Fortnite is two years old this weekend, and has been the most popular game in the world for at least the last year of its existence. My friends and I began playing it last summer as it exploded in popularity; we saw the game go from its roots as a goofy add on to Epic’s player-versus-environment shooter to its current status as a cross-cultural social space that just so happens to have a battle royale mode. And while I’ve certainly gotten better at playing the game, I’m still bad at it.
Which is fine! Really. For me, the fun of Fortnite is when I’m playing well with my teammates and suddenly I’m fluent — suddenly my builds are solid and my aim is true. It’s a joyful thing for me, because it’s in those moments I realize I’ll never be a professional (or anything close). It’s freeing to know that even if I spent all of my time grinding to be better at the game I’d never be good enough to make any cash playing it. I’m just there to hang out with my friends. I get smoked by teens constantly.
The other week, a friend and Verge colleague invited me to play Fortnite with some of his teenage friends. They were playing a free-for-all mode in the custom map section of the game; you spawn with a random assortment of weapons and items and the point was to be the last person standing. I got owned. Just utterly destroyed. These kids were building like they’d grown up doing it, which they had; I have never felt older in my life than I did seeing myself near the bottom of the rankings. (I did not lose every time. Sometimes I got lucky.) It was humbling. But it was also fun as hell, because, as a rando, I had nothing to lose.
More often than not, being professionally good at something means that when it’s time to perform — especially for an audience — you sometimes enjoy it less than you would in a vacuum; because odds are, the reason you were drawn to the thing in the first place wasn’t the fact that you might be able to make a living off of it. The second Fortnite World Cup is going on all this weekend, and I can’t help but feel a little pity for how much pressure the pros must be under. Obviously it’s exhilarating to play under the lights on the biggest stage in the world, for a chance at a piece of $30 million. But at the same time you do have to perform.
There’s a real appeal to being an amateur — at anything, not just Fortnite. If you want to go back to the etymology, “amateur” comes from the French for “lover of”; pursuing an interest for its own sake is liberating. Amateurs were so highly regarded that the modern Olympic games were explicitly for amateur competitors for most of the 20th century. It wasn’t until the ’90s that professionals were allowed to compete across every sport. (Aside from wrestling, because professional wrestling is a bit of a misnomer.)
I was playing Fortnite with some friends after work last week; we were playing squads a player down, with three people instead of the usual four, so we decided to fill the spot with a random person. We happened upon this guy who was I think named Jay, who was incredible. The kind of guy who might, on a good day, take out a full 10 percent of people on the island. With us, he had an eight kill game — which is impressive when you consider that only a hundred people drop onto the island in the first place. I had that realization again; no matter how much I practice, I’ll never be as good as him. But the thing was he was as excited that we had mics and were a decently competent squad as we were when we realized how good he was. We didn’t win any games that day.
Afterward, Jay added us as friends. We’ll play again, and maybe we’ll even get a victory royale. That, however, isn’t the point. Or the fun.