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Fortnite’s grand e-sports plans are off to a shaky start

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Overwatch and PUBG had a huge weekend, while Epic’s Summer Skirmish series is still very much in beta

Photo by Nick Statt / The Verge

When Epic Games announced that it would be investing a hefty $100 million in Fortnite e-sports and launch a competitive world cup for the game, there was a lot of excitement. Fortnite is already a massive cultural phenomenon, and here was a chance for it to make a splash in the burgeoning world of e-sports. The successful Fortnite Pro-Am at E3 was followed by the launch of Summer Skirmish, a series of eight weekly tournaments featuring $8 million in prizes. But despite some big money and many of the most popular names in streaming, Fortnite’s competitive gaming splash has been mostly a disappointment so far.

Things got off to a very bad start. The first tournament was cancelled halfway through after players suffered from such significant lag that it was impossible to continue. A week later, the next skirmish featured a nice underdog story, as console player “iDropz_bodies” — well-known in Destiny circles, but not a big name in Fortnite — surprised everyone by snagging the tournament win and $130,000 in prizes. This, naturally, led to accusations of cheating on Reddit and elsewhere; Epic was forced to release a statement defending the player and verifying that the win was legit.

Overwatch League Photo by Matthew Eisman / Getty Images for Blizzard Entertainment.

There have been other problems. The tournaments have conflicted with the already popular Friday Fortnite series, run by YouTuber Daniel “Keemstar” Keem. And, perhaps most surprisingly, Epic’s broadcasts have felt shockingly amateur. The presentation is lackluster, and there have been no real concessions made for viewers; there’s no spectator view, or any tools used to give people watching a good understanding of the overall game. Instead, you’re simply watching from the perspective of a single player, with the viewpoint shifting regularly between the various competitors. It’s fine if you just want to watch Ninja, but not so much if you’re trying to take in the competition as a whole.

The struggles of Fortnite as an e-sport were especially apparent over the weekend, when two other major competitive gaming events took place. While the third week of Summer Skirmish was the best to date — there were no major controversies, at least — it paled in comparison to offerings from other games.

The biggest spectacle was the Overwatch League grand finals, a best-of-three series that took place over two days at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Blizzard’s league is arguably the most ambitious e-sports competition ever put together, emulating traditional sports leagues with big-money owners, a regular schedule to follow, and city-based teams to encourage local and more casual fans. Since its debut in January, the Overwatch League has largely looked the part of a major professional sports league. The broadcasts are more ESPN than Twitch, with slick graphics and engaging hosts, serving the existing dedicated Overwatch audience, while also easing in new viewers. There are various camera angles designed for spectators, and maps and replays that help create a better understanding of the overall battle.

For the finals, all of this was on display, but for a much bigger audience. The Twitch stream averaged more than 300,000 concurrent viewers during the two matches, while the finals were also broadcast on ESPN. Blizzard says that 22,434 people took in the competition live in New York. When the London Spitfire finally lifted the trophy after a dominant performance, it felt like a momentous occasion.

More relevant for Fortnite, the game’s biggest competitor, Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds put on a major e-sports tournament of its own. This weekend, the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Berlin was home to the PUBG Global Invitational, the game’s biggest tournament so far. And while Fortnite may have surged ahead of PUBG in terms of popularity, the event in Germany showed that it definitely lags behind when it comes to the e-sports viewing experience.

PUBG Global Invitational Photo courtesy PUGB Corp.

For viewers at home, there were map overlays that showed where the various teams were hiding out, and multiple camera angles that made it possible to see when players got close to each other and a skirmish was about to break out. A persistent scoreboard also made it possible to see who was still standing and who had the most points at any given moment. As a casual PUBG viewer, I was still able to take in the competition and understand what was happening. It was a great show and also one that was very global; China’s OMG held off Team Liquid to take home the grand prize, and there were competitive teams from Korea, North America, Europe, and elsewhere, all with a reasonable shot of winning.

This isn’t to say that Fortnite won’t ever be a major player in e-sports, but a huge player base and a big cash infusion aren’t guarantees of success. The Summer Skirmish series feels like a beta; Epic is clearly testing ideas, with a format that changes on a weekly basis, and it’s slowly been improving since the first weekend. And the interest is there, too. Despite the many issues the tournament has faced thus far, Twitch numbers are strong, and prominent e-sports squads keep signing Fortnite players in hopes of getting a piece of that $100 million.

There’s clearly a lot of work to do, though. Even if Epic wants to be different, and offer a unique kind of competitive gaming environment befitting the quirky game, there are plenty of things the developer can learn from its peers with regards to putting on an event that’s entertaining and easy-to-understand. Epic has big plans for Fortnite in e-sports — now it just needs the structure and viewer experience to go along with it.