The untold truth of Fortnite

Fortnite: Battle Royale is one of the hottest video games on the planet — very few games manage to rack up 10 million players in their first two weeks on the market. But despite appearances, it didn't appear from out of nowhere. Fortnite has been in development for over half a decade, and it's been subject to all kinds of controversies, delays, and disputes along the way. These are some of the game's highest (and lowest) moments so far — and the game isn't even finished yet. Expect more shenanigans to follow.

Fortnite's popularity, by the numbers

Everyone knows that Fortnite is popular, but how popular is it exactly? According to the stats, Fortnite isn't just the game of the moment. It's one of the biggest titles to come along in years.

As of June 2018, less than a year after Fortnite's inaugural "Save the World" mode launched, Fortnite has over 125 million players, 40 million of whom log in at least once a month. By contrast, it took Hearthstone, the free-to-play digital card game, three years to amass an audience merely 70 million strong. While League of Legends does have the edge on Fortnite with 100 million monthly players, it's also ten years old and has a thriving competitive scene.

Fortnite is dominating game streaming and video services, too. In March 2018, 42 million people watched a live Fortnite tournament, making it the biggest game-streaming event in YouTube history. Tyler "Ninja" Blevins' historic stream with hip-hop artist Drake shattered Twitch's records for non-tournament events. And in Summer 2018, Fortnite's fifth season launch earned $3 million on iOS alone, and the mobile edition is netting over $2 million a day.

That's a lot of Fortnite, and it requires a lot of data, so it's no surprise that Fortnite's setting records there, too. When Season 5 started, Fortnite players used 37 terabytes per second — or about five times more data than internet users consumed during the 2018 presidential election. So, yeah. The numbers don't lie: Fortnite is a big, big deal.

From flop to phenomenon in 63 days

As most fans know, Fortnite didn't start as a self-conscious take on PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds' popular battle royale-style gameplay. It was initially pitched as a mash-up between Minecraft and the co-op zombie shooter Left 4 Dead. In fact, Fortnite: Save the World, which pits teams of players against hordes of monsters, forcing them to build forts to survive the carnage, hit early access on July 25, 2017.

But it's Fortnite: Battle Royale, not Save the World, that turned Fortnite into a bona fide hit. Here's the funny thing: while it took six years for players to get their hands on Save the World, Battle Royale was made in a mere two months. It wasn't started until after Save the World launched, and wasn't free-to-play until two weeks before release. All in all, that's a remarkably fast turnaround time, and Epic Games' Ed Zobrist says it probably couldn't have been done at a bigger publisher. In fact, in order to get things finished on schedule, Epic had to borrow members from its Unreal Tournament team for some extra last-minute help.

It was the right call. While Fortnite: Save the World received mediocre reviews, Fornite: Battle Royale has more or less conquered the gaming world. Yes, Save the World remains a great place to farm V-bucks, but if you want to see what everyone is talking about, Battle Royale is where the action's at.

A flagship that never set sail

Fortnite is playable on everything from top-end PCs to phones, but that wasn't always the plan. At first, Fortnite was planned as a PC-exclusive. In fact, Epic intended to use Fortnite as a showcase for the latest iteration of its Unreal Engine.

In 2012, Epic spokesperson and long-time designer Cliff Bleszinski told a crowd at San Diego Comic-Con that Fortnite "is a PC-designed game, it's shipping exclusively for the PC." Not only is PC gaming an important part of Epic's heritage, Bleszinski said, but the new Unreal Engine was (at the time) so advanced that it only made sense to run it on top-end PCs. "Next-gen's here," Bleszinski elaborated. "It's been here. It's a high-end PC." In fact, the Unreal Engine 4 was developed specifically for Fortnite. The game was simply too big to run on Unreal Engine 3, and early in production Epic realized that the game would need a whole new engine. So, it built one.

That's not how things panned out, of course. Unreal Engine 4 was ready for prime time in 2014 while Fortnite was still just a "pretty functional prototype," and Epic decided to release it without its signature title. Since then, the Unreal Engine 4 has gone one to power all kinds of interesting games — including PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, which has caused Epic no small amount of strife (more on that later).

So long, CliffyB

In its own way, Fortnite helped to part its parent studio from its most famous developer.

