that's difficult to monetise, one that doesn't attend live events, a community that's tough for companies outside of gaming to work with. Fortnite opens a door to a demographic that is becoming increasingly challenging to reach. So as long as it maintains that hook with its community, fans, players, brands, tournaments and organisers will keep coming back. Because right now, there's nothing in the gaming world that's quite like Fortnite - and there's nothing on the near horizon that looks like it'll replace it either.
The author travelled to the Fortnite Summer Smash as a guest of Tennis Australia.