There are few arenas where NBA star and former Indiana Pacers captain Paul George isn’t the person everyone wants to flock around.
Epic Games’ Fortnite Pro-Am tournament is one of those rare places.
George, who tells Polygon it felt “amazing to be competing” in the tournament, wasn’t the main draw. Neither were hip-hop artists Lil Yachty or Vince Staples. Even actors like Joel McHale and John Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) are second-class. McHale, Heder, George and Staples may have diehard fans outside of Fortnite‘s gigantic empire, swallowing everything in its distance, but within the empire, there are only a couple of heroes. And they are gods.
Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, Ali ‘Myth’ Kabbani, Alastair “Ali-A” Aiken and a few other notable streamers are Fortnite‘s slightly more awkward, equally charming version of Ringo, Paul, John and George, ready to stand in the spotlight before their adorning fans and ride the Fortnite wave until it fades into history. They’re aware that they‘re temporary deities, but that hasn’t stopped them from embracing their legendary positions, devoting time to tournaments like Epic’s Pro-Am, and making a few friends along the way. They understand just how influential they’ve gotten and, as Kabbani told Polygon, just how much responsibility comes with newfound fame.
These are impressionable kids they’re entertaining. Kids, it must be mentioned, who stood in the blistering heat for more than a couple of hours to just get into the tournament, and cash in on a rare opportunity to see people like Blevins in the flesh.
‘Fortnite is something unprecedented’
Banc Stadium, home of Los Angeles’ soccer team, is the home to the Pro-Am tournament. It’s an impressive building; a stadium that can fit thousands of people, with see-through gates giving a passerby the chance to look in on at any given moment. On a Tuesday afternoon, a large white sign proudly spells the word “Fortnite” over hundreds of unused seats, while foldable chairs lined the other half of the field, facing an intimidating display of gaming PCs and high-end production sets.
It is the calm before the storm. Lingering outside the gates, on a sidewalk that backs onto a giant u-turn designed drop off, are hundreds and hundreds of people. Some people wear Fortnite shirts, other people are decked out in normal apparel, but discussing their favorite Fortnite dances or moves. Overheard are people talking about what features they want added or removed to the game. Nearly everyone seemed anxious to get moving.
Fortnite fans Mike and Patrick waited more than an hour in line, in the sun, in order to get decent seats for the tournament. They both tell Polygon that Fortnite brought them closer together, and they wanted to cheer on their favorite streamer — Myth — in person. It’s a rare opportunity to see Myth and Ninja play live, and neither wanted to give that up.
The more people beaming with admiration for players like Ninja and Myth, the more apparent it became that these streamers are hometown heroes. It’s an odd concept to think about in 2018; local is a strange term. Athletes like Ninja and Myth quite literally can’t be hometown heroes for their millions of fans, but that’s how people see both streamers. Boisterous fans lined multiple blocks in Los Angeles to finally see their guys play in person, and that’s when it really hits you — this isn’t just a fun, charity event that gives people a chance to kill some time and stare at Paul George’s face. It’s a traditional sporting event, and everyone’s showing up to see Fortnite’s version of Steph Curry and Kevin Durant sink shots.
“We came out here today to watch the pros play, and we’re really excited,” Connor, a young kid who waited in line for more than hour to get into the building, tells Polygon. “Myth is my favorite pro. He’s really funny, but he’s also a great builder. I think Fortnite is going to be a big esport, and I think it’s going to be one of the biggest this year. I love playing Fortnite, a lot, but I really like watching them play.”
The Pro-Am tournament is the NBA to playing basketball down by the park. It’s like seeing Michael Jordan or LeBron James in the flesh, and much like how people are willing to spend hours waiting in line or paying an exuberant amount of money on playoff tickets to watch James face off against Durant, the excitement to see Ninja face off against Myth was palpable.
“Fortnite is something unprecedented, there’s just something about it,” one cosplayer dressed up as a raptor tells Polygon. “This is the biggest event of E3. Just look at it!”
If the excitement outside of the stadium is palpable, it is nothing compared to how nervous, exhilarating and tangible the energy is inside the stadium, where players, families and friends got together for a couple of pre-tournament drinks and jokes.
“Is that Myth?”
The reception area on the field level of Banc Stadium is packed.