As the man behind Gears of War and Unreal Tournament, Cliff "CliffyB" Bleszinski spent two decades as the public face of Epic Games. That ended in 2012, when Bleszinski resigned from both the company and the game industry itself (Bleszinski later returned to game development, but the less said about that, the better).

In an official statement, Bleszinski blamed his departure on burn-out, and that's a fine excuse. After all, the dude had been making video games for 20 years. Still, it looks like Fortnite played a part in Bleszinski's resignation, too. In 2012, Epic wanted to move to a "games as a service" business model (in which the product is supported with new content over a long period of time), and decided to use Fortnite to spearhead the transition. Epic reached out to Chinese game publisher Tencent (which also owns League of Legends developer Riot Games) for help, and before long Tencent owned 40% of the company.

That gave Bleszinski the perfect opportunity to make his exit. As Bleszinski admits, he wasn't particularly thrilled with Epic's new direction, and Fortnite's style wasn't really his cup of tea, either. After contract re-negotiations fell through, Bleszinski stopped showing up to work. Epic's founder, Tim Sweeney, tracked him down and told him to make a decision, and the next day Bleszinski handed in a letter of resignation, sold Tencent his shares in Epic, and poof! He was gone.

Fortnite haters, represent!

Not everyone loves Fortnite, of course. We're guessing that Caleb Rogers, the 14-year-old who Epic sued for cheating, has cooled on the game. At the very least, his mother isn't a fan. Thomas Hannah, a former Epic quality assurance tester, probably isn't too keen on the game either, but that's par for the course when you leak confidential information and your former employer decides to take you to court.

So far, however, Fortnite's biggest adversary is the PUBG Corporation, the studio behind PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. It's easy to see why. Not only does Epic admit that Fortnite: Battle Royale is basically a PUBG knock-off, but Epic also makes the Unreal engine, which powers both Fortnite and PUBG. From the beginning, that's made PUBG Corporation very nervous. In December 2017, Brendan Greene — PlayerUnknown himself — threw shade at would-be copycats, calling for greater protections for small developers and accusing rip-offs of hurting the overall market. "If it's just copycats down the line," Greene says, "then the genre doesn't grow and people get bored."

Still, you can't currently copyright game design, and when PUBG Corporation finally sued Epic for copyright infringement, it did so in a South Korean court, not an American one. It didn't really matter. PUBG Corporation dropped the suit a month later, and while we're not sure if there was a settlement or not, one thing is certain: Fortnite: Battle Royale is now free to cannibalize PUBG's audience for the foreseeable future.

Cute and cuddly carnage

Fortnite's Pixar-esque art style doesn't just help the game stand out from PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and all of the other battle royale-likes out there. The cartoony graphics are often credited as one of the main reasons why kids prefer Fortnite: Battle Royale to the competition. Unlike PUBG, which is much more grounded, Fortnite has a sense of humor, and its matches feel light, whimsical, and fun — as fun as getting shot in the face by strangers can be, anyway.

Well, that wasn't always the case. In fact, at first, Fortnite: Save the World looked dark and serious. Unfortunately, that was a little too dark, and it wore on players after extended play sessions. "We're hoping that people spend dozens if not hundreds of hours in this world," Cliff Bleszinski told fans at PAX Prime 2012. "We want people walking away thinking, 'that was bright and colourful and fun' as opposed to 'I'm going to go slit my wrists now.'"

So, Epic's design team literally went back to the drawing board, looking to Pixar films, Tim Burton flicks, and 1950s Looney Tunes shorts for inspiration. It's hard to argue with the results. Not only does the simple art style ensure that Fortnite will run on machines of differing power levels, but it gives Epic room to indulge in all kinds of silliness. It's hard to imagine TomatoHead or the Orange Shirt Kid dance popping up in PUBG's grim 'n gritty world. In Fortnite? They fit right in.

The curious case of the stolen emotes

If you've played a fair amount of Fortnite: Battle Royale, you've probably watched a competitor boogie on top of your bullet-ridden corpse. If not, you're still probably familiar with Fortnite's dance-like emotes. Heck, France's Atlético Madrid even performed the game's iconic "Take the L" emote during the World Cup 2018 finals, bringing Fortnite to one of the biggest stages imaginable.

