The future of competitive Fortnite kicks off tomorrow with the Champion Series, and it’s proving to be the most controversial e-sports contest developer Epic Games has ever embarked on. The issue is not prize money or who’s allowed to participate. Instead, the furor is over an in-game mech suit, ripped straight from the pages of classic Japanese manga. And it’s poised to boil over when pro players start competing for an eye-popping $10 million in prize money over the next 30 days.
Epic launched its most recent Fortnite season — the 10th one, dubbed Season X — a few days after the conclusion of its wildly successful World Cup event in New York City, where a 16-year-old was crowned the solo winner and took home $3 million in prize money. It also moved quickly to start planning for its next big tournament series, which is now called the Champion Series, featuring a handful of tournaments every week that culminate in a three-day contest in late September. Everything was looking up for competitive Fortnite.
But with the launch of Season X, it became clear very quickly that something was amiss. The season, like most others during the game’s meteoric rise to the top of the gaming zeitgeist these past two years, came with one giant, headline-grabbing addition. In the past, it’s been game-changing elements like pilotable airplanes and sometimes drastic map changes, like a floating island or an enormous volcano. This time around, it was mech suits, referred to as B.R.U.T.E.s in the game. They require two-people to pilot them, but they’re devastating in the hands of even a moderately skilled pair of players, granting 1,000 health (or five times the max of a human player) and an array of weaponry that can shred even the most talented of builders in seconds.
Many players have taken issue primarily with how unfair the mech suit can be to play against, with piloting enemies able to fire off 10 heat-seeking missiles every few seconds. Combined with the suit’s high health, stomp ability, and fast-firing combat shotgun, facing off against one is all but a death sentence, save for rare situations in which a group of players can shred enough of its health fast enough to avoid defeat.
On top of all that, Epic initially had the chance of numerous mech suits spawning at the beginning of matches set to 100 percent, effectively ensuring every match would involve a race to see who could grab the pilot seat first. The result has been an unprecedented level of community backlash over what’s seen as a game-breaking addition and a serious headache for Epic going into its next big tournament series.
At first glance, the uproar is another example of the inevitable tensions between Fortnite as a massively successful commercial product enjoyed by millions of more casual players and Fortnite as a high-profile, competitive title taken seriously by popular pro gamers and e-sports organizations. Epic seems to adamantly refuse to splinter its game between a casual version and a competitive one. So every item, vehicle, or map peculiarity present in the normal game becomes available even when millions of dollars are on the line.
We’ve seen this play out before with the Infinity Blade item during the Winter Skirmish, an anti-gravity glitch during the finals of the Fall Skirmish, and countless other instances of the game’s mainstream features interfering with its competitive scene. Whether it’s airplanes you can fly high and out of sight or mechanical balls equipped with slingshots that make you hard to hit, Epic has always added, and then tweaked, elements of its game designed to make it more fun, approachable, and unpredictable so that it didn’t totally throw off the competitive balance. And those additions are typically “vaulted” — the community term for sent to virtual purgatory — after the current season ends, where they sit like unwanted toys waiting to be brought back for a limited time mode or seasonal celebration event.
But season X has been different, partly because Epic’s decisions, and the lengths to which it’s going to stick to its guns, feel more inexplicable this time around. It’s also partly because people are just plain pissed.
Not only are the mech suits running rampant over tried-and-true strategy, but the Fortnite map now features a temporal vortex around one of its most popular drop spots, in the center of the island, that prevents players from building any type of structure or even farming materials. That makes it particularly contentious among competitive players, who worry a final circle could inadvertently trap players inside a zone that removes the most prominently competitive aspect of the game. More recently, Mega Mall has reverted back into classic location Retail Row — only this time, it’s infested with zombies.
The backlash to these changes — in particular, the mech — has been extreme. The competitive Fortnite community has complained almost nonstop about the B.R.U.T.E., and #removethemech has become a top Twitter trending topic in response to Epic’s lax response to feedback. Some of the biggest names in Fortnite e-sports, like top Twitch star Turner “Tfue” Tenney and Fortnite World Cup Champion Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf, have routinely expressed frustration with the mech suit and its imbalanced impact on play.
