Fortnite just kicked off its $10 million fall tournament. Here's what will make it the next esports giant

Key Points
  • Fortnite Fall Skirmish series is a sign of bigger things to come for Epic Games and its esports ambitions, especially with online sports leagues growing rapidly. 
  • "It's important to remember that while there are a ton of smart and talented people on this endeavor, we're still in the really early days and it's unrealistic to expect a product as polished as the NBA or NFL," one expert told CNBC.

And it's on.

On Friday, Epic Games kicked off their six week Fortnite Fall Skirmish series, with the world's top players competing for a $10 million prize pool. The eight-figure purse eclipses the game publisher's previous $8 million haul, with the invitational tournament pitting the best Fortnite players in the world against one another in a new club-based format. The event will culminate with a grand final in late October at TwitchCon.

For industry experts and those involved in competitive Fortnite, the burgeoning prize pool and events of the last few months are a sign of bigger things to come for Epic Games and its esports ambitions, especially with online sports leagues growing rapidly. 

The battle royale game has taken the world by storm this year, with Epic Games stating back in June that Fortnite had exceeded over 125 million players worldwide. Its popularity quickly led to the establishment of multiple independently-run competitive events, with the most well-known being the "Friday Fortnite" series run by YouTube star Daniel "Keemstar" Keem.

The numbers do not lie. Keem, for example, tweeted in early June that almost 9 million unique viewers tuned in to Friday Fortnite's fourth week across both Twitch and YouTube Gaming. Data from gaming research firm Newzoo showed that viewers watched close to 542,000 total hours of Keem's competitive series.

Fortnite Summer Skirmish, Epic Games' first tournament, clocked a total of almost 8.5 million hours watched from mid-July to early September. The competition final was held at the annual PAX West conference in Seattle, during the Labor Day weekend, where the single event accounted for $1.5 million of the initial $8 million prize pool.

While esports is becoming a major cultural phenomenon, observers downplay the idea it is poised to be as huge as professional basketball or football in the immediate term.

Industry experts explained that gaming leagues in general and Fortnite in particular are still in their early stages, making the sector a work in progress. Meanwhile, Epic is still tinkering with improving the overall competitive experience from player and spectator sides as well. 

Bryce Blum, founder of a dedicated esports law firm, ESG Law, and a prominent business advisor in the space, has been a lynchpin in many of the esports industry's biggest deals. Those same deals helped establish the first formally franchised esports leagues.

"Casters need time to hone their craft, spectators will learn to track the action better, and the broadcast will improve the use of graphics, stats, instant replay, and more," Blum told CNBC.

"It's important to remember that while there are a ton of smart and talented people on this endeavor, we're still in the really early days and it's unrealistic to expect a product as polished as the NBA or NFL," he added.

Fans may be more familiar with the team-based, sponsorship-focused leagues that have now become standard in esports. However, Blum told CNBC that Fortnite has delved into a structure that offers an alternative path for growth.

"Fortnite is going in a completely different direction where they're really seeing esports as a content play," he explained, adding that.... "it is about specifically monetizing the game Fortnite, so they've built an esports strategy that optimizes to that."

He added that "it's not important to get every major esports team involved as it is to create a narrative, and compelling one at that, that anyone can win."

"Content is king, streaming is king.
Victor Bengtsson

Other esports leagues are concerned with building a "path to pro," but Epic's approach to developing a competitive Fortnite leage has created a lower barrier of entry for professional play, some say.

Leagues such as Riot's League of Legends and Overwatch, for example, are made of permanent franchised teams to which players are recruited. Even widely-watched and well-established games that don't currently boast a franchised esports league – such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO for short) — maintain leagues of some kind.

But with the rise of the battle royale genre in 2018 also came the rise of an esports environment that welcomed individual competitors. While many teams did field top players for Fortnite's Summer Skirmish, for example, the competition was ultimately won by a then-relatively unknown player known as Morgausse.

