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The $30m Fortnite World Cup turned heads, but sports should already be prepared to cash in on gaming

Last weekend saw 16-year-old Kyle 'Bugha' Giersdorf take home US$3m after being crowned the inaugural Fortnite world champion at tennis’ Arthur Ashe Stadium. Perhaps, writes Sam Carp, traditional sports and esports are not always in competition after all.

by Sam Carp
The $30m Fortnite World Cup turned heads, but sports should already be prepared to cash in on gaming

Kyle Giersdorf just became one of the richest 16-year-olds in the world.

Before you start guessing how, as I did when posed with the question on Monday morning, allow me to tell you that the teenager’s newfound riches are not for being the latest acting prodigy to appear in a record-breaking, revenue-making Netflix series about another dimension, nor are they for reducing Simon Cowell to a smile on X Factor, or signing a contract with a professional sports team.

Instead, like any proficient user of social media should know, Giersdorf has become an overnight millionaire from winning the inaugural edition of the US$30 million Fortnite World Cup. Affectionately known as ‘Bugha’ to his gaming peers, the Pennsylvania native fended off 99 other finalists on Sunday at Arthur Ashe Stadium – some 40 million more had attempted to qualify – to take home a scarcely believable US$3 million. 

And as more than 20,000 spectators – plus two million concurrent viewers across YouTube and Twitch – watched Bugha’s still growing arms lift the Fortnite trophy above his head towards a cloud of confetti, fake smoke and adulation, at least some of those in the crowd would have been left wondering what might have been had they allowed their children to play ‘just one more game’ before bedtime.

To put the top prize into perspective, it is more than Novak Djokovic and Simona Halep each received for winning Wimbledon in early July. Shane Lowry, the champion of this month’s Open at Royal Portrush, cashed in US$1.9 million. Tiger Woods, meanwhile, pocketed just north of US$2 million when he won his first major championship in over a decade at Augusta in April.

Bugha’s US$3 million is not quite as much as the individual winners of September’s US Open will leave Flushing Meadows with, but you get the idea.

The view inside the Arthur Ashe Stadium

The merits of esports and its relationship – or lack thereof - with the traditional sports world has been the subject of countless feature articles and op-eds in recent years. In the meantime, while sceptics have desperately sought to prove that gamers are not, by definition, athletes, the esports wagon has been motoring along, sourcing non-endemic sponsors, attracting executives from major leagues and – perhaps most importantly – cultivating a vast, young and engaged audience. 

Global esports revenues are projected to hit US$1 billion – a nice round number, I’m sure you will agree – this year, while its total audience is expected to climb 15 per cent to 454 million. For those in the business of sport, these are not numbers to be ignored.

At the heart of that boon is Fortnite. Its simple premise, whereby 100 of its 250 million registered players at a time are dropped onto an island and fight until one is left standing, is partly why it has become renowned for being as much a virtual social space for teens as it is a video game. Last year the popular title raked in US$2.4 billion for Epic Games, which might explain how, for those wondering, the publisher was able to offer a prize pot in New York that matched this year’s Fifa Women’s World Cup.

And true to form, the Fortnite World Cup was a turning point for the esports industry, a three-day extravaganza that showcased the potential of competitive gaming at the home of one of the world’s most prestigious tennis tournaments – it even had the cheek to borrow a name typically reserved for flagship international sports events. Competitions like the Overwatch League regularly stage tournaments at indoor sports arenas, but none have carried the intrigue of Fortnite’s weekend-long festival to warrant the same kind of mainstream attention.

However, the Fortnite World Cup and the numbers associated with it might have made the jaws of casual observers drop close to the floor, but it should not have stunned anyone in the sports industry that has been paying attention. Backed by the deep pockets of companies such as Riot Games and Activision Blizzard, other esports tournaments such as these will not disappear, so why not strike while the iron is hot?

The United States Tennis Association (USTA), for one, was prepared to welcome the battle royale phenomenon and its swathes of followers with open arms. By all accounts, the entire grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center were transformed into a Fortnite-like paradise, making for the perfect hub to fuse the real and digital worlds. On this occasion the visitors might not have been there to watch the tennis, but for three days the USTA was able to introduce a new audience to its main showcourt in a creative way.

The grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center were transformed into a Fortnite festival

Purpose-built esports arenas might be popping up everywhere, but it would not be a surprise to see more traditional sports venues explore the possibility of hosting esports tournaments following the success of the Fortnite World Cup. English soccer’s Stamford Bridge, Emirates Stadium and the Etihad have already committed to doing just that.

Indeed, if fans are not going to engage directly, the next best thing is for them to engage by association. It is why major soccer clubs like PSG and Manchester City have already infiltrated esports leagues around the world, in an attempt to reach the next generation through a different medium of discovery. 

Meanwhile the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will continue to mull over whether it can justify the inclusion of video games on its programme, although esports has already proved it does not need the validation of an Olympic debut to survive. It is, after all, the IOC, rather than competitive gaming, which needs to prove it is down with the kids.

Sports executives have been quick to utter quotable soundbites about grappling with games like Fortnite for the attention of millennials and the Generation Z audience. That might be true, but the Fortnite World Cup has shown that the two do not have to be mutually exclusive. 

Up until now sports have been asking themselves how they can compete with – or even fend off – esports and video games. Those best-placed to capitalise will be the ones that have already been prepared to incorporate them into their future.