THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


War Of Performance

Spectatorship and combat in Fortnite: Battle Royale

by Miles Guggenheim

Illustration by Carly Paul

published October 5, 2018


This summer, in Kazan, Russia, France’s veteran striker Antoine Griezmann stepped up to the penalty spot to score the first goal against the Argentinian national team. Griezmann looks like a 16-year-old boy. But as he sets the ball and steps back to take the shot, his Bieber-ish handsome features recede into a gaunt 1,000-yard stare. There is nothing technically difficult in a professional goal-scorer like Griezmann taking a penalty kick—the burden is psychological. When Griezmann steps up to take a penalty, he is uniquely isolated and judged. His teammates, once a source of companionship and support, are reduced to the  level of millions of spectators at home in their living rooms, leaning in, acutely fixated on him alone.

On screen, the production surrounding a penalty kick highlights this dynamic. The camera frame abandons the tactical bird’s eye view of the field, instead favoring the close up shots that build a good Hollywood drama. Rather than an athlete, he is suddenly a charactor deciding the outcome of a plot blown up in a stadium, injected with ideals of glory and nationalism.

When Griezmann scores, it occasions a moment of pure catharsis. He is a boy again, dashing for the corner flag. There, he beams up at the crowd, and, returning their gaze, he forms the letter L with his hand before placing it on his forehead. He kicks his feet out like a Russian dancer. If you don’t understand the reference, his dance sort of deflates the moment. Out of context, it is an absurd, distasteful motion that does not seem to fit the heartfelt context of the World Cup. However, if you are one of the 125 million people who play the hit 2017 video game Fortnite: Battle Royale, this evokes a feeling of camaraderie.

 

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Unlike soccer, the rules of Fortnite do not pit two teams against each other. On this field of play, the individual is perpetually glorified as they attempt to persist within a chaotic mass of rival dog-eat-dog personalities. In its most popular game mode, a round of Fortnite begins when 100 players parachute into a free-for-all battle ground about four times the size of Vatican City. Sometimes, players team up in a squad, but most of the time they enter into the fray alone. Once they are on the ground, players have to survive by their own wits––scavenging for guns, gadgets, ammunition, and medical supplies. At first, players find these supplies in the ghost towns, abandoned malls, and creepy log cabins scattered throughout the area; but, as the game progresses, players further equip themselves by killing each other and taking equipment. As all this happens, the map shrinks slowly, forcing confrontation after confrontation until the final climactic moment, when the last remaining players fight for a Victory Royale. In these last minutes, the game takes on the aesthetic of an Ayn-Randian fever dream, in which the final (most skilled) players frantically construct massive wooden towers to gain the advantage of high ground over each other.

The best players normally maintain a good balance of construction and suppressive gunfire before building their towers into one another with quick constructive outbursts of floating staircases. At this point a dance of creation and destruction proceeds tensely in close quarters. With rapid speed, the final players throw up wooden walls to entangle each other within the existing architectural framework. At every possible opportunity, they blast a round of deadly buckshot or toss an explosive device into the next available open gap. Finally, after a tense minute or so, there inevitably comes a critical mistake: maybe a player falls off a plank, or a wall that was supposed to go up misses its foundation. An uncomfortable gap of vulnerable space opens up between the two contestants before a brief and vicious salvo of bullets. For the final survivor, Victory Royale stretches across the screen on a light blue banner. The runner up, shot dead, briefly falls to the ground before exploding, like the other 98 losers, into the items and equipment that they were once composed of.

Since its release this year, Fortnite has accumulated a total of 125 million users. According to Forbes Magazine, its tournaments, streamed through Twitch, (like a combination of NFL primetime and Netflix) have drawn a sturdier viewership than most popular television shows. Despite being a “free to play game,” it has grossed more than blockbuster pictures like Jumanji and Solo: A Star Wars Story. Besides being the most popular game of 2017, it has had a massive cultural impact—so much so that soccer players like Griezmann have incorporated it into their athletic celebrity. In America, star basketball players like Paul George, Karl Anthony, and Gordon Hayward have streamed their Fortnite to the public. Rappers like Lil Yachty, 21 Savage, and Drake are also all members of Fortnite community.

There are many reasons Fortnite has seen the success and relevance it enjoys today. On the most basic level, it is free to play and available across almost every gaming platform. Even more critical, though, is the fact that Fortnite is perhaps the first game to forge a competitive connection between iPhones and video game consoles. Although, previously, the most competitive multiplayer video games were reserved for large computers and $300 gaming consoles like Xbox and PS4, Fortnite players can enter the action from any location with cell service. In the same way that mobile phones decentralized communication, Fortnite has provided new levels of virtual interaction and competition. In groups, friends no longer have to take turns passing the Xbox controller. While one person enjoys the comfort of a TV screen, others can bury their heads in their iPhones, all of them competing in the same virtual space.

The capacity to render such an immersive, competitive environment on iPhones alone has broadened the game’s demographic to numbers previously unattainable to most console and PC games. When there is no expensive hardware required, people normally hesitant to play video games are giving the gaming lifestyle a try. According to a statistic published in the Chicago Tribune on May 29th, almost half of Fortnite users are women, which is a leap forward in diversity in a gaming world primarily inhabited by men. These new steps in accessibility and diversity, however, have met some resistance from the old guard, a predominantly male gamer community that is perfectly comfortable shelling out thousands of dollars to build the optimal game system. The article “Fortnite Mobile is Becoming a Battle of the Sexes,” published in March this year, compiles Twitter quotes exemplifying a sexist tone underlying this conflict between console and mobile: “ever since fortnite went moblie, all the girls started playing and now they lag when they text LOL;” “Fortnite mobile lowkey for girls LMAO have yet to encounter a guy playing it, they stick to console;” “girls think they us now cuz they got Fortnite mobile.” These criticisms of ‘casual’ iPhone players read as the latest insecure defense of the male gamer norm.

