The Fortnite World Cup Finals capped off this past weekend with a spectacular finish, awarding a total of $30 million to dozens of young players, some just 13 years old, in the second-largest payout in the history of competitive gaming. The star of the tournament was 16-year-old Pennsylvania native Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf, who took home $3 million by besting 99 of the planet’s most skilled Fortnite pros across six rounds of battle royale matches.
Bugha, a professional gamer signed to the American e-sports organization Sentinels, has seen his stardom skyrocket in the past 48 hours, with an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and hundreds of thousands of new followers on social media. Yet for many people, including many die-hard Fortnite fans, this is the first time they’re hearing the boy’s name. Beyond the massive prize pool and the slick production at New York City’s Arthur Ashe Stadium, the biggest takeaway from developer Epic Games’ tournament was the relatively low profile of its most successful participants — and how quickly they turned into celebrities.
Goodbye NYC. But on a real note, this has been the best week of my entire life and I can’t be more thankful for everyone supporting me. It has been a pleasure meeting everyone especially the pros. I can’t wait to meet more of you in future events. Also shoutout to @EpicGames.
— SEN Bugha (@bugha) July 30, 2019
Fortnite may be the most popular game in the world, having launched its battle royale mode in September 2017 and eclipsing pretty much every other online multiplayer title since. But its competitive circuit has only been active for a little less than 12 months. The World Cup feels a lot like the end of the game’s first era and the beginning of a new chapter. Epic proved that it can put on a show to rival the e-sports world’s biggest tournaments for games like Dota 2 and League of Legends. The Fortnite community has responded by turning a new generation of teenage players into the next superstars of the scene.
Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, the 28-year-old face of the game up until now who helped solidify its popularity with players worldwide, didn’t qualify for the World Cup. And yet, he was there at the event, seen embracing Bugha after his victory in what feels like a symbolic passing of the torch. Turner “Tfue” Tenney, the 21-year-old Florida streamer who is easily the most popular competitive Fortnite player in the world, did qualify, but he failed to earn a top spot, landing himself a dismal 67th place finish in Sunday’s solo tournament. (He still earned $50,000 for his showing.)
What’s interesting about the current dynamic of competitive Fortnite is not that Ninja and Tfue have to make way for a new generation of better, younger players by disappearing from the spotlight. Rather, Epic has created an ecosystem that can support both massively popular, mainstream internet celebrities and relatively unknown competitive wunderkinds. And it can turn the latter into the former by orchestrating large-scale stages where the young pros can perform.
In many ways, Bugha and the other victorious players, like duos champions Emil “Nyhrox” Bergquist Pedersen and David “Aqua” Wang, are not assuming the mantle of Ninja and Tfue. Instead, they’re joining them in what could be universally called the Fortnite Hall of Fame. This is the Fortnite universe expanding, not turning over.
That’s what makes Epic’s battle royale hit different from other e-sports: it now contains a unique funnel from its competitive scene to the world of unprecedentedly large online celebrity that helps promote the game to mainstream audiences.
Typically, a game with the right recipe of design and community to become a proper e-sport tends to narrow in scope, until only a niche community exists in service to that professional ecosystem. The players participating at that stage are often too focused on the game to have strong streaming careers.
As a result, they keep relatively low profiles in the broader world of Twitch, YouTube, and social media stardom. To retire from e-sports, like Brandon “Seagull” Larned did last year when he quit his Overwatch League team Dallas Fuel, is typically because a player is burned out from competition and wants to stream full time, where they can make more money and craft their own schedules.
Fortnite is different. It became the most popular game on the planet without a professional circuit in place for a number of reasons, ranging from the way it’s distributed on all platforms to its cartoony art style. It’s a game where the most popular players have not been the most skilled pros, but instead talented entertainers, some of which, like Ninja, used to be much more competitive when they were younger. It’s a situation inconceivable for most traditional sports, where a player’s performance is typically why they become and stay popular.
This created a unique dynamic for Fortnite as its competitive scene began to form starting last summer. Although Ninja won the very first officially sanctioned Fortnite tournament at the E3 Pro-Am in June 2018, it became very clear, very quickly, that there was a growing delta between the most popular players and the most skilled ones. This doesn’t exist even in other e-sports, where the best players are often brought up within an existing infrastructure designed to put them on a team of other similarly skilled pros, all with the intention of winning tournaments, nabbing prize money, and securing sponsors.
Slowly but surely, the Fortnite leaderboards began filling up with unrecognizable names from all over the world. The competitive Discord servers, where top players congregate to practice and get scouted by e-sports organizations, became a breeding ground for strategies and play styles that were miles ahead of the type of play you might see Ninja display on his Twitch channel.
Some of the most popular players, like Ali “Myth” Kabbani and Jack “CouRage” Dunlop, settled into very successful streaming careers as part of the wider Fortnite entertainment machine. Many of the players we know now as the best in the world, like Bugha and 13-year-old Argentinian phenom Thiago “King” Lapp, were quietly practicing in the background of Fortnite’s ever-expanding profile, relatively unknown to the broader community.
