The first thing I noticed when I walked into Arthur Ashe Stadium was the sound. It wasn’t the roar of thousands of fans descending into a single venue or the cacophony of dozens of people working diligently behind the scenes to make sure everything went smoothly. Instead, I was greeted with the iconic Fortnite lobby music. It was blaring over seemingly every speaker across the famed tennis ground, which is best known for hosting the US Open for more than two decades. Under the watchful eyes of a towering Andre Agassi poster, I kept thinking about getting a few battle royale matches in on my phone.
This past weekend, developer Epic Games put on the biggest Fortnite spectacle to date. At the world’s largest tennis stadium in New York, the company held the first Fortnite World Cup Finals. It was, as the name implies, a chance to watch the best players in the world compete against each other for a share of a massive $30 million prize pool. Those who made it in went through a grueling 10-week qualification process against millions of other players. But the weekend was also more than just a competition. Fortnite has long been the largest game in the world — if not in terms of pure player count, then surely in terms of cultural influence. The Fortnite World Cup celebrated that.
There was the thrilling competition, which was spread across four different tournaments featuring huge names like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins and Turner “Tfue” Tenney. But the World Cup was also home to a miniature Fortnite amusement park, a Marshmello concert, a tease of the game’s upcoming 10th season, and multiple moments that blurred the line between the game and the real world. It was a chance for Epic to show off just how big Fortnite really is.
Outside of Arthur Ashe Stadium were a number of attractions pulled directly from the game, creating what’s best described as a miniature theme park. You could ride a zipline or roll around in a giant ball, and there was a Lazy Links mini-golf course and a giant pirate ship. DJ Yonder (a robotic llama) was behind the turntables, kids walked around carrying plastic cups filled with branded Slurp Juice, and fans lazed around in beanbags next to supply drop crates. The crowd on hand was fairly diverse, particularly in terms of age. There were a lot of families with younger children, adding to the theme park vibe, along with gaggles of teenagers and older fans decked out in e-sports jerseys representing Faze Clan, TSM, and even Overwatch League teams like the New York Excelsior and Los Angeles Gladiators. Fans were given Fortnite-branded earplugs and water skins along with their tickets to stay comfortable throughout the hot, noisy weekend.
Then there were the mascots. Fortnite is known for its ever-growing cast of characters, which are sold in-game as digital skins. There were a lot of them running — or rather, dancing — at the World Cup. Fans were able to take photos with everyone from Peely the banana to the disturbing Fishstick as well as the dueling fast-food mascots from Durr Burger and Pizza Pit. They seemed to be constantly in motion. You know how at Disney World, the cast members can’t take off the heads of their costumes? The Fortnite World Cup felt like that, except the mascots weren’t allowed to stop flossing. This, in turn, caused everyone around them to start moving as well, leading to impromptu dance-offs. I’ve never seen so many people dab in my life.
There were a few places where the Fortnite fantasy fell away. On Friday, I walked past a few of the smaller courts and saw people still practicing tennis amid all of the chaos. And if anyone wanted to buy a Durr Burger onesie or neon yellow World Cup hoodie, they had to do it at a shop labeled “US Open Collection.” But for the most part, the space was an impressive evolution from past Fortnite events, and it seemed to be constantly crowded. Signs outside of attractions frequently signaled wait times of up to 90 minutes, and people dutifully stood in line despite the sweltering conditions. The line was particularly huge on day three, thanks to the promise of cardboard Marshmello helmets and free V-Bucks for a limited number of attendees.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the World Cup was how it blurred the line between the real world and the digital universe Epic has created. Not only did locations and characters from the game make their way IRL, but so did the Battle Pass. Just like in the game, fans were encouraged to complete multiple tasks each day (in this case, that meant visiting attractions) in order to earn rewards including a physical V-Bucks coin. And while you could buy all kinds of Fortnite World Cup merchandise at the event, it was also available in the game; two limited edition World Cup skins were on sale only over the weekend, along with other free rewards like a wallpaper.
Much has been made about how Fortnite is more of a place than a game, a new kind of immersive social network. The World Cup showed that this could translate into the real world as well. Such is the blurry distinction between the two that when Marshmello announced that he would be performing a concert on Sunday afternoon, it wasn’t clear whether he meant onstage at the World Cup or in the game. (To confuse things even further, Marshmello played footage from his in-game concert during his set at Arthur Ashe Stadium.)
Of course, the main attraction was the competition. Epic has gone to considerable expense to turn Fortnite into a viable competitive game. Last year, the company pledged $100 million toward building out Fortnite e-sports, with the ultimate goal being a massive championship at the end. That path wasn’t especially smooth. Early tournaments were plagued by technical problems, lackluster production quality, and viewability issues. In fact, the very first Summer Skirmish event was canceled halfway through due to lag. Things steadily got better, but problems regularly arose.
Even the World Cup qualifiers this year had issues, particularly with cheating: Damion “Xxif” Cook was suspended for cheating during qualifying, only to be reinstated with enough time to make it into the World Cup anyway. (One of the loudest cheers during the World Cup was when Xxif was taken out of the duos tournament.) Likewise, Epic’s breakneck development pace meant that new features like the all-powerful Infinity Blade were often introduced to the game right before major tournaments, which didn’t give players a chance to practice.
All of these problems seemed to have been largely eliminated for the World Cup. The event looked amazing, with a two-story octagonal stage at the center of the stadium, covered in more than 100 displays that were showing off the action. It also looked great on streams, and fans could even watch the World Cup in the game. As for those updates, Epic had World Cup competitors playing on an older patch so that brand-new items like the recently introduced “storm scout” sniper rifle weren’t part of the tournament. “[Epic] haven’t had the best history,” 15-year-old pro Benjy “Benjyfishy” Fish said during a pre-event press conference, before adding that “it seems like they’re improving.”