The Fortnite competitive subreddit has been awash with daily rants and seething comment threads calling into question Epic’s ultimate motives, the development team’s competency, and the overall effect this season may have on the game’s longevity and competitive popularity. Even professional e-sports teams are complaining. One viral clip earlier this week showed popular Twitch streamer Timothy “TimtheTatman” Betar amassing more than a dozen kills in a mech using one hand, after which he said the situation was “so sad.” Fellow streamers like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins and others have openly considered switching games until Epic removes the feature.
“Dear Epic, how… how has it been almost two weeks and the mechs are still the most laughably broken thing ever. There is nothing logical about them. They aren’t fun to play against. They feel cheap when you use them. Embarrassing,” popular streamer Jack “CouRage” Dunlop, who plays for e-sports organization 100 Thieves and has officially casted competitive Fortnite tournaments like the World Cup for Epic, wrote on Twitter last week. “I’ve played Fortnite since it was released. The community has joined together three times to voice their extreme displeasure about something in the game: planes, the Infinity Sword, and the mechs. So far the community is right each time. Hope we see mechs removed.” Dunlop has begun streaming Minecraft, commenting that it’s “been the most fun I’ve had in gaming since the start of Fortnite.”
Epic has made several moves to try to calm the community. It initially patched Fortnite so the mech suit’s homing missiles included a laser targeting sight to give opposing players some idea of whether they were about to be showered with explosives. Players were not pleased with what they felt was a lackluster response, especially after the developer said it was “evaluating” play with the mech suit. Epic came back to the table with a rare concession: it decided it would reduce the drop rates of the B.R.U.T.E. in its competitive arena playlist and for upcoming tournaments, creating the possibility that some matches won’t contain any at all.
On Thursday, Epic went even further and published a blog post detailing its philosophy around the purpose of items like the B.R.U.T.E. “The mission of Fortnite is to bring players of all skill levels together to have a fun experience where anyone can win. For example — everyone having a shot at that first elimination or Victory Royale moment and the satisfying feeling that comes with it. Right now, we know there are players out there who have never had that opportunity,” the developer wrote. “Another part of the mission is to provide spectacle and entertainment when playing Fortnite. Bringing these moments to the game every week means there is always a new way to enjoy and experience the game.”
Effectively, Epic sees additions like the mech suit, and airplanes and the Infinity Blade before it, as necessary to keep the game fresh and exciting so players keep coming back. But it also helps lower the skill gap that can make Fortnite frustratingly difficult for those who don’t play it constantly.
For the past few seasons, Fortnite has suffered from an accessibility standpoint, with the average player’s skill level so high above where it was six months to a year ago that it’s impossible for less competitive players to even remotely have a chance at taking out an enemy player, let alone winning a match. For Epic, that’s a threat to the popularity and the financial performance of Fortnite, which, as a free-to-play game, depends on a healthy base of players of all skill levels coming back often and spending real money. In that sense, Epic’s logic makes sense. The mech suit brings in new players by giving them a new toy to play with, and it’s also an effective strategy to try and win.
Where Epic runs into trouble is in balancing its e-sports ambitions for Fortnite with that accessibility. These two sides to the battle royale hit are, and likely will always be, at odds. But the B.R.U.T.E. has highlighted two key elements about the state of Fortnite: just how far Epic is willing to go to try to defend the decisions it makes to keep its game vibrant for all players and the extent to which the competitive community will push back to try and salvage the integrity of the game’s professional playing field.
With the launch of the Champion Series tomorrow, all eyes will be on just how influential the mech suit is in high-level pro play. Perhaps concerns are overblown, and the spawn rate reduction will serve its purpose by keeping the mechs out of final circles and off the strategic chessboard. But the minute they do give any one player what is perceived to be an unfair advantage, that will only dig an even deeper hole for Epic. And a disastrous start to the Champion Series may be the push the developer needs to create a clear division between its casual and competitive game modes.