But emotes aren't just fun. They're also big business. Players purchase some emotes using real-life money, and that's translated into some massive profits for Epic Games. It's also raised the ire of some members of the hip-hop community, who accuse Epic of profiting off of black performers' hard work. See, many Fortnite emotes are based on existing dances. As Chance the Rapper says, "Black creatives created and popularized these dances but never monetized them."

2 Milly, whose "Milly Rock" dance appears in Fortnite as the aptly-named "Swipe It" emote, agrees. "I don't feel it's appropriate that my art (dance) which is a big part of culture is basically stolen," Milly tells Kotaku, and says that he's talked to his lawyers about the issue. Fortnite has its fans in the hip-hop world, of course (Lil Yachty even devoted a music video to it). Still, Chance, 2 Milly, and others are calling out Fortnite for cultural appropriation. That's a valuable discussion, and one that probably won't be ending any time soon.

The truth behind the most ambitious crossover event in history

In May 2018, the biggest superhero movie of all time invaded the most talked-about game of the year when Avengers: Infinity War's big bad, the mad Titan Thanos, brought his Infinity Gauntlet to Fortnite and promptly began wreaking havoc. But how did that happen? According to everyone involved, it was a snap.

See, like practically everyone else, Infinity War directors Joe and Anthony Russo are big Fortnite fans, and they played it whenever they needed a break from editing the Avengers' latest big-screen adventure. In fact, it was their idea to put Thanos in the game, not Epic's. "We started thinking, how cool would it be to have some kind of Avengers–Fortnite mashup?," Joe Russo tells Entertainment Weekly.

So, the two directors reached out to Donald Mustard, Epic Games' worldwide creative director. "It had to be super authentic to both Fortnite and the Avengers: Infinity War," Mustard says, "and something that fans of both would be excited about." Mustard and the Russos brainstormed on the phone for about an hour and came up with a rough plan, and then Epic's developers got to work. Everyone seems pleased with the results.

Fortnite is throwing professional athletes a curveball

Poor David Price. In May 2018, the former Cy Young winner and five-time All-Star missed a game against the the Red Sox's age-old enemies, the Yankees, thanks to carpal tunnel syndrome. In the aftermath, word quickly spread about the pitcher's Fortnite addiction. Fans weren't happy. Price denied that the injury was Fortnite-related, but the Boston press piled on anyway, and Price ultimately vowed to stop playing the game — at least while he's at the ballpark.

At least Price wasn't alone. In fact, the 32-year-old Price only learned about Fortnite because, as Fox Sports reports, so many of his younger teammates were already playing it. Privately, some people involved in the NBA have expressed concern that young players are spending all night playing Battle Royale. When Derrius Guice, a top-rated football prospect, wasn't picked during the first round of the NFL draft, many blamed his ongoing Fortnite habit. Similarly, analyst Jeff Marek says that "a recent first-round draft pick for a very, very prominent NHL team" probably won't make it to the big leagues because he spends too much time playing Fortnite.

That's a shame, but on the other hand, Fortnite's esports scene is just starting to take shape, launching in June 2018 with the Fortnite Pro-Am and continuing with Epic's $8 million Summer Skirmish. Hey, Mr. Price, you listening? If this whole "major league pitcher" thing doesn't work out, at least you've got a pretty solid back-up option.

An industry-wide phenomenon

With everyone busy playing Fortnite, there's not a lot of time left over for other games, right? Well, yes and no. Fortnite is bound to have a big effect on the video game industry — with its popularity, how could it not? — but exactly what that effect will be remains to be seen.

On one hand, Fotnite's continued popularity has been a big boon for hardware manufacturers. Sales of peripherals like headsets, game cards, and other add-ons are up 20% year-on-year. Electronic Arts says that Fortnite is expanding the audience by creating new players and by introducing kids to shooters. "I think that's good for the long-run health of that category for all of us in the industry, not just one player," EA CFO Blake Jorgensen said during an investor's call. Some industry analysts argue that Fortnite is also boosting Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus subscription numbers.

On the other, Activision Blizzard, the company behind popular multiplayer shooters like Call of Duty and Overwatch, saw its stock price fall in anticipation of Fortnite-related competition. Ironically, it's Epic Games itself that might've suffered the biggest blow from Fortnite's meteoric rise. When Fortnite: Battle Royale took off, Epic moved members of the Paladins staff to Fortnite's growing team. Paragon shut down entirely a few months later.