Despite all of this baggage, the competitive element was the highlight of the World Cup. The tournament was divided into a series of competitions: Friday featured a creative mode showcase and celebrity Pro-Am, while a duos championship took place on Saturday, followed by the main event, with the 100 best solo players facing off on Sunday.
The Creative World Cup — which featured its own $3 million prize pool — was surprisingly intense and a good showcase for what’s possible with Fortnite’s Minecraft-style mode. Teams had to play through a trio of different game modes, only to play through them again with the rules slightly changed afterward. The most stressful mode was when players had to attempt to collect 30 coins in one of the game’s infamous “death runs,” which are seemingly impossible platforming stages designed to be as challenging as possible. During the first playthrough, players could respawn and try tricky jumps multiple times. But for the second go, everyone was given just one life. At one point, a player used a crying emote to show just how anxious he felt about making a jump through a series of spiked death traps.
It all came down to one heart-pounding moment: with the game tied, Zand was the last remaining player, and he was in sight of two different coins, both of which could push his squad ahead. He took off his shoes to relax, listened to some advice from his teammates, and ultimately made a jump to win the game — earning his team a $1 million grand prize in the process.
Similarly, the third celebrity Pro-Am was a chance for some of the biggest names in Fortnite to take the stage. Despite their popularity, Twitch stars like Ninja, Jack “CouRage” Dunlop, Nick “Nickmercs” Kolcheff, Benjamin “DrLupo” Lupo, and Soleil “Ewok” Wheeler didn’t actually qualify for the main World Cup, so the Pro-Am was a chance for them to shine during the event. (In fact, despite not making it into the main World Cup events, Ninja seemed to be everywhere: he captained a team during the Creative World Cup, partnered with Marshmello for the Pro-Am, and served as a color commentator during the duos championship.)
As in the past two editions of the competition, the Pro-Am partnered well-known Twitch streamers and YouTubers with traditional celebrities like wrestler Xavier Woods and former N’Sync member Joey Fatone, but it was clear that the real big names came from the world of gaming. Whenever well-known players like Tfue or Ninja were on-screen, the crowd went wild. Ultimately, producer RL Grime and former League of Legends pro Karim “Airwaks” Benghalia repeated as champions.
The core of the competition, though, was the duos and solo championships. Each followed the same formula: players competed across six 100-player battle royale matches, and they were awarded points based on placement and kills. One of the most interesting things about the competition was how open it was. Epic allowed anyone to compete for a spot in the World Cup, and the developer says that more than 40 million people played during the 10 weeks of qualifying.
The final lineup of players was drawn from 30 countries and skewed very young; the average age was 16, with players as young as 13 competing. The oldest player was just 24 years old. (Every qualified player was male.) The result of this open nature was a lineup of largely unknown players. The duos competition, in particular, was lacking in star power, but that didn’t make it any less interesting. It felt like a wide-open playing field. Over the six matches, five different teams won. Ultimately, the European duo of Emil “Nyhrox” Bergquist Pedersen and David “aqua” Wang won the $3 million grand prize.
It was a similar story in the solo competition, despite bigger names like Tfue (who finished in 67th place) and Timothy “Bizzle” Miller (23rd place). In their place, a new line of young stars took their opportunity. One of the early fan favorites was Thiago “King” Lapp from Argentina who wowed the crowd with his aggressive play, relentlessly pursuing opponents until he eliminated them. Ultimately, the competition wasn’t even close: 16-year-old American Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf won the first match and never looked back, racking up nearly twice as many points as his closest competitor. During the final few moments of the sixth match, an unmistakable grin crossed his face as Bugha realized he was about to be a millionaire.
It was a lot of fun to watch. The screen-laden setup might seem excessive, but it made it very easy to follow the action. Multiple screens were used to display fights from different angles, and each player had a screen in front of them that would go dark when they were eliminated. The extra viewing angles were especially important because high-level Fortnite play can be disorienting, with players rapidly destroying and rebuilding the world around them to better suit their needs. At times, it can feel like they’re playing a different game than the rest of us. And despite everyone being stuck to a computer, there was some entertaining showmanship. Players used belly laugh emotes to mock their downed opponents, and at one point, during the Creative World Cup, Faze Clan star Cizzorz leaned back in his chair and flexed, while his character kissed a gold trophy in triumph.
Despite new competition like Apex Legends and the ongoing success of PUBG, Fortnite remains the biggest game in its class, and Epic seems intent on keeping it that way. The World Cup was a massive spectacle designed to show Fortnite’s place. Remarkably, it happened in the middle of a very busy time for the game; the game recently had its most ambitious in-game event ever when a kaiju faced off against a giant pink robot, and next week will kick off Fortnite season 10. It seems that Fortnite never really stops, even to accommodate a $30 million tournament.
The real question, though, is what comes next. Epic teased a competitive Fortnite Championship Series for season 10, which suggests a more organized and structured system will be in place for pro players. (That could well be the work of former Overwatch League commissioner Nate Nanzer, who recently joined Epic.) A robust e-sports scene may be one of the keys to the game having enduring success. That’s certainly been the case for titles like League of Legends, Overwatch, and Counter-Strike, where the competitive scene is a vital component of their long lifespans. (PUBG creator Brendan Greene similarly believes that the game’s future lies in e-sports.)
Fortnite is a lot of things: a game, a social network, a sport, an ever-evolving piece of fiction. Up until now, all of these aspects of Fornite had remained largely separate. The World Cup showed what could happen if you brought all of those elements together, and it was amazing.