“Fortnite: Battle Royale” has become a worldwide obsession among gamers, but it’s not just teens in their parents’ basement paying attention.
Chicago-based game developers and technology companies are watching the game’s unrelenting rise and figuring out how they can capture some of that magic. Some say “Fortnite” has done the nearly impossible in captivating such a vast and attentive audience, but that isn’t stopping local companies from taking apart the puzzle and seeing which pieces they can apply to their own products.
The developers of “Fortnite” are “going to pave the way for the rest of us,” said Chip Sineni, co-founder and director of Chicago-based game developer Phosphor Studios.
The game is dazzlingly popular in part because it is free and can be played on gaming consoles, mobile devices and computers. Up to 100 people battle in a single “Fortnite” match, diving into a Looney Tunes-like world that developer and publisher Epic Games continually changes. Injury to a player might come after being hit with a boogie bomb — a grenadelike weapon that renders players defenseless by forcing them to dance. Users can buy items like a Battle Pass, which rewards players with accessories and clothing for their avatar as they play and complete challenges.
Celebrities tweet about the game and stream their play. Boston Red Sox left-hander David Price has spent long hours playing “Fortnite” — a fact brought up after the pitcher was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome this week.
“Fortnite” generated $223 million in revenue across all platforms in March, up 73 percent from February, according to game researcher SuperData. Privately held Epic Games said “Fortnite” hit a new peak in February of 3.4 million concurrent players, meaning there were at least 34,000 games going on at once. The company did not respond to requests for comment.
“Fortnite: Battle Royale” has become a worldwide obsession among gamers. Epic Games said it hit a new peak in February of 3.4 million concurrent players. (Epic Games)
“People have just gotten hooked,” said Dan Cermak, adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Informatics Institute. “You never know what’s going on in the game … so it keeps people coming back.”
“Fortnite” aficionados are seemingly just as interested in watching other people duke it out. It is the most popular game among viewers on live video streaming service Twitch, a subsidiary of Amazon, with more than 100 million hours watched last month, said Justin Dellario, head of Esports Programs at Twitch, in a statement.
In March, Rapper Drake teamed up with a popular “Fortnite” Twitch streamer to play and the broadcast attracted 628,000 concurrent viewers. That shattered the previous Twitch record of about 388,000 viewers, according to data from the company.
In those eye-popping Twitch statistics, Midwest Immersive sees opportunity. The company, based at Chicago tech hub 1871, creates virtual reality and augmented reality experiences that companies use to connect with customers.
Based on the success of “Fortnite” on Twitch, Aaqib Usman, founder of Midwest Immersive, thinks his startup needs to double down on its use of the streaming service to expand its reach.
“It’s a switch in priority that we’ve realized from ‘Fortnite,'” he said. Twitch might be able to help in “finding a community and raising awareness about what we do.”
The segment of the industry pushing live events has kept an eye on “Fortnite” too. The game has fueled a growing interest in esports, or video game competitions that often attract professional players and spectators.
Chicago-based Jackbox Games has been working to get its party-style video games to stadiums full of users. CEO Mike Bilder envisions giving people the opportunity to use their phones as controls and play Jackbox’s games on the jumbotron between innings or during commercial breaks. The games could be used the same way at esports arenas, which are seeing larger audiences of people coming to watch and play “Fortnite.”
“It validates our strategy of going after both very captive online audiences through streaming sites as well as live audiences through esports venues,” he said.
Hot games like “Fortnite” make esports more popular, said Dan Jamele, co-founder and chief innovation and technology officer of Torrance, Calif.-based MediaMation. His company, which outfits movie theaters and theme parks for 4-D experiences, plans to open an esports theater in Chicago’s Homan Square neighborhood later this year. The theater will be used for both movies and gamers.
Phosphor’s Sineni has seen competitors try to piggyback on each other’s successes before. He worked at Chicago-based game developer Midway Games, which created some of the most storied games of its time, including “Rampage,” “Mortal Kombat” and “NBA Jam,” before going bankrupt in 2009.
Because of “Fortnite,” he expects increased demand for developers to design PC and console games around aspects that can monetize the free-to-play model. That could pose challenges for independent developers that don’t have the same resources as the developer of “Fortnite,” Sineni said. Video games can take years to develop and often require multiple iterations before hitting the target.
Sineni is also concerned video game publishers will want game developers to throw in mobile versions of games under the same price paid for a PC version. Phosphor has been working on mobile games since 2011, but they’re not free to create.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how many of the publishers will start expecting this … (and) to see if they’re ready to understand that there’s a cost involved,” Sineni said.
At video game and arcade bar Replay Lincoln Park, a group of people gathered Thursday night around four television screens hooked up to PlayStations. It was the third week of a “Fortnite” popup at Replay. Hanging over the bar was a model of the blue bus that drops players into the game, and doll-sized, parachuting characters dangled nearby.
“Fortnite: Battle Royale” has gotten millions of players hooked worldwide. Chicago developers are trying to capture some of the magic. Here, players at a “Fortnite” pop-up bar at Replay Lincoln Park talk about why they love the game.
Joshua Toledo, 21, was standing behind his friend Mark Tabor, 21, who had just taken the remote for his turn at “Fortnite.” He was sipping a Victory Royale, a gin-based themed drink offered during the popup — “to motivate me to win,” he said.
“Every single one of my friends plays it, whether it’s on Playstation, Xbox or PC. Every single one. It’s crazy.” Toledo said. “This girl that I talk to, she started playing ‘Fortnite’ just because I played ‘Fortnite.'”
Toledo said he’s spent about $50 buying skins, or outfits, for his avatar in the game. “(That’s) pretty much like buying the game,” he said. One of the outfits looks like a Tyrannosaurus rex and the other like a fish.
Arian Kambakhsh, 22, is less willing to fork out money for the accessories. He’s not a big gamer, and the fact that “Fortnite” is free helped draw him into the game. “I haven’t bought a game in like five years,” he said.
It’s not just small companies and startups expecting to capitalize on the popularity of “Fortnite.” The game has helped grow the whole marketplace, said Blake Jorgensen, chief financial officer and chief operating officer of California-based video game publisher Electronic Arts, during the company’s earnings call this week.
“We welcome innovation in the industry. That’s what makes this business so exciting and fun to operate in,” Jorgensen said.
“It’s bringing younger people into the marketplace and younger people into first-person shooters,” he said. “And I think that’s good for the long-run health of that category for all of us in the industry, not just one player.”
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