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How Fortnite's competitive scene was born in chaos

The rise of Fortnite has been incredible to witness, especially thanks to the spectacular Fortnite World Cup in New York a few weeks ago. Though the journey to the top has been far from smooth, especially for the game’s esports scene.

Fnatic’s Fortnite Team Manager Victor Bengtsson has seen it all in the industry so enjoy his four-part series below as he recalls his standout memories during his personal journey in helping Fortnite grow into the esports phenomenen that we see today.

1: The creation

In February 2018, we were joking about what extravagant meal we’ll order after winning the first Fortnite tournament - if there ever was one. Fast-forward a year later and the players in that group chat have amassed over $100,000 in prize fees and entertain 2.6 million fans across their social media.

Fortnite flipped what it means to be a player in esports — this is the scene that was created in chaos.

Fortnite was the Unicorn. After being connected to Drake, The Super Bowl and $100m in prize earnings, no one can claim anything else. Fortnite kicked open doors of living rooms across the world, then onto classrooms, football pitches and mainstream talk shows. Ninja was becoming a star, not an esports star but an global superstar that suburban mothers would take pictures with because they recognised him in their local coffee shop. We all saw the commercial possibilities but behind the mainstream success of Fortnite, a scene was taking shape across Discord servers and Twitter DMs. Those who sought to conquer the new Battle Royale arena were creating squads that would be pushing hours upon hours into becoming the most mechanically skilled contenders.

It is important to stress that, at the very beginning, Fortnite did not have an easily accessible practice system. Training for a competitive environment, which we didn’t even know would exist, required coordination, strategy and planning. I believe that the silver-lining of not having the custom servers available to everyone was the reason the Fortnite community grew strong but also ventured beyond just players. There were kids managing Discord servers with thousands of people timing their entry into the game to maximize the chance of players ending up in the same lobby. The Discord servers had intentionally been set up to collect those who had taken the game from casual to competitive. Having 46 players from one pro Discord server end up in the same game was better than having none. It also meant that the servers came crashing down because the gamer client couldn’t handle the speed they used the in-game functions. It was a hilariously strange time where some of the strongest friendships in Fortnite were created.

As the pro Discords were being defined, personalities from the scene were becoming superstars overnight. An Instagram or Twitter account went from 234 followers to 16,000 followers within days and reached over 1 million within a few months. Having a profile on social media platforms and adapting to a possible future audience was becoming a necessary component if you wanted to reach the most successful among Fortnite players. From there we grew: graphic illustrators, video editors, management staff, agents, coaches, growth hackers, social media consultants and the remarkable part was all of these positions were held by unpaid, driven and dedicated 17-year-olds.

Within a few months, a full ecosystem had formed which was nurtured by young people who were literally in the dark as to whether this would become a competitive esport. Without input from anyone but those who shared the same vision, they, as a community, had taken the first baby-steps towards what would soon become the most profitable esports in the history of competitive gaming.

2: The first skirmish

The smell of barbecue filled the mellow, Summer air while I enjoyed some drinks with my best friends. I’m interrupted by a notifications on my phone where I see that Keemstar has added me to a group chat. A few moments later there’s a very neutral “hey guys” popping up on my screen. The controversial host who has more than 5,000,000 followers had, within half-an-hour, invited us to join the only available Fortnite tournament at the time - FRIDAY FORTNITE. My buddies were covering their eyes from the sun, saying “What’s up?” and I replied “I don’t think I’ll be going for the job in Stockholm guys”. The community driven tournament had been pulling more than 600,000 concurrent viewers for weeks and all the stars we know today were in there. We were going to play on the servers across the ocean, but no one cared, there was suddenly hope for a competitive future even if our ping was higher than normal.

The aimless chase for competitive possibilities suddenly became very substantial and focused. We went from running in the dark chasing dreams to looking at the very thing we had been wishing for. At this point, we weren’t sure what Epic Games intended for the game. We just knew they were making bank.

With the incredible popularity of Fortnite worldwide and the viewership the community was amassing on their streams we were expecting something major - it was simply too good an opportunity to be overlooked. When they saw the success of Keemstar’s Fortnite Friday they finally acted. When Epic Games announced the Summer Skirmish, the first official Epic run tournament, I just remember making about 15 telephone calls to a bunch of people spanning from organizations to my grandmother where I said “It’s happening, we are all quitting our jobs and we are going to see the world”. The tournament would feature $8m in prize money and span over 8 weeks. It felt like we were about to embark upon a journey that would have seemed completely abstract just a few weeks before. How does a kid tell his parents that dinner will have to be slightly early next weekend because he’s competing for a couple of million bucks? There was this naive fresh happiness within the community at that point - It was beautiful.

