Fortnite Pro-Am gives us a taste of Epic’s future in esports

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In the many years I’ve been covering esports, I have never experienced an event like the Fortnite Pro-Am.

Inside the newly opened Banc of California stadium in downtown Los Angeles, UFC world champion Demetrious Johnson is chatting away with WWE superstar Xavier Woods on one side of the room. On the other, internet sensation “Backpack Kid” is doing his signature “floss” dance for fans.

The best way to describe the Fortnite Pro-Am is to imagine a snowglobe filled with 2018’s pop culture shaken violently, leaving room for the biggest names in games, television, sports and music to hang out before walking out onto the stage under the scorching summer heat.

Outside the arena, a line of fans spanning two miles waited patiently to get inside the stadium to watch their favorite Fortnite personalities play live for $3 million in charity. “Ninja” and “Myth” are now household names to the teenagers waiting to get in. Even with NBA superstar Paul George in attendance, almost all chatter inevitably turns to Fortnite’s poster boys — Luminosity’s Tyler “Ninja” Blevins and Team SoloMid’s Ali “Myth” Kabbani — whose careers have seen a meteoric rise overnight.

“This is amazing,” Myth said to me minutes before walking out of the tunnel to start the event. “It’s great to see gaming step into regular lifestyle culture and mainstream culture. It’s the most beautiful thing to see.”

When the clock finally hit “0” and the event officially went live across the world, the crowd was tepid. Already an hour late into the event, fans partook in fun side activities such as the “Dance Cam” where audience members attempted to mirror popular dances in the game.

When the first game finally started, with Ninja taken out in a one-on-one duel against popular French streamer Corentin “Gotaga” Houssein, the crowd erupted.

That’s when Fortnite is at its best as a spectator sport: the chaos around the map is centralized to a single battle between a couple of players — and the tension builds as the players do their best to outplay one another in a game of quick-thinking and technical aiming. If those players are popular — like Ninja or Myth — that’s when the live Fortnite experience reaches its peak, with the crowd having a vested stake in each player’s maneuvering.

Over the course of the three games, there are highs and lows like any other esport. When big names are not on screen, the crowd grows quiet and the only sound you can hear is the commentators over the loudspeakers. It’s to be expected. In a game where 100 unique individuals can drop into a single game, it’s impossible to observe every major fight or be invested in every single player on the map.

In the final match, though, Epic Games couldn’t have asked for a better finish. Ninja, with friend and musician Marshmello as his duo partner, worked their way down to the final standings. This allowed the observer to focus in on the face of the game and the reason why fans in line waited over two hours to get into the venue.

Ninja and Marshmello finessed their way through the final obstacles and won the event as a swarm of fans collapsed towards the stage with smartphones in hand, just hoping to get the perfect picture with their heroes.

Walking out of the event, I bumped into Henry and Edward Kloch, a father and son duo who missed almost the entire event but were able to make it in with enough time to see the final game. Alex, wanting to spend more time with his son and daughter, has created a gaming setup in the house to play Fortnite with his kids — although self-admittedly, he was always the first to die.

“It means a lot to come here,” Edward, 12, told me. “Just to see everyone around you has that love for Fortnite and you can relate to that, rather than in a normal setting where everyone is a normal person and no one else around you is a nerd. It’s just great to be here with the atmosphere and everything. It’s just great.”

For Fortnite to succeed as an esport, it can’t rely on only Ninja and Myth to carry the torch. With the Fortnite World Cup coming in 2019, the next step for Epic Games is to help create and foster those personalities that kids like Edward look up to. No sport can live and die by one or two players — and Fortnite is no different.

Ninja can’t always show up at the end like a superhero. But at least for today, as I watched him dance on stage to celebrate his victory and pose for a selfie with his legion of loyal fans, he can be.



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