So I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus due to a long out-of-country vacation. I wasn’t planning on starting up my blog entries again until next week, but something of a big deal happened last night in the video gaming world and I figured I’d throw up a quick article about it.
Late last night, Drake (yes, the rapper/singer/gif star Drake) casually dropped on Twitter that he’d be playing some Fortnite with a popular Twitch streamer named Ninja. Over the course of the stream Drake learned what Discord was and installed it, got carried to a Victory Royale by Ninja after he accidentally died (although he did survive pretty long in that particular match), and oh, Ninja’s stream broke over 600,000 concurrent viewers, shattering the previous Twitch streaming record of a little under 400,000.
If you don’t follow video games you might not know what Fortnite is or even understand how the battle royale genre craze is sweeping video game culture. But don’t worry, that’s what I’m here for! I’m going to give a brief history of how battle royale became a thing, how Fortnite has suddenly blossomed into a huge phenomenon, and why Drake breaking Twitch is a big deal for the future of gaming.
The battle royale genre gets its name from the Japanese movie/novel Battle Royale which has a plot of dropping 42 schoolkids on an island and making them kill each other until there’s only one survive. The game type basically follows that structure: a large group of players are dropped into a large map and they have to eliminate each other. Everyone only has one life with no respawns, so if you die you’re out for good. It differs from Call of Duty and Battlefield types games because in those what matters is your Kill-to-Death Ratio: if you’re killing more people than you’re dying, you’re doing fine since the respawns are rapid. It also differs from games like Counterstrike and Rainbow Six because while those games feature permanent deaths as well, it’s usually two small teams of 5 or 6 and multiple rounds are usually played – it’s not a single winner take all scenario.
This new genre of multiplayer game started as mods for existing games. ARMA 2 and DayZ (which itself also started as a mod for ARMA) were the initial base games which players then modded to make new game formats. PlayerUnknown became the most well-known modder as he created the battle royale mod for ARMA 2 and 3 and then later worked on H1Z1: King of the Kill. These game modes got play on the PC around 2014/2015, but were kind of niche and didn’t rise very high in popularity. It was also taxing on computers for a while – servers weren’t used to handling close to a hundred players in a single game instance.
But the battle royale genre took off when PlayerUnknown was hired by Bluehole to create a standalone battle royale game. It was titled as PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (or PUBG for short) and when it released into early access in March 2017 the game started taking off.
A screenshot from PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.
By the summer of 2017, PUBG was shattering all kinds of records. It had the most concurrent players (beating out League of Legends) and the most sales. Everyone who was a streamer was streaming it on Twitch, and viewers were eating it up. It became a phenomenon all on its own. PUBG lended itself to viewing very easily – it was simple in execution due to the game developers sticking to a very simple concept – keep it simple and easy to understand, keep the rules mostly realistic, and have an assortment of guns, clothing, and tools you can scavenge for across the map. On top of that, the battle royale genre itself already lends to adrenaline-fueled viewing: if you’re eliminated you’re out, so every time a streamer gets into a firefight the tension mounts. And the area where players have to survive keeps shrinking over time so there’s this timer clicking down in the background. These aspects, combined with streamer personalities, made the viewing public super excited to watch their favorite streamers try and get a victory against 99 other players. As a final note, PUBG was also not super graphics-intensive, and with its simple setup it really gave off a vibe of “anyone can play this and anyone can win” which got more people to buy the game and play, which lead to more word of mouth…so on and so forth.
As of February 16, PUBG has sold over 30 million copies. That’s a pretty huge deal.
But Drake didn’t decide to play PUBG, he decided to play Fortnite.
So what’s Fortnite?
Fortnite originally had nothing to do with battle royale. Released into early access in July of 2017, Fortnite was a weird but unique mash-up of genres by Epic Games. It was a tower defense style game, with Minecraft style resource management and building construction, but also a third-person shooter with several different classes that each had an RPG-like skill tree. It was a very interesting and unique games that had a lot of problems – the user interface was clunky and hard to navigate, a lot of information was thrown at you with little context, and there were several bumps during the early access portion where the developers would change major things which resulted in people’s progress in the game being reverted.
This is what Fortnite looked like pre-Battle Royale.
Then, towards the end of the summer of 2017 when PUBG dominated the video game discourse, Epic announced that they would be adding a free-to-play Battle Royale mode to Fortnite. It launched in September and was essentially a bare-bones copy of PUBG with a Fortnite skin. They eliminated the RPG classes and tower defense, but kept the resource and building elements along with the shooter. Just like PUBG, one hundred people were being dropped into an ever shrinking area and had to scrounge for resources and weapons. Unlike PUBG, you could build walls and fortresses to hide yourself and gain an advantage.