The one outlier here has been Tfue. Throughout Fortnite’s rise, Tfue has been able to straddle the line between Twitch personality and successful competitive player like none other. He became the highest-earning pro in the scene last year when he and his duos partner Dennis “Cloakzy” Lepore won $400,000 in the Fall Skirmish series. That performance earned him a reputation as a true e-sports unicorn: someone who could achieve both massive popularity online and arguably maintain his position as one of the best players in the scene.
So much of the disappointment in Tfue’s performance on Sunday came from the belief that he really was the best, even though all of the evidence suggested otherwise. His vlogs, meteoric streaming rise, calm competitive demeanor, and glamorous offline life all gave the impression of an effortless talent. Fans wanted him to win so badly because of how likable he is, which is a direct catalyst for his popularity in the first place. But Tfue’s fans don’t only like him because he’s the best at the game; they like him because of the persona he’s built online.
When Tfue failed to live up to that persona in the face of a crushing reality — that there are thousands of people out there, some as young as 13, who are just as good, if not better, than the best streamers — the illusion of him as unbeatable was shattered. Nowhere was this more evident than when Tfue was outplayed by King live for millions to see. Optically, it was the equivalent of an eighth-grader schooling LeBron James, even if technically that’s far from the truth.
“Alright who the hell is King? And why is he so good?” read a top post on the competitive Fortnite Reddit after the young boy’s outstanding performance. (King placed fourth in the solo cup, earning himself $900,000. A heartwarming video of him embracing his father afterward with tears in his eyes has since gone viral on Twitter.)
Tfue is still a top-tier player. The fact that he’s not only one of the most popular Twitch creators on the planet, period, but was also able to qualify for the World Cup against players who were far more entrenched in and dedicated to the competitive scene is a testament to his undeniable skill.
Pretty much every top 10 player in the solo and duos tournaments was part of lesser-known but nonetheless serious-minded e-sports organizations like Cooler and Sentinels, within which they practiced for mind-numbing stretches every day for months on end. On stream, where he attracts anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 viewers (and sometimes more), Tfue often seems like he just rolled out of bed after a night of partying and just happened to boot up Fortnite for fun.
Tfue, who is still in a dispute over his Faze Clan contract, is also his own brand now, one of the very few participants in the e-sports world who can pull off such a balancing act. “In a previous incarnation, the games were bigger than the players; but now, the players are brands themselves, public personalities with their own merchandise and streams without needing to be tied down to a single game or e-sports team,” wrote ESPN’s Tyler Erzberger of Tfue’s performance and how his outsized popularity drove fans to unrealistically but understandably pin their hopes on his victory. “And although Tfue doesn’t necessarily need competitive Fortnite, competitive Fortnite might need him.”
Tfue’s poor performance isn’t the end of his pro gaming career by any means. He announced earlier this year that he thinks the World Cup might be his last appearance in competitive Fortnite regardless of his performance, and his popularity as an online influencer won’t fade anytime soon if he does decide to switch games or do something different altogether. Both him and Ninja are big enough, and well off enough, to avoid ever having to play as tirelessly as Bugha and other competitive contenders do if they don’t feel like it.
In fact, that Tfue was such a fixture at the tournament will only be a boon for the game’s competitive scene. Even players like Aqua, who won the duos tournament, gloated about knocking out Tfue in the solo cup, a good example of how even the best Fortnite players still revere his reputation. Many other players will likely see the appeal in trying to become better than their idols and, like Aqua, maybe even best them in combat someday.
It’s reminiscent of the Texas Hold‘em poker boom of the early ‘00s when online poker and a more accessible structure to tournament qualification helped the game explode in popularity. That subsequently shattered the illusion that professional players were untouchable. Suddenly, a man like Chris Moneymaker (his real name), an accountant from Springville, Tennessee, who qualified through an online poker website, could win the top prize in the game: the World Series of Poker Main Event championship. He was the first to do so after qualifying over the internet.
That year, 2002, featured 631 applicants in the Main Event. The next year, the number of registered players tripled, to 2,576. (The entrance fee is typically $10,000 per person.) The top prize then doubled to $5 million. Seemingly overnight, countless people from around the world were convinced they also had a shot at the top prize, and poker was changed forever, with ripple effects that could be felt throughout popular culture and the many industries that sprung up to support the explosive interest in the game.
I predict the outcome of the Fortnite World Cup will cause a similar awakening, not just for young kids and aspiring gaming pros, but also for parents, e-sports organizations, advertisers, TV networks, and more. With this much money on the line and the potential for overnight stardom so great, this moment will likely be remembered as a turning point for e-sports, not because of the money itself, or even the game that’s being played.
Instead, the biggest impact will come from the fact that a 16-year-old kid, and dozens of other teenagers his age or even younger, proved that you don’t need to be as popular as Ninja or Tfue to succeed and become the next big thing. (Now, sustaining that popularity and turning it into a career, on the other hand, will require the young teenagers take a few pointers from the big Twitch stars, as Polygon’s Patricia Hernandez notes.)
A lot of people in the Fortnite community, Ninja and Tfue included, already knew this. The struggles for big streamers to qualify for the World Cup made it abundantly clear that there was a whole league of superhuman competitors few had ever heard of rising up through the ranks. But players like Bugha, King, Aqua, and Nyhrox, who are all 17 and under, made it real in front of millions of viewers. We can only imagine what that means for a young, ambitious Fortnite player watching at home.