Over the last two weekends, I’ve obsessively watched the Fortnite World Cup tournaments. I turn on the long broadcasts while cleaning the house or cooking, certainly tormenting my neighbors with hours of esports shoutcasting. It’s introducing me to new players and techniques, and it’s inspiring me to get better at the game.
Watching competitive Fortnite hasn’t always been great. Last year’s Summer Skirmish was a mess of lag and confusing camera work, and there were accusations of cheating that are now also dogging the World Cup. As with Fortnite’s genre sibling PUBG, it’s hard to make a battle royale a watchable esport. Matches start with 100 players spread around a large game map. The early game is slow, with players across the map looking for loot and gathering building materials rather than fighting each other. That spread makes it easy for a broadcast to miss exciting moments when they occur. Developer Epic has been trying to improve the spectator client and game performance, but anything the official cast highlights is only a fraction of the story.
For me, as a relative newcomer to competitive Fortnite watching, the World Cup broadcasts have been compulsively viewable. Epic’s official cast jumps into matches at the late game. By the time you are watching a World Cup match, a huge portion of the players have already been eliminated. The contracting storm that squeezes players into ever tighter quarters already envelops most of the game map. While this means I miss out on most of how the match got down to the 15 players who start getting extra points for placement, I get to see the densest build battles and most high-stakes matchups. I don’t have any favorite players, so I’ve been introduced to a host of new, often shockingly young people playing at the height of their game. It’s been eye-opening to learn about players from different parts of the world and have the casters give me snippets of their journey through competitive play. I find myself rooting for any player the casters aren’t familiar with, completely falling for the “anyone can win” ethos of competitive Fortnite.
The casters can sometimes veer off-topic, but they explain players’ backgrounds and strategies well. That has given me new insight into the game. For instance, I didn’t have a strong opinion on Epic’s contentious decision to prevent players from siphoning health and materials when they eliminated others in the recent 8.20 patch. I understood Epic’s reasoning that it made regular play overly aggressive and thought some of the reactions to the change on social media were extreme. The World Cup casters narrated the action as players strategically managed their eliminations to best utilize the siphon option (which has not been patched out of competitive play). This made me want the chance to experiment with the mechanic more myself in regular matches. However, I wouldn’t want the mechanic to come back at the expense of making more work for overworked developers.
Watching the broadcasts has also introduced me to a wealth of building strategies I never considered. I’m sure “just build” is no shock to any Fortnite player reading this, but despite tinkering with my key bindings and reading piles of guides, building has always been secondary to me. I play the game more like a stealthy shooter. I can throw down some basic cover or do a ramp push, but I tend to follow my squadmates’ lead on building rather than employing it myself. Watching the pros strategically edit their walls and consider their build height so carefully has opened my eyes to how much of Fortnite I’ve been missing.
While this certainly isn’t anything new for high-level esports, it feels different than wanting to improve after I watch something like the Overwatch League. When I watch professional Overwatch, I feel like being a better player simply means playing better: shooting more accurately, knowing the map more intimately, and just having more skill with the game’s core mechanics. Fortnite is a bigger, messier game, and watching competitive play has helped me realize that success isn’t just about building faster or aiming more skillfully. It’s about using the game’s wealth of items, locations, strategies, and conditions in creative combinations at just the right moment. There’s so much more you can do with a baller vehicle than simply get somewhere faster. The triangle building piece that I rarely use has way more uses than just as a roof. The stink bomb is more than a way to get a little bit of damage; one thrown at the perfect time can open up a wealth of new positioning possibilities in a fight. There are a ton of things I can play with and get better at, not just shooting and building, and I wouldn’t have thought about them if I weren’t watching so many players use them in so many ways.
Epic’s official stream is far from perfect. Fans have discussed its flaws on reddit, pointing out the lack of readily-available standings and occasional freezes. While focusing on the end game is exciting, you don’t see how the players got there. Focusing only on who made it to the end can be confusing. As one redditor points out, “When I see a player I don’t recognize I need to at least see what points he is at to understand the stakes involved and feel excited. I personally like Epic’s decision to focus on late game and I thought the quality of action captured was higher, but I did not feel invested in any of the players.”
There’s also lots of downtime. On Sunday afternoon, there was a long wait for the North America East duos final standings to show up in the broadcast. The wait was made longer by a prank involving photoshopping images of the casters. I didn’t mind it so much, and I like watching people have fun with each other, but it reminded me how difficult it must be to give the stream’s huge, diverse audience everything they want.
On Sunday morning, before the duos finals started, I loaded up Fortnite’s playground mode and spent a few hours running through building drills I found on YouTube. I practiced adding walls, floors, and double ramps to my ramp pushes. I totteringly made 90 degree turns into the sky and tried to quickly edit my way back down again. I practiced buildings floors and ramps while dropping from heights, mostly missing and falling to my death. After that, I loaded into some creative training courses and ran through them, trying to build, aim, and shoot as fast and accurately as I could. It was all slow, certainly pathetic going, but it was a whole different kind of fun than I usually have in Fortnite. I went back into the main game and jumped between solo and squad matches, putting aside trying to level up my battle pass or finish my challenges in favor of employing the skills I’d practiced. I’ve no doubt it confused my enemies to watch me build an unnecessary little house whenever they took a shot at me, but it was a different kind of excitement than I usually have.
When I play Fortnite, I’m more interested in having fun stories and being a good teammate than being the best, but I’m excited to watch more matches, be introduced to new players, and learn more strategies as the World Cup continues.