It’s hard to log onto the internet in 2018 without coming across some type of Fortnite content.
Fortnite Battle Royale is a cartoony-looking shooter game that combines the building elements of Minecraft with a battle royale, last man standing-style format. Over the past several months it has exploded in popularity.
Fortnite holds the record for the most videos related to a video game uploaded in a single month to YouTube. Earlier this week, the game set a record for biggest single live gaming stream on YouTube with more than 1.1 million live viewers.
In March, Drake himself joined one of Twitch’s most popular gaming streamers, Ninja, for a Fortnite game and the stream set an all-time record for highest number of concurrent views.
Fortnite has been endlessly memed by large-scale Instagram meme accounts and subreddits dedicated to gaming.
Jake Roper, YouTube star and host of the YouTube channel Vsauce3, said the closest thing he’s seen to the Fortnite craze is the explosion of cryptocurrency.
“I think [what the game is experiencing] is a lot like what happened to crypto last year,” he told The Daily Beast. “Some people had it, people vaguely knew it existed, but suddenly it was like, ‘I gotta have this,’ everyone was into it. It was like, ‘Drake knows about this? How do I not know?'”
To the casual observer it may seem like Fortnite came out of nowhere. For those who don’t pay attention to gaming, the game’s success can be particularly jarring. But the reality is that the confluence of factors that skyrocketed the game to fame have been building for years.
The first and most important factor to consider when examining the game’s sudden virality is the fact that it has next to no barrier to entry. Fortnite, unlike other games in its category, is completely free to download and play.
This free and open access allows players of all ages, especially children who would otherwise need their parents’ approval, to purchase a game and play. For those who do need approval, the game’s bright and cartoon-like aesthetic is more welcoming to parents than a traditional shooter game.
The game is also widely available in a way that its predecessors weren’t. You don’t need a fancy or expensive gaming system to play Fortnite, all you need is a relatively new-ish computer.
Once you do begin playing Fortnite, it’s hard to stop. Fans have spoken about playing the game for hours at a time and popular Twitch streamers are playing the game repeatedly.
Part of the fun comes from the format. IGN called Fortnite Battle Royale “a fantastic blend of shooting and building that’s unlike anything else in competitive gaming.”
“Fortnite Battle Royale sets itself apart by trading the traditional, bland military simulation vibe with vivid colors and an outstanding, freeform building system that’s unlike anything else in competitive multiplayer games,” gaming writer Austen Golsin wrote in IGN.
“As its name suggests, Fortnite Battle Royale fits so neatly into the battle royale genre that blew up last year that the basic description sounds as standard as you can get: Up to 100 players are dropped onto a large but constantly shrinking map with the goal of gathering weapons and gear to become the last person or team left standing.” Players are dropped into this map not from a military-looking helicopter or plane like in other games; instead Fortnite expels them into its candy-colored landscape from a flying party bus.
The creativity of the game and its non-traditional color scheme was not always a selling point. In fact, when the game initially began picking up steam in 2017 several big-name Twitch streamers, like Dr. Disrespect, shunned the product.
Why would anyone play a cartoony-looking version of PUBG? They wondered aloud on their streams. (PUBG was another popular shooting game that featured a similar battle royale format).
But over time, those streamers and many other critics came to see the light.
Dr. DisRespect, one of Twitch’s most prominent gaming streamers, began to embrace the game this winter and obtained his first win in February.
One thing that won him and his cohort over is the creative pop-culture integrations and references that Fortnite has become known for. The game adheres to a rapid development schedule and is constantly pushing timely updates in the form of skins and emotes. Skins are the body you inhabit in the game and emotes are certain actions your character does.
“They have amazing pop-culture references,” one player said. One popular emote allows your character to do a funny dance from Scrubs. After Drake played, fans begged the game to incorporate a “Hotline Bling” emote that would allow their characters to mimic the rapper’s famed dance.
Because the game is free, these emotes are how Fortnite makes money and fans have shown they’re willing to pay up.
“Fortnite dominating the skins game,” Dr. DisRespect tweeted- in February.
“ur mcm spent his whole paycheck on fortnite skins,” another Twitter user joked in March.
“spending money on fortnite >>> feeding my kids,” said another.
But according to Wyatt, Fortnite’s biggest coup has been to expose just how prevalent gaming is in our culture and society.
“This game has shed a light on how everybody is kind of a gamer,” Wyatt said. It’s not just that YouTube stars, mainstream celebs, and artists like Drake and Lil Yachty are playing Fortnite—it’s that we all are, he argues.
Victoria Rose at Polygon makes a similar point. She wrote that, “‘Gamer culture’ has actively resisted acknowledging that gaming is, in fact, a part of mainstream culture now… The struggle is over; video games are not just a thing, but the thing. Everyone is playing them, and it’s a bit strange to pretend that’s not the case.”
“Fortnite is kind of like Fidget spinners or HQ, where it’s like, where did this come from? How did this happen?,” said YouTube star Sam Sheffer, “but people have been playing games leading up to this for years.”