Though the first week of the Summer Skirmish was pretty bad. We’re talking bad like players saying they won’t continue playing this game unless someone throws $100,000,000 at it (which Epic Games of course had promised a few weeks back). The game client couldn’t handle what the players who had been practicing in the Pro Discords were doing. The public games that the game servers handled on the daily was nothing compared to what happened when people who took the game mechanics to their limit competed against each other. The game just lagged, where you would expect you character to move it instead stood still, and where you’d expect to see your wall or your ramp, you instead saw your character turn into a shining blue pixelated dust. We crowned winners after week one but the only true winner of that competitive environment was lag. Nothing went the way Epic Games had intended. As the games concluded on the first day of competition, we remained very uncertain of where Fortnite was heading.

Things got better, not perfect, but playable. On the scoreboard in the upcoming weeks of the Summer Skirmish we saw players emerging, players who to this very day remain cornerstones of the competitive community. The nicknames of young players from across North America and Europe were being displayed on streams that pulled vast amounts of viewers. That’s when it all started to happen, suddenly we had 16-year-olds earning $30k over the weekends and the NFL wanted to feature Fortnite superstar Ninja in the Superbowl commercial.

This feels so very long ago now. Watching any of the end game segments of the Summer Skirmish would make any pro player laugh today. It is on a whole other level now. Any achievements players hold from 2018’s summer tournament are basically useless when brought up now. But when I look back on the Summer Skirmish, even if it wasn’t the most competitive setting, it was one of the happiest times in the evolution of Fortnite.

3: Somewhere to call home

I land in rainy London, thinking of all of the things I’ve left behind in Sweden. Time has moved so fast. Raindrops fall slowly down the cabin window as I pack away my book, listening to the somewhat depressing weather forecast through the audio system. I take a selfie while sliding along the moving walkway at Stansted airport but no filter could hide the very tired look on my face. I scroll through a chat between me and a Fortnite player on Twitter from the day before. He’s become representative of the players I’ve had conversations with lately. He’s excited about the future and feels that the Fall season will do him good but most importantly, he feels lost in this massive industry that no one seems to know anything about.

Am I going to get scammed?

It was at that very moment I realised I’m a professional with no esports background rushing head first into an industry that revolves around young people with no experience of anything but, well, being kids in front of computers. Something that became abundantly clear in the past year, while seeing amazing talent rise above the competition, was that wherever there was success there was also greed. Shocking, right? During this time I encountered, throughout hundreds of Direct Messages with players across the world, nothing but the pure and perhaps naive idea of going pro in a game that these young players, at their core, loved. Sometimes they hated it as well, but that’s how love works.

What they weren’t aware of yet, was that the big bad world was about to come knocking on their door because they had reached a certain number on social media, achieved a placement in a recent prestigious tournament, or were hailed as the new up-and-coming mechanical God on some highlight channel on YouTube. Whoever stood on the other side of that door would define a young mind’s perception of professionals within the world of esports. It was either the opportunity of a lifetime or, at its worst, a lying scumbag hoping to fool gullible dreamers.

Here’s an unsexy word you wouldn’t think would be the number one selling point to a person trying to reach their dream: safety. And, to be blunt, it wasn’t safe at the beginning. There were organisations popping up left, right and centre offering a decent salary to anyone who had been doing good work in the scrim Discords. They were offering contracts that focused heavily on a flat fee that would transform you from someone who claimed to be incredible to being legitimised. Of course, this wasn’t always the case.

Some, if not all, can recall the scandal of the Evil Cake Army, or the TwitLongers desperately exclaiming: “learn from my mistakes!” Without sugarcoating anything, it was simply that the big bad world I just spoke of came breaking down the door they previously had been kindly knocking on. Young people were suddenly faced with the fact that people can deceive you, they can lie to you, they can fool you and then they will leave as if they had never existed at all.

Contracts signed turned out to be worthless in any legal sense, there were no offices or employees, no World Cup plans or brand strategies. It was simply a hollow promise made by a con-artist. The most devastating part of this wasn’t the fact that salaries weren’t paid - that could be fixed. It wasn’t that the proud feeling of being signed was completely decimated. It wasn’t even the fact that a person from outside the gaming world had done everything in their power to steal a quick buck. The most devastating part was the players lost faith in the concept of organisations.

When the places we want to call home turn out to be the opposite of what we thought it would be, the very foundation of this industry trembles. But, right there, something begun. My conversations became deeper, they became more real and the players I spoke to became more mature in their way of looking at organisations. It wasn’t all about a “let’s hurry this up and get me announced”, they looked for more than that. Parents got involved, agents were introduced and players realised that we had arrived on a new stage. Everyone in the community learned from that period, some went through undeserved shame and embarrassment. The lesson they took away was that neither they or anyone they knew were going to get f*cked over again.

There’s a recurring notification on my phone daily now, the wording changes slightly from time to time, today it looked like this

“I want to feel safe, I need something real. I’ve heard good things. Let’s talk?”

