Today, Fortnite’s oft-delayed season-ending “Device” event finally took place, dotting the map with explosions before submerging it beneath the ocean. Over two million viewers tuned in on Twitch to watch the sea consume all, a grim preview of the future that also awaits the popular game map we call “Earth.” This means that Fortnite now once again holds the all-time record for most concurrent viewers on Twitch — but with an asterisk.
The event topped out at 2.3 million live viewers across multiple channels on Twitch, according to Twitch’s own stats. This surpasses the previous record held by League of Legends, with just a hair over 1.7 million viewers during last year’s World Championship, the game’s biggest annual esports event. LoL actually beat Fortnite to take home that honour, narrowly surpassing the battle royale kingpin’s 1.7 million during the 2019 Black Hole event that heralded the beginning of the game’s second chapter.
But Fortnite’s latest wave of momentum arose from a storm of abnormal circumstances. Ahead of the Device event, Epic announced that in-game space would be “limited.” A few minutes before it began, the company said on Twitter that the game was at capacity, forcing many fans — including Fortnite creative director Donald Mustard — to watch the event unfold on Twitch or YouTube. This annoyed players, who logged in expecting to experience Fortnite’s latest epochal upheaval firsthand, only to be turned away. After waiting through multiple delays for the event to even occur, they still found themselves stuck on the outside looking in.
Perhaps Epic was doing this to ensure that it went off without a hitch, so as to avoid the sorts of issues that plagued last year’s Star Wars event. But at the same time, there have been multiple major Fortnite events since then, including gargantuan virtual concerts, and Epic has not seen fit to limit them so harshly, instead spreading them out across multiple instances and viewings. Some people have taken to speculating that Epic was trying to juice its Twitch and YouTube numbers. Even if that wasn’t Epic’s intention, the numbers speak for themselves: Not only did Twitch pull 2.3 million concurrent viewers, but YouTube — a much larger platform — managed 6.1 million at its peak.
Taking over a platform for a day, especially one as personality-driven and culturally unified as Twitch, makes for the sort of marketing no amount of money can buy. In the past year, companies have grown increasingly willing to game this system. Riot’s Valorant closed beta rollout currently stands as the most obvious example, with the company distributing beta keys exclusively to people who watched streamers play the game on Twitch. They couldn’t just pop in, nab a key, and drop out, either. For many, it ended up being a significant time investment, which resulted in a slew of 24-hour channels dedicated to key farming and kept Valorant’s viewer numbers in the millions for days. This immediately gave Valorant the look of being The Next Big Thing, despite the fact that many viewers weren’t actually interested in watching streamers play the game. Now that it’s actually out, it’s doing respectable numbers on Twitch, but for the past week, it’s rarely peaked at over 100,000 concurrent viewers.
Instead of Fortnite fans flocking to Twitch hoping to get something, people turned away from today’s event went to streamers because they’d lost access to the game. In recent times, Epic has experimented more and more with limited-time events: map-altering exposition explosions and the aforementioned concerts. While some of these events have had encores for players who couldn’t get into their premieres, it feels strange for a virtual event to ape the blueprint laid out by exclusive clubs and concerts whose tickets sell out seconds after they go on sale. This can, however, have a powerful effect, shrouding otherwise standard events and spaces behind a curtain that people have just gotta get a look behind. Thanks to that effect and pent-up anticipation following multiple delays, Fortnite certainly benefited today.
There’s no doubting that Twitch remains susceptible to moves made by giant companies like Epic and Riot. For the time being, this remains a mutually beneficial arrangement. Twitch gets a huge viewership boost for a day, and even if Epic wasn’t trying to send its own numbers through the stratosphere, it still has a shiny new record it can tout in press releases and on Twitter — something it loves to do. In short, expect these concurrent viewership records to keep going up, but also, expect more asterisks.