Celebrities, streamers, Fortnite pros, friends, family and media personnel are walking around the room. There’s a faint buzz of nervousness around the players as they stand with one another, joking and strategizing over the upcoming game. For everyone else, it’s a candy store. It’s rare that massive celebrities like Paul George or Vince Staples simply walk around a room, mingling with whomever happens to be standing at the bar, but that’s the Pro-Am. Fans’ eyes dart their eyes between exits, waiting to see who else may arrive so that they can snap a selfie that’ll send friends into a jealous rage.
Everyone wants to connect with one player in particular: Ninja, who everyone worships thanks to 12-hour daily streams on Twitch. As I track Ninja down for an interview, he zips into a bathroom. I ask his closest friends if it was okay to bombard him like this — something I’ve never done before, but I was hungry for a quote — and they laugh, saying that if I could grab him, by all means go for it. I never get the chance. By the time he leaves the bathroom, he‘s swarmed by fans demanding pictures.
Even though Ninja appears for only a couple of minutes before ducking into a players-only room, the atmosphere amongst fans flares up with electricity. School-age kids started whispering excitedly with one another. Even superstars like Paul George take notice. The euphoria over seeing Fortnite’s most impressive, well-known star player takes ahold of everyone.
“It’s insane,” one player tells Polygon. “This is way crazier than I thought it would be. I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect this. I’m not the best Fortnite player, I’m not Ninja or Myth, but it’s wild to be a part of this.”
The only thing people could talk about was the size of Epic’s Fortnite Pro-Am. It’s still not as as big as other esports events — League of Legends’ championships and Dota 2’s International tournament pull in way bigger numbers — but everyone involved in the production looked at Fortnite as this next step in making esports a bigger thing that everyday people could tune into, even on a network like EPSN.
“Esports feels like it’s going to be big when it’s figured out,” Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz, a player in the tournament, tells Polygon. “Maybe it’s already figured out, but it feels like it can be super, super big. I mean, they filled a stadium today to watch people play Fortnite, so that’s pretty cool.”
Wentz isn’t new to selling out stadiums. Neither is George. But they may not be as used to just being the additional cool thing instead of the main event.
The rising prominence of streamers is something that Myth takes seriously. He’s one of the most watched, beloved Fortnite streamers and players, and someone who’s garnered millions of fans in recent months. That’s a lot for anyone to take in. Myth, who just recently turned 19, is aware of the social responsibility he has when it comes to acting as a role model for so many of the kids who tune into his broadcasts.
“When it comes to me being a hero for these kids, I just want to promote the best message I can,” Myth tells Polygon. “I don’t want them to idolize me, but just use e as a center of influence. That’s something I think about a lot.”
Myth’s influence on Fortnite players — specifically younger ones — is hard to ignore standing on the field for the Pro-Am tournament. Fans cheer his name across a stadium, competing against people screaming Ninja’s name, as if they‘re two gladiators preparing for the final event. Myth isn’t immune to the event’s grandeur. He was caught a little off guard, he tells Polygon, but the massive turnout and high production involved with the Pro-Am gives him hope for future spectacles.
“It’s awesome to see that Epic eight months ago wasn’t doing anything on this scale, and now they’re pulling off an event like this amazingly,” Myth says. “I love being part of the Fortnite community, and I think Fortnite is only going to get bigger. It’s not going to die anytime soon.”
Neither are its streamers careers
By the time the event starts, most media are ushered to the stadium’s fourth level where we got see the tournament through a bird’s eye view.
Almost everyone involved in the tournament receives raucous applause upon entrance, but the final team, Ninja and Marshmello, get people on their feet. Kids jumped out of their foldable chairs, running across the field just to get a glimpse of their heroes preparing for battle. Two walls of security keep the space around Ninja and Marshmello clear as the two walk up to the stage. You can practically hear the collective consciousness screaming: JUST. ONE. HIGH-FIVE.
Dota 2 and League of Legends have their own high-profile players, but the Pro-Am tournament stands out as a mainstreaming of this breed of celebrity. It’s something that Black-ish actor, and Fortnite player, Marcus Scribner, tells me just before getting on the field.
“It’s the accessibility, and just how many infinite possibilities there are in every game,” Scribner says. “I play League of Legends a lot, and what