4: Taking to the stage

It’s late February 2019, I’m wearing a hoodie with my team emblem showing and a pair of carefully chosen sunglasses at Liverpool Street station in the City of London. A child, dangling his feet, is staring from across the reception hall, staring at the orange logo on the left side of my chest. He can’t be older than 7 or 8. His mother is on a call. She appears worked up, as if she’s just missed her train and doesn’t know what to do. I pretend as if I don’t notice that he is eyeing me, eating my croissant and drinking my coffee. I check my notifications, I look down to my phone,I read: “Xictor, I think I’m missing my flight GG xdddd”. It’s one of my players. I sigh, look up from the screen, I see the boy now standing up doing the “floss” dance move from Fortnite while his mother is struggling with a panic attack. I smile to myself and walk towards my platform.

I’m tired, but in a very satisfying way. Something to which many who enter a new industry can relate. You’re doing everything at once, knowing that it isn’t the most effective approach, but you’re so eager to position yourself as valuable to people who have taken a chance on you. My first 8 months at Fnatic are moments of pride, anxiety and, in some form, profound happiness.

The way my players speak of me reflects the work I’ve put in. On Twitter we meme daily but in the DMs we are grateful. Nothing generates a stronger employee than being appreciated by those with whom they work. I make this something I will never forget. I enter the express train which brings me to the airport. London fades and English countryside rushes by outside.

Airplanes take off in the mellow coldness while the sunlight bounces off their milk-white wings. Another notification pings though, “We are here, all good” Another player and his girlfriend reporting that they are on time. They are a couple of the future, owning the digital space while supporting each other at every checkpoint of an already successful journey. Fast forward through check-in, boarding passes, uncomfortable low-fare seat and a touchdown in a windy grey Polish town, we arrive for my players’ first major European event. Nothing is really special about the town of Katowice, except for one thing, it’s THE epicenter of European esports. Some of the greatest moments in this booming industry happened in the arena known as “The Spodek”, no less for the team sharing the orange logo on the left side of my chest. A place of legends - now hosting Fortnite for the first time. It is the arena where esport dreams can come alive, or they can crumble.

Everyone makes it. It’s strange to think of the best players in the world all amassing in a tiny airport somewhere in shivering cold Poland. There was probably a public restroom queue representing more than 20,000,000 followers at one point. What’s also strange is that it’s the first time I physically meet the players I’ve worked with and formed relationships with over the past year. Old people in suits that don’t fit them, plastic ID-cards around their neck, peer weirdly at the teenagers calling each other names they probably think no child ever could have been given.

We ride in different vehicles. I lean my head on the transit bus window peering at massive housing projects from the Soviet era. A group of children run by the side of the road, holding up their fingers to block out the sun. It’s still up high, Spring has arrived.

Fast forward once more - check-in at the players’ hotel, finding rooms, being impressed or disappointed, plugging in phone chargers, saying quick goodbyes and then checking social media platforms. I grab an Uber, small distance transportation is a booming market during the events, and I find my wannabe English countryside hotel. I sleep: a deep, deserved sleep.

“Look like crazy happy winner, raise hand now, make funny face, crazy winner yaaa”. It’s the broken English of the media production lead trying to hype my players to create content for the tournament’s livestream. It’s media day. One of my players stands in front of the camera in this middle-of-nowhere garage-turned-studio trying to smile (at least that’s what it kind of looks like). When asked if he has any “victory words” he replies, “use code Motor”. It’s funny… if you follow Fortnite.

The bond created between management and players is vital to their work

Media days are strange experiences for young people coming from worlds where such things are basically alien to them. Being asked to act “awkward as if you’ve lost a game” doesn’t really compute with who they are or what they’ve done prior in their lives. In the gaming industry, being able to function socially is considered a bonus, not a necessity. Let that sink in for a moment. Some of the teenagers are Mozarts of the mechanical keyboard but have also had a majority of their adult conversations without any real life interactions. Their friendships are all digitally constructed.

We leave the little garage-turned-temporary-studio and ride the transit bus to another scheduled mandatory assignment.

One tournament, 2 days. Of those 48 hours, 35 involve hard work, excitement, disappointment and revival. The remaining hours are an exercise in trying to get enough sleep. For most players attending, Katowice is their first offline competitive experience. In other sports, you always have an audience; even if it’s just your parents, someone has cheered for you and supported you during your formative chapter. This isn’t the case for the youth who choose an anonymous nickname and grinding online. No one cheers for you, no one says you’ll make it, no one says you’re talented enough to “go for it”. More importantly, they’ve never had to perform like this.

Nerves arrive, and then emotions, and eventually incredible joy or, as mentioned before, revival. One of our most commonly used sayings is “We go again”, pointing out that the grind never stops and failure to win isn’t where we give up. We grabbed a 21st position out of the 100 attending, but we still felt like we lost. Battle Royales are rough. You’re literally either on top or you’re painfully forgotten along with the other 99.