What’s the future for competitive video gaming?

Look, you might not be interested in video games. I wouldn’t blame you. And of the people who are interested in them, only an incomplete percentage will be interested in the competitive element (a percentage, I suspect, far lower than the equivalent with, say, football or tennis). But it’s a thing.

I was never into video games. I had an Xbox growing up and I would work my way through the FIFA franchise, or play the Harry Potter movie tie-in games, but really I never got into it. Partly that was because I was no good, and it was excruciatingly difficult for me to get beyond the first few levels (I remember being stuck once in the Whomping Willow for about three weeks). Occasionally there would be games that came along and just captured my brain like a good book or movie (I’m thinking Oblivion/Skyrim, Red Dead Redemption, Uncharted 2/3) but as a rule, I’d stay away.

When I was doing my Masters degree a few years back I managed, due to an administrative error, to end up doing a paper on video games. And even though it didn’t result in me playing any more than before, it made me appreciate the complexity of what they represent within our current framework for understanding cultural commodities. Fast forward a few years and I’m obsessed with Fortnite. I enjoy playing it, sure (even though I’m garbage at it), but, above all, I enjoy watching it played competitively. And as someone who loves real, professional sports (played by sweaty humans knocking lumps out of one another) that came as a shock to me. I’d always felt that e-sports couldn’t work as a spectator sport because it was always a step removed, a knock-off visualisation of actions from the real world. But Fortnite does work; it works in a way that competitive FIFA or Madden never can. It unlocks something new and impossible, like watching Messi or Federer, or hitting your own speculative worldie in the park on a Sunday.

This weekend is the Fortnite World Cup, a huge event at Arthur Ashe stadium in New York. The competition has been rumbling away for months in qualifying, and has a prize pool of some $30million with $3million going to the victor (for reference, that’s more than Novak Djokovic got for winning Wimbledon this year). Arthur Ashe stadium seats around 23,000 people and who knows whether it will be packed to capacity for the three-day event, but what is clear is that the viewers online (via Twitch, YouTube and the Fortnite lobby) will number in the millions. Fundamentally, I suspect, e-sports is a broadcast activity, rather than a live one.

But at the same time, the World Cup is arriving with rather a jaded feeling across the world of Fortnite, one that makes me wonder what the future holds for competitive gaming. Let me try to make sense of the issues for the uninitiated:

– There are big names in Fortnite, ranging from guys like Ninja who have been in the video game circuit for a decade, to folks on the roster of teams like FaZe who are just damn good gamers. In the venn diagram of celebrities, you would get circles for ‘streamers’, ‘YouTubers’, ‘memers’ and ‘gamers’. In order to make money from Fortnite, you need to broadcast in some capacity, but the reality is that the number of popular broadcasters who are also capable of competing at the top level of the game is vanishingly small, and getting ever smaller. It’s why Tfue’s qualification for the World Cup was so important to Epic (the makers of the game): he’s one of the very few players of the game to both be a popular figure and able to play competitive Fortnite. The absence of Ninja at the World Cup will be felt, as, equally, will the missing YouTube community. The Pro-Am and Creative events will try and bridge that gap, but in doing so, in effect, detract from the integrity of the WC as a sporting event.

– The pro game is very different from the regular game. Put pithily, it’s 20 minutes of boring farming and loot gathering, 5 minutes of boxing up, and then 1 minute of madness (there are obviously lots of different variations on this). It isn’t quite the finished product yet, because whilst the finale is very intense, the rest of the game sags. And we’ve watched a lot of competitive Fortnite since the qualifiers launched in April, and viewers and competitors are kind of sick of the format. Discourse from the top-level players has become extremely negative about the game, because there is something mind-numbing about the harvest, loot, build, shoot cycle. It also means that the competitive game just feels too different from the amateur game — when you watch Barcelona play football, the rhythm and structure are still essentially the same as when you’re having a kickabout with some mates. The gulf between the competitive and amateur game is now too large.

– It also makes it hard to broadcast and commentate on, because the control room is able to move around the map, around the competitors, really calmly for most of the early stages, but then the finale is just such a mess that it’s hard to work out what’s going on. In the current scoring system, people are rewarded for kills, yes, but the downsides of early aggression are such that people just get picked off in the final few circles. It’s normal to have 60+ competitors heading into the final few circles in the pro-game, and, aside from the server lags that causes, it’s just hard to watch or follow, and the victor often comes out of nowhere.

So what should Epic do with Fortnite after the World Cup? Here are my suggestions.

– I think they should work on a Fortnite Premier League, working with the various teams that already exist (FaZe, Liquid, Ghost..etc) to work on massive squad games, where they could rotate their roster. Perhaps also, existing sporting brands (soccer, NFL, baseball teams) might like to branch into this area, especially given that many have been developing e-sports arms as a pale facsimile of their own game. It is clearly in the interest of these teams to create a commercially profitable partisanship amongst Fortnite players/viewers, and would also help the cottage industry of commentary around the game.

– In order for this to work at maximum efficiency, I would propose changes to the game. Restore siphon for this game mode, and further reduce the mat count to 250. I would even consider something like the Blitz mode, in order to keep the storm pressuring people into confrontation. You want to more evenly distribute the player eliminations across the spread of the game, and force people into earlier confrontations that aren’t unfollowable build battles.

– It would make sense, for both Epic and the teams involved, to have their players wearing unique skins that fans of the teams could then purchase, like a soccer jersey.

Fortnite needs to incentivise the more charismatic commentator/players to be involved in the top-level competitive element of the game. The system should also encourage a degree of horse trading between teams for players, and, again, mimicking either the draft system or the transfer window system would work here.

– I think it would be important that the teams and the players could stream their matches on their own channel, as well as the central Fortnite channel. That way, it becomes profitable for the teams to include in their roster players like Ninja or, say, Jordan Fisher or even Lazarbeam, because they’ll contribute financially via the broadcasting. Put simply: the financial incentives cannot reside solely in winning the game.

In short, I think that Epic has to work on a competitive format that makes the games punchier, more aggressive and allows all their biggest stars to compete at the same time. The Pro-Am is excellent for that reason, though lately it has just ended up being like Airwaks vs Aydan in a final circle the size of a penny. Friday Fortnite is also a good format, because it encourages aggression and also pairs many of the best competitive players with the top streamers and YouTubers. But, equally, it lacks the urgency of a proper competitive game of a Fortnite. I think the future is in the squad game, bringing together proper gaming royalty, and creating a Premier League of teams and players that the watching world can get behind.

If you work at Epic and would like to make me commissioner of said league, drop me a line to nick@podotpods.com (I’m also available on Twitter and my Epic username is Nickinatwist if you want a game of duos).

Writer. Podcast entrepreneur. London. Interested in politics and the media. Co-founder podotpods.com Email: nick@podotpods.com.

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