Growing up as an athlete and video game aficionado, I always saw myself as a hybrid. I was never the stereotypical “jock” meat-head — rather, a significant portion of my young life was consumed by computer gaming.
I was fascinated by competitive games, both shooters and sports games alike. The pure joy of earning a new rank or winning a match rivaled the feeling I experienced when I won a game on the ice or diamond. From a young age, I felt like an anomaly. There were gamers who loved playing video games and there were athletes who treated sports as the only aspect of their lives that mattered.
That phenomenon has been challenged in recent years. The first instance I can remember is former Detroit Tigers pitcher Joel Zumaya essentially ending his big league career due to an injury from excessively playing Guitar Hero. As an 8-year-old Guitar Hero enthusiast, I was fascinated by how one of my baseball heroes played the same video game I was obsessed with.
That was just the beginning of the revolution, though. Since then, the sports world has witnessed some of the biggest professional athletes challenge each other in games such as NBA 2K and FIFA. Honestly, this didn’t come as a huge shock to me. These athletes are just playing virtual versions of the sports they have dedicated their lives to.
But what really caught me by surprise was the rampant popularity of Fortnite. The game has taken both the professional sports and video game worlds by storm. Fortnite is estimated to have over 45 million players (over 3.4 million concurrent) and even has its own online section on Bleacher Report. If you are somehow still unfamiliar with the game, let me explain. Fortnite is a competitive battle royale-style survival game in which 100 players compete to be the last man standing.
The barrier to entry is much lower than other titles. Fortnite is a free-to-play game with an easy-to-learn concept but an insanely high skill ceiling. This is seldom seen with games that are released today. Traditionally, games made in 2018 are either too easy to perfect or too difficult that it scares away the less skilled. Fortnite has found the perfect balance between these two areas. This phenomenon allows for the less skilled gamers to have fun and play the game while not hindering the more skilled gamers from perfecting their craft in new ways.
What separates Fortnite from other popular titles is not only its celebrity attention but its celebrity participation and community. Athletes from various sports have alluded to their membership to the community by celebrating with the taunt dances from Fortnite in their professional games. On Opening Day, Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts slapped a double in the 7th inning and celebrated at second base with the “Take the L” dance from the game.
Perhaps the most notable Fortnite event took place when former Trojan wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster played and live-streamed a squad match with Drake, Travis Scott and Fortnite legend, “Ninja.” Smith-Schuster noted that the match was the craziest thing he has ever done and is “better than scoring a touchdown.”
Los Angeles Lakers guard Josh Hart said he experienced a similar feeling when he embarked on a 10-hour Fortnite marathon before earning his first victory.
“It’s tough, because we won the national championship in dramatic fashion,” Hart said to CBS Sports. “But the first time I won Fortnite, I was screaming, I jumped up out my chair, I was hype.”
One could look at this as just a bunch of athletes messing around playing a computer game for fun. In my opinion, this practice is so much deeper. It speaks to the legitimacy of competitive video games.
Although, Fortnite Battle Royale is not the ideal format for esports, its popularity indicates a significant step forward for esports. The game’s celebrity patrons compare playing Fortnite to the emotions they experience in their professional sports. This further proves that esports can be and are competitive games that evoke the same emotions and require the same level of dedication as their traditional counterparts do.
With big name spokespersons promoting esports, their fans will be more likely to believe that esports are a legitimate form of sport and entertainment. It excites me to see more and more professional athletes enter the world of esports and I think we are very close to a time where esports will become as popular as traditional sports.
Sam Arslanian is a freshman majoring in journalism. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Extra Innings,” runs Mondays.