In just two days, France and Croatia will clash in the long-awaited final of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. And as excited as I am to watch Mbappé and Modrić battle for global supremacy, I also can’t stop thinking about a video game.
Last month at E3, Epic Games announced plans for something called the Fortnite World Cup, an event that would take place some time next year. What the developer didn’t provide was much in the way of details. We know that the cup will consist of “organized events, online events, and major organized competitions all over the world,” but that’s about it. So far, competitive Fortnite has skewed heavily toward celebrity-led events, with everyone from NBA stars to the world’s biggest streamers participating largely for charity prize money and bragging rights. Over the next two months, Epic will kick off its e-sports circuit by running a series of invite-only competitions featuring an $8 million total prize pool. But I hope the game’s world cup goes in a different direction.
Like much of the rest of the world, I’ve found myself enamored by the soccer tournament in Russia. I always love the World Cup, but there’s been something special about this iteration. Part of it has to do with the competition itself; this year has seen the titans of the sport continuously fall, with the likes of Germany, Argentina, and Brazil all exiting much earlier than anyone anticipated. The unexpected runs of Sweden, Russia, and Croatia have been a thrill to behold.
But more than that, much of the enjoyment has come from being able to easily share those experiences with friends from all over the world. I’ve joked about England’s untimely exit with far-flung colleagues on Twitter, watched viral videos of Japanese fans keeping their seats tidy on Instagram, and sent texts to console my German grandmother after the team lost to Korea. The ever-present nature of social networks has made this World Cup truly feel global.
Fortnite may not be as globally recognized as soccer, but it’s easily the most well-known video game of the moment. And that kind of ubiquity could make it the perfect candidate for an actual world cup-style event. When Epic held a celebrity and streamer-focused event at E3 in Los Angeles, I admit that I didn’t know who most of the competitors were. The event skewed very young and very online. For an older, more casual Fortnite player like me, there wasn’t much to get excited about. The great thing about an event like the World Cup, though, is that you don’t have to know a lot about soccer to really enjoy it. The spectacle of Neymar rolling around is hilarious even if you don’t know the name, and it’s easy for anyone to appreciate the grit of Mandžukić’s extra time goal that sent England home in their semifinal match against Croatia.
Similarly, Fortnite is a great spectator game, where you don’t necessarily need to understand every detail to have a grasp on what’s going on. This is especially true toward the end of a match, when just a few players remain and tensions are high. The thing is, the average viewer doesn’t always have someone to cheer for. Now imagine squads of four competing in Fortnite, each representing a different country, with custom skins to match. It would give a completely different audience a reason to tune in.
Epic could hold qualifiers to find the best teams from each region, and then unleash them in a structured tournament in front of a massive global audience. The E3 pro-am already took place in a soccer stadium, so a proper world cup doesn’t really feel that out of place, and Fortnite already has a range of country-based soccer uniforms in the game. It’s not like there isn’t already a precedent; Blizzard has held an Overwatch world cup for the last two years.
Fortnite and other e-sports also hold certain advantages over traditional sports. For one, it’s incredibly easy to watch; you just tune in for free on Twitch. Perhaps more importantly, sharing clips and moments is already an intrinsic part of games like Fortnite, which could make it even more of a shared experience than the actual World Cup. Just look at the recent in-game rocket launch as an example; millions of players played the game at the same time, simply to watch a rocket take off, and they flooded the internet with screenshots, GIFs, and videos. If you think there were a lot of World Cup memes, just wait until there’s a Fortnite world cup.
This kind of tournament doesn’t have to supplant the kinds of events Epic is already running. The company has earmarked a staggering $100 million for competitive Fortnite over the next year, and given the studio’s history, it will likely experiment with different takes on e-sports. Ninja isn’t going anywhere. But a true Fortnite world cup could reach an entirely different audience, one that isn’t as tuned into the minutia of the battle royale game. And who knows, maybe one day Ninja will be as scrutinized as Messi.