For, at its core, Fortnite is essentially still a classic shooter game. Its violence and raw individualism are typical of many masculinist mainstream video games––even if its demographic is expanding. Most of the core weapons in the game portray a visual realism unmatched by the other, more flowery aspects of the game. The broadly named “Assault Rifle (Burst Air)” is an exact visual replica of a the FAMAS, military grade and internally distributed French manufactured assault rifle. Another example, the “Thermal Scope Assault Rifle,” is visually identical to the M4 carbine assault rifle, a military grade cousin of the infamous AR-15 used in the Las Vegas, Parkland, and Newtown mass shootings. Part of the game’s genius and broad appeal, however, is its ability to drag benevolent cultural iconography into the crossfire.

Upon killing enemies with these weapons, players may choose to ‘hit the dab’ over their fallen victim. Others, if they are more advanced, can sprinkle salt on their conquest—mimicking the famed motion from the Salt Bae meme. Further, the game’s skins (the way a player’s avatar appears) bear a similar relationship to the world outside Fortnite. One of the most respected and feared skins, “Reaper,” which resembles Keanu Reeves from John Wick, is one of many cosmetic references to popular action films. Another skin, “Alpine Ace,” mimics a Winter Olympics Skier: If the player is from France, the Skier has the blue, white, and red tricolor printed over their spandex and helmet; if the player is from Canada, the colors and symbols change accordingly. Other skins represent broader cultural aesthetics, like “Funk Ops,” which embodies the African-American Funk movement in music and dance. Or “Heidi,” the blond Bavarian woman who reps the alpine cultures of Western Europe on the battle ground. Every new update, the surplus of new skins gets bigger and more diverse. According to a Forbes article published in June, 70 percent of Fortnite players spend an average of $80 on skins. For a game that makes over $300 million a month, this reveals an interesting aspect of Fortnite: The showcase of skill implicit in a Victory Royale is not enough. Surviving to the last man is as much an ostentatious fashion show or display of identity as a game of gunplay and domination.

 

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It doesn’t take a lot of investigation to uncover the perceived king of all this action. The gamertag ‘Ninja’ is everywhere in the Fortnite community. The Twitch celebrity comes out on top of the 41 percent of the games he drops into, streaming the action live to over 160,000 paid Twitch users and later posting them on Youtube for an audience of 18 million subscribers. Finding Tyler Bevins, the man behind the gamer tag, is a bit harder. He lives somewhere outside of Chicago, but won’t give more information than that. Really the only window into Ninja’s life outside the game of Fortnite is the small profile frame from which he narrates his gameplay. He sits in a Star Trek-looking chair with a mini fridge full of Redbull behind him. The one visible wall is almost always bare. Despite the poverty of beauty in this image, Tyler Bevins makes around $500,000 a month from this paid Twitch following. The Redbull fridge behind him most certainly adds to that figure, and the Fortnite celebrity tournaments he now hosts likely add to that sum.

After listening to a few minutes of Bevin’s fragmented and infrequent bursts of narration, it is clear that his celebrity rests on his pure domination inside the game. In every scenario he broadcasts, Ninja seems to stroll through battlefield. His rivals act in slow motion as he guns them down, one after the other. A skull icon to right side of the screen counts the kills in case you arrive to the stream late. His notoriety has earned him collaborative stream sessions with Drake, Lil Yachty, and Joe Jonas, all of which are all unfortunately far more awkward and uninspiring than the worst Hollywood buddy cop movies.

Still, Fortnite streamers like Ninja have elevated Twitch to a position of immense power in the world of mass media. Since Fortnite’s release, CNBC reports that there has been a 3.2 million increase in broadcasters: a 60 percent increase in content producers across the video game streaming platform. Today, almost 50 percent of the content on Twitch is produced through Fortnite, which has landed Twitch (and thus, Jeff Bezos) a larger viewership than some cable TV networks. The success of Fortnite on Twitch may be in part thanks to the strange celebrity of Ninja, but Twitch really owes its newfound relevance to structures of performance and spectatorship which are already present within the competitive essence of Fortnite itself.

Even without Twitch, Fortnite is itself a platform for streaming media. When a player is killed in Fortnite, they immediately assume a spectral viewership of their murderer, whom they can follow and watch until the end of the round. If that player is killed, the spectator transfers to the new survivor. Often, dead players will only linger for a short time. They stay around mainly to judge their opponent and possibly analyze why they are superior or what gave them the unfair edge. In some instances, though, when a player is evidently impressive, their dead enemies will become a sort of audience, eagerly waiting to see how their killer does in the rest of the game. In game, players can see how many ghosts are watching via a little icon on the bottom left side of the screen. After killing someone and noting this active icon, a player will find a safe place to dance, taunting their victim. This dynamic, a strange hybridization of conquest and performance, is the ontological root of “Taking the L,” the dance Griezmann displayed to the world against Argentina.

 

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Unsurprisingly, Antoine Griezmann brought his playstation with him to Russia. He believes the video game keeps his nerves under control. Before heading to the World Cup finals against Croatia—an event that would be broadcasted to over 562 million people—he described his daily psychological preparation: “I stay the same, play Fortnite all day…” On July 15, France played Croatia in the World Cup Final. In the 34th minute, a foul is called in the box and again Griezmann is elected to preside over the penalty kick. Again: the dramatic close up frame. Again: visible signs of crippling pressure. Again: the joyful, cathartic release as Griezmann brings France to a 2-1 lead over Croatia. Griezmann runs to the same corner, he performs the same absurd dance, only this time it looks strangely normal.

 

MILES GUGGENHEIM B'20 is a member of the old guard.