You’ve heard of Fortnite: Battle Royale. It’s a safe assumption to make at this point. After all, musician (and walking meme) Drake just played the last-player-standing shooter for 630,000 simultaneous viewers on the livestreaming video site Twitch last night. That’s a new record for the size of a concurrent audience on Amazon’s broadcasting platform, and the social media event skyrocketed Drake and Ninja to the top of Twitter’s hottest trends worldwide in the early hours of this morning. And I think these are all signs that Fortnite is turning into the game that may finally cause real troubles for Call of Duty.
“Popular” doesn’t begin to describe Fortnite. Sure, you could use numbers. It hit 3.4 million concurrent players in February, but that number is not much more than a brilliant marketing gimmick. Unlike the well-publicized concurrent numbers for games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Dota 2, Fortnite’s numbers include both PC and console and come from Epic instead of Valve’s publicly available data. Fortnite isn’t even on Steam, so Epic’s number is not a meaningful comparison even if it’s one that people repeat constantly (again, Epic’s marketing team better get paid for the work they’ve done here).
But even if the numbers did have any meaning, they couldn’t capture what is happening with Fortnite. You need to look at it on a cultural level. Drake getting online with Ninja, the top Fortnite streamer on Twitch, was an amazing moment for the game. Their chill gaming session attracted other tiers of celebrities like NFL rookie JuJu Smitch-Schuster, rap artist Travis Scott, and … Kim Dotcom.
It was a heck of a thing to witness.
And the moment provoked reactions from big streamers and other celebrities.
Fellow rap artist Logic talked up his Fortnite game.
Musician Post Malone disagreed with Drake’s game choice.
PUBG is still better
— Beerbongs & Bentleys (@PostMalone) March 15, 2018
And in case you think he’s some kind of casual, he cleared up any confusion.
NOT ON XBOX ON STEAM NERD
— Beerbongs & Bentleys (@PostMalone) March 15, 2018
Comedian Norm Macdonald declared his dominance.
There is no one who can beat me at Fortnite. And I mean NO ONE!!!!!!!!
— Norm Macdonald (@normmacdonald) March 15, 2018
And this comes a couple of weeks after Roseanne Barr bragged about her Fortnite wins.
I have 20 fortnite victory royale wins
— Roseanne Barr (@therealroseanne) February 27, 2018
Activision should worry
Fortnite’s popularity has caused a lot of people to voice concerns about the fate of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. That’s the battle royale shooter that found massive success in 2017 with millions of copies sold on Steam before an Xbox One release sold millions more starting in December. And PUBG’s star has dimmed over the last couple of months, but I don’t think this is as a direct result of Fortnite — even if Epic’s game is benefiting from it. PUBG has a cheating problem that is taking up so much of the PUBG Corporation’s time that it can’t work on some of the other features that would improve its game.
Even still, PUBG is doing fine. It’s among the most-played games on Steam and the most watched games on Twitch. And it is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Epic has done with Fortnite to claim that its success has come due to PUBG’s failures. No — Fortnite is a success because it was made from the start for consoles and it’s free, and Epic has nailed so many of the finer details as well.
And that’s why Activision should worry about the viability of Call of Duty going forward.
As a franchise, Call of Duty has outsold every other game in the United States for almost a decade. It’s the undisputed king of the shooter genre, and Fortnite is going to challenge Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 for that title this year.
Here’s a former Call of Duty pro talking about choosing Fortnite over the most recent entry in Activision’s military shooter franchise:
Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag is just one person, but he’s indicative of the type of player that Fortnite is winning over. Call of Duty is one of the most broadly appealing games ever, and it did most of its business on consoles. Fortnite is a console behemoth. Like Call of Duty, it is polished and built with the controller in mind. By bringing the battle royale formula to Xbox One and PlayStation 4, Fortnite has exploded in a way that PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds stuffed into the confines of a console could not.
So the people who would typically play Call of Duty are finding it easy to get into Fortnite, but wouldn’t Activision have the chance to make a battle royale of its own? It probably will, but I have reservations that could work.
Let’s ignore the technical side. I don’t think the Call of Duty engine is ideal for a map large enough to support 100 players all running around the world at the same time, but let’s say that Treyarch figures this out. Fortnite already has a massive advantage in a handful of key ways.
Nadeshot is one of many professional YouTube and Twitch content creators who are making a lot of money playing Fortnite right now. And while success on Twitch doesn’t always translate into revenues for a game, Fortnite is starting to look like it has League of Legends-like potential. That free-to-play multiplayer online battle arena is still the most popular game in the world, and it has viewership on Twitch that reflects this.
So Fortnite is also free, and as it remains popular for streamers and YouTubers, that low barrier of entry is going to make it real easy for people to check it out. And this isn’t about the person who buys Call of Duty every year. A free-to-play game on consoles and PC is about getting that person’s friend who used to play every Call of Duty five years ago. If the old crew is getting back together in this free game, I’m going to spend more hours with them in the game they’re playing.
Finally, Fortnite has the advantage of running as a live service. Games-as-a-service is something that people want right now. It’s one of the driving forces behind the success of Rainbow Six: Siege, Destiny, and Overwatch. Activision could do that with Call of Duty, but the publisher doesn’t seem like it’s anywhere close to pulling the plug on the annual-release cycle for its biggest franchise. It wouldn’t want to give up the hundreds of millions of dollars it makes up front trying the risky transition to a single game that lasts for multiple years.
Epic is not going to release Fortnite: Battle Royale 2 this year. Instead, it will do what it has done up to this point and continue to update the shooter with new content and season passes for players to buy. Epic loves this because it’s a better return on investment to have a smaller team generating patches and new skins that sell as microtransactions, but players are leaning into this business model as well because they want to play a game they know is going to last.
The next Call of Duty is going to have microtransactions, but they are not going to carry over in any significant way from WWII. Fortnite, however, has permanence. If you unlock a rare skin right now, you’re going to have that in the game for years to come, and other players will always marvel at it whenever you decide to equip it.
If you’re going to spend not just money but also your time on something, why wouldn’t you spend it on the game you know has a better chance of sticking around for longer than 12 months.
None of this means that Call of Duty won’t top the annual chart for full-game sales at the end of 2018, but I think Fortnite has a chance of putting a dent in Black Ops 4’s sales, microtransaction revenues, and player count. Activision has a couple of months to figure this out before it launches the new Call of Duty in October, and I can’t wait to see if it figures this out.