It was seen as a blatant copy and cash grab to try and ride on the tails of PUBG’s success. As PUBG was PC only (and later exclusive to XBox One) Fortnite had the fortune of being the first battle royale game on Playstation 4 and got a pretty decent base out of that (as well as on PC). There was even a mild controversy because Epic had been helping Bluehole (PUBG’s developer) with PUB and Unreal Engine 4 (Epic’s video game engine) and were afraid that Epic was going to use information they had to add things to Fortnite’s Battle Royale before they became available in PUBG.
While PUBG hit its concurrent user peak and has been slowly losing players, Fortnite on the other hand has been continuing to grow – the Battle Royale portion, anyway. I’m not even sure if the developers are going to be finishing the “actual” game. But they know where their popularity is coming from. It might be due to its more colorful nature along with adding more “fun” aspects to the game (jetpacks, trampolines, the ability to ride a rocket that your buddy shoots, etc.). PUBG works on a realistic model, but because of that it leads to a lot of camping and finding the perfect spot to wait out a victory. Fortnite, on the other hand, is more fast-paced due to the ability to build and traverse the map much quicker. It’s also a free-to-play game while PUBG does cost money, and Fortnite feels more polished while PUBG is less optimized and still looks like an early access game (despite officially being “released” and out of early access in December).
Which brings us to Drake. Last night Drake partnered up with Ninja, a streamer who gets around 60k views for when he plays Fortnite. The previous record for most viewers on a single person stream was when Dr. Disrespect (a very popular PUBG streamer) returned from a self-imposed hiatus and hit a high of 380k concurrent viewers. To give you perspective, the Overwatch League stream that I’m watching right now has about 100k viewers and that’s an official e-sport channel as opposed to a channel run by a single person. The most “popular” single streamers usually hover in the tens of thousands, while most “normal” streamers are happy with viewers in the hundreds.
Ninja’s stream crossed the 600k threshold last night.
A lot of Drake’s fans showed up to watch him play a video game online. A lot of video game enthusiasts showed up to watch Drake and also marvel at just how many people were watching a singular Twitch stream. It was a perfect storm of curiosity and popularity – a fairly mainstream friendly game with a mainstream friendly pop personality using full advantage of social media to draw everyone in.
So what’s the big deal about this? Well, in part it’s a signal that video games as a form of entertainment may be settling into the mainstream in a way that hasn’t really clicked before. Since it’s inception and growth in the 80s and 90s, video games have had to work hard to shun the reputation of a lesser hobby. On top of that, watching other people play video games has been met with derision – in particular, Jimmy Kimmel spoke out on his show about not understanding why people would turn video games into a spectator sport. If you aren’t a fan of video games, you might not even know what Twitch is or understand the platform.
But last night a very well-known mainstream pop artist hopped onto Twitch and brought a ton of his fans with him and shattered a bunch of records. They garnered over 600,000 viewers, which almost equals how many total viewers some CW shows max out at. While we aren’t at Empire or Grey’s Anatomy levels of viewership, it still means that a ton of people are there to watch video games. Which means streaming is here to stay and you can bet that more and more developers are going to be keeping that in mind as they make new games in the future.
It was also impressive because this wasn’t a marketing stunt. It didn’t have any developers or video game media behind it. Epic didn’t organize it (as far as I know). It was just a couple of dudes hanging out and playing video games. Other people also guest starred on the stream too, including Juju Smith-Schuster – a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a crazy, honest moment in gaming that was, quite frankly, awesome. Not to say it won’t be cashed in on – Epic has already announced that a 100-person Fortnite Celebrity Pro-Am game will happen at E3 where 50 celebrities will team up with 50 pro Fortnite players and battle it out to see who comes out on top. The Fortnite train keeps rolling.
It also means we’re going to be seeing a lot more Battle Royale games for sure. PUBG and Fortnite are really the only games on the market right now but you can bet your bottom dollar that the big video game companies (Electronic Arts, Activision Blizzard, Take-Two) are going to be throwing their hat into the ring sooner rather than later and using their established IP to throw some weight behind it. GTA Online already has a new quasi-Battle Royale mode called Motor Wars, but it doesn’t quite fulfill the scope of a true GTA Battle Royale game (which has to be coming). I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Call of Duty Battle Royale. EA has their Battlefield series as well as the Star Wars Battlefront license – and both come with easy naming conventions. Can you imagine how a Star Wars: Battlefront Royale game would sell if EA did it right? 100 bounty hunters dropping onto Tatooine or Hoth?
This is the hot new trend to keep your eye on. If you’ve ever wanted to be a streamer, practice your Battle Royale skills and be ready for the next contender to drop – maybe you can become a Ninja or Dr. Disrespect. And hey, maybe one day you too can play a video game with Drake.