When the 19-year-old took home the $250,000 grand final prize in early September, he was just one of many individual competitors unsigned to any team.

Blum stated that a big driver of this narrative is content. Mega-streamers and players like Ninja and Team SoloMid's Myth, to name just a select few, propelled Fortnite into a global sensation, with massive viewing numbers that drove the game's popularity.

Newzoo data show that in August, viewers tuned in for almost 150 million total hours worth of Fortnite (competitive and recreational) on Twitch and YouTube Gaming combined. Streaming service Twitch accounted for over 129 million of those Fortnite viewing hours; that dwarfed the second-most watched game of the month, League of Legends, which clocked in at over 80 million total hours watched.

This emphasis on content has also led the biggest teams to adapt their rosters and develop their players with a different focus. Victor Bengtsson, who is the Fortnite team director for Fnatic, one of the world's most well-known esports organizations from Europe, said the game has paved the way for "a clear development towards entertainment-based esports, rather than completely skill-based esports."

In short, gameplay alone just isn't enough. Bengtsson stressed that now the scene involves grooming players into public figures for interviews, social media management and upkeep of their presence as digital content creators.

"Content is king, streaming is king," says Bengtsson. "There are millions of kids watching Ninja today who are dreaming of becoming a Ninja," he said, but they need to think like a conventional athlete would.

Spectators react when the Shanghai Dragons beat the New York Excelsior in a game during Stage 3 of Overwatch League Inaugural Season videogame play at Blizzard Arena on May 4, 2018 in Burbank, California. 
David McNew | AFP | Getty Images

And for many teams, this increased focus on both content and skill has grown Fortnite's esports scene to offer a more all-encompassing experience than other esports ecosystems that currently exist.

Newer teams such as Ghost Gaming, which boasts some of the top Fortnite players on their roster, have thrived on the scene. Fortnite analyst Jacob Arce stressed that Epic is "pushing the boundaries" and improving the battle royale scene at a pivotal time for the genre.

"That's one thing that separates this game from, say, PUBG (Player Unknown's Battlegrounds), you do have your content creators who play [the game], but they're not competitors," Arce explained. Fortnite allows players to "create amazing content while competing."

And part of the current Fortnite esports' success in doing so, according to Arce, lies with Epic's dedication to experimenting based on community feedback. It's an approach that top players, including Team Liquid's Jake "Poach" Brumleve, believe will create a sustainable path for Fortnite esports.

Brumleve competed in the previous Summer Skirmish, and placed third overall at the grand finals — a standing that contributed to the over $276,000 in prize money he has earned in just the last 90 days. He expects the $10 million Fall Skirmish to be "the most refined format yet," and that like the previous season, Epic Games is using the competition as a testing ground for next year's announced World Finals.

Brumleve also expects that more publishers will be eyeing the battle royale genre and seek to emulate the gaming giant. For instance the newest installment of Activision's "Call of Duty: Black Ops 4" will feature a battle royale-style mode called "Blackout," which has already generated a widely positive reception among those who played the beta version.

And Brumleve believed that it wouldn't be a far cry to assume that other publishers will also seek to build their own competitive battle royale-based scenes.

"Fortnite is one of the most unique games to emerge in the past years, and I think it's a stepping stone," he said. "You see almost all big games now are sort of branching out and having a counterpart of battle royale, so they see [more growth opportunities for the genre]."

Back in May, Epic Games announced that it would be dedicating $100 million in prize pool money towards the first year of competitive Fortnite play. The current Fall Skirmish event is part of that giant prize pool, though it remains to be seen how big the prize pool will be for the announced Fortnite World Cup, which will be held next year at a yet undetermined date.

Currently, the record for the biggest single esports event prize pool is held by Valve's Defense of the Ancients 2 (DotA 2) landmark tournament, The International. This year's tournament featured a prize pool of over $25.5 million, surpassing last year's record of $24.7 million.