The biggest video game at E3 2018 this week doesn’t need its own press conference. Epic Games’ Fortnite and its presence here at the gaming industry’s largest annual convention can be felt everywhere, from the big keynote addresses of the world’s largest game publishers to the pervasive e-sports theme underscoring much of the live entertainment here in Los Angeles.
Later today, Epic will host a 100-person tournament live at E3 featuring 50 celebrities and 50 professional streamers, marking the first large-scale tournament for the game hosted and coordinated by Epic itself. The contest will include big names like rappers PartyNextDoor and Vince Staples, actors Chandler Riggs and Jon Heder, and athletes like Demetrius Johnson and Terrence Ross, all onstage with streamers like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins and Ali “Myth” Kabbani. Even though Epic doesn’t have any news of its own to announce at the show, it’s using the tournament and Fortnite’s popularity to ensure the game stays at the top of everyone’s minds throughout the industry’s marketing extravaganza this week.
Fortnite is the free-to-play battle royale game that pushed the genre from its explosively popular beginnings on the PC with PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds to a worldwide phenomenon on nearly every platform. (This morning, Epic added the Nintendo Switch to that list of supported platforms.) Everyone from little kids to middle school girls to musicians and athletes like Drake, Diplo, and Boston Red Sox pitcher David Price play Fortnite like it’s their job. And for a certain class of YouTube and Twitch internet personalities, Fortnite is a job. The game has created a whole new class of web celebrity that’s capable of blending live entertainment with competitive e-sports-quality performance.
Fortnite’s influence on the industry is readily apparent at E3, both from an economic point of view and from a game design one. The game is forcing game studios and publishers to rethink how their products are developed, monetized, and updated over time. The game made an estimated $300 million in the month of April entirely on in-app purchases of items like costumes, dance moves, and other cosmetics that have no effect on your ability to compete.
Fortnite’s free-to-play model, combined with the inherent popularity of the battle royale genre and Epic’s breakneck update cycle, has turned Fortnite into a mega-hit. Now, nearly every big publisher is looking for ways to capitalize on the trend while trying to adapt at the same velocity as Epic.
Evidence of Fortnite’s ongoing impact started even before the show. Activision announced last month that the new Call of Duty would feature its very own battle royale game mode. Then, on Saturday, Electronic Arts revealed just six minutes into its annual E3 press conference that the new WWII-focused Battlefield V would feature the same.
At the PC Gaming Show on Monday, the developer of a new game called Mavericks: Proving Grounds announced an upcoming beta featuring 400-person and even 1,000-person battle royale modes — all in a bid to out-innovate Epic to ever-larger and more chaotic variants on the genre. Indies are also getting in on the trend: the creators of popular webcomic Cyanide & Happiness announced their very own battle royale game yesterday, called Rapture Rejects, featuring a cartoony art style and a 100-person deathmatch mode.
It’s even become a pervasive meme — well before E3 even kicked off — that the conference this year would be overflowing with battle royale copycats and graphed-on game modes to cash in on Fortnite’s success. Symbols of the game company and franchise logos with battle royale Photoshopped beneath them have become an easy-to-crack a joke about the state of the game industry in 2018.
And since EA’s announcement on Saturday, the jokes at the expense of trend-chasing game publishers have only intensified:
E3 2018 started at 11:00am Pacific. First Battle Royale announcement: 11:06am
— Jason Schreier (@jasonschreier) June 9, 2018
In the spirit of #E3 and the current state of cashgrab gaming, I’m very excited to announce that The Philip DeFranco Show will be releasing a brand new Battle Royale mode later this month and it’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced before!!!
— Philip DeFranco (@PhillyD) June 10, 2018
Fortnite is also taking center stage for many of the ancillary live shows, activities, and panels happening at E3 outside of the main show floor and big publisher press conferences. Pro gaming team Fnactic is holding Fortnite try-outs for its e-sports squad. Top Twitch streamer Ninja is also a featured special guest on the official YouTube Live E3 presentation alongside awards show host and TV presenter Geoff Keighley. And at the E3 Coliseum, where Keighley is helping produce a series of talks and interviews with game developers and celebrities, Epic Games’ Donald Mustard, its worldwide creative director, and Avengers: Infinity War director Joe Russo plan to discuss world-building in media and the landmark crossover Fortnite Thanos event back in May.
This week in LA, Epic is even flying a 40 x 30-foot inflatable version of the Battle Bus — the aircraft that players parachute out of in the beginning of a Fortnite match — to promote the game and Epic’s celebrity and streamer tournament.
That said, Fortnite won’t always enjoy this amount of popularity and lavish attention, and it is possible another game will knock it off its perch atop the battle royale throne. Just as Epic took the best elements of PUBG and used them to create a bigger and more accessible game, another game studio could do the same to Epic — or perhaps push the battle royale genre to new heights in ways we can’t foresee right now.
The video game industry is largely built on finding formulas that work, either by innovating or copying others, and using those formulas to create massive, dependable businesses, like the ones underpinning popular franchises from Assassin’s Creed to Call of Duty. Fortnite has shown the game industry a new formula. And as the events of the past few days have illustrated, it’s only a matter of time before someone inevitably comes up with another new and exciting idea that takes over the world — or at the very least does it better than the original.