“Play, watch, shop and engage.”
If you were under any illusion that Disney’s new partnership with Epic Games on a Fortnite-connected “games and entertainment universe” was a traditional video game, that line from Disney’s announcement should disabuse you.
Disney and Epic are quite clear that what they are building is more than “a world-class games experience.” The promotional artwork released alongside the announcement depicts something that looks like a digital version of one of Disney’s own theme parks. A “World of Disney” plaza is surrounded by buildings themed around The Nightmare Before Christmas, Cars, and The Avengers. Corporate logos for Disney Plus and 20th Century Studios hover near an ESPN stadium and a giant statue of… is that Groot? The battle for the planet Hoth rages eternally in a Star Wars zone in the distance. There are even virtual Disney cruise ships.
Much like Fortnite itself, then, this will be a space where you can do more than just hop into X-wings and fly around blasting stuff. It looks like somewhere to hang out with your friends and gawk at cool, recognizable things; a level of social, virtual tourism is implied. But the interesting verbs in that line — the ones that suggest an expansion of what Fortnite already does — are “watch” and “shop.”
These verbs are at the very core of The Walt Disney Company’s identity: a company that has spent 100 years making stuff for people to watch, and most of those 100 years selling merchandise off the back of it. To Fortnite, watching and shopping are important, but less central. Epic makes its billions from Fortnite’s item store, but it has yet to successfully and consistently sell real-world goods from within the game. It’s not totally clear whether Disney means players will be shopping for in-game items or physical merch, but it’s a safe bet that it means both.
“Watch” is even more interesting. Fortnite occasionally transforms into a space for more passive entertainment experiences: Its season-ending event spectacles and massive virtual concerts are the most famous examples, but it has hosted trailers and movies before, including debuting the trailer for Tenet and running virtual screenings of three earlier Christopher Nolan movies in 2020.
Disney and Epic could do anything from promotional activations like this to actually allowing customers access to the full Disney Plus streaming catalog within the game. Eventized, communal viewing experiences — essentially watch parties for millions of people — could be organized for big trailer drops, episode premieres, sporting events, or fan conventions; no other medium could offer this kind of experience. And it needn’t be confined to animation, Star Wars, and Marvel, either. Disney’s portfolio includes everything from ESPN to The Simpsons, bears on National Geographic to The Bear on Hulu.
Speculation aside, the notion that Disney is reaching out to offer its content to watch within an entirely new medium — essentially, taking Disney Plus to where Fortnite players are — is telling. (“We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO,” Netflix told investors in 2019. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.) The concept for the Disney-Epic project seems to be a hybrid blending Disney’s parks, licensed video games, streaming services, and stores in a single virtual space.
Let’s cut to the chase and use the word we have avoided so far. What Disney and Epic are building is a metaverse. A corporate, branded metaverse. Or, perhaps, a branded fiefdom within the broader metaverse that is Fortnite.
(What’s a metaverse, exactly? Well, it’s complicated, and it depends who you ask, but I did my best to answer that question here. In short, it’s a virtual social space in which you can do a variety of activities, where users are usually embodied in avatars.)
Metaverse chatter has subsided since Mark Zuckerberg renamed his company from Facebook to Meta in 2021, and since it was the corporate buzzword of the year in 2022. Tech trend-chasers have largely moved on to AI. In fact, Disney reportedly shut down its own Metaverse project last year (presumably because it saw greater potential in teaming up with Epic). Meta and others in the tech industry had latched on to the idea of a virtual-reality internet that would supersede smartphones. It’s yet to be proven that large numbers of people want that — but millions of people definitely want to spend time in Fortnite.
Disney’s decision to partner with Epic on a metaverse experience based in Fortnite is hugely significant — and, I daresay, quite smart. It recognizes two factors that most other metaverse proponents, including Zuckerberg, seem resistant to. The first is that, while gaming might not be the only activity in the metaverse, it’s an essential portal to it. Gaming has established the visual and control languages and the technologies on which the metaverse is based; it’s native to the concept, because the metaverse has been made in gaming’s image. For those reasons, gamers — especially the generation of gamers that have grown up with Minecraft, Fortnite, and Roblox — will be the early adopters of the metaverse. In a sense, they already are.
The second factor is simple and related. Disney has foreseen that building, and attempting to attract people to, its own walled metaverse garden would be a fool’s errand. The key wording from the press release here is that Disney’s persistent universe will “interoperate” with Fortnite, which strongly suggests that it will not only use the game’s technology but share its account system and (if Disney has any sense) player avatars. Fortnite has hundreds of millions of registered users, and its biggest live events draw tens of millions of concurrent players. It is a massive social platform for Disney to build within — something that is available nowhere else other than in Roblox, which is likely too unruly and Wild West for Disney’s tastes.
It will only increase Disney’s comfort that it has already worked extensively with Epic to promote its franchises within Fortnite, and used its Unreal technology in parks and film production. The one thing likely to make Disney a little bit nervous is Epic’s recent focus on user-generated content within Fortnite. The company is famously protective and controlling when it comes to its characters.
To give Disney credit, it seems to have realized how central customization, creativity, and a sense of ownership are to a successful virtual world. “Players, gamers, and fans will be able to create their own stories and experiences, express their fandom in a distinctly Disney way, and share content with each other in ways that they love,” Disney said in its announcement. (“In a distinctly Disney way” is doing quite a lot of work in this sentence, mind.)
The $1.5 billion that Disney has invested in Epic as part of the deal is grabbing headlines, but the significance of this project far goes beyond that. It’s a huge vote of confidence (from a corporation obsessed with brand safety) that establishes Epic as the de facto leader in the metaverse market, and Fortnite as the premier platform for customer virtual worlds. Disney has identified that truly valuable virtual real estate isn’t to be found in some unregulated crypto paradise, but in the hands of a careful curator with a built-in audience. In a stroke, the deal redefines the metaverse from the tech industry’s vision of Zoom-in-a-headset to something that’s much more immediately understandable and attractive: a gaming-first, theme-park-style, all-encompassing entertainment experience, available on any screen you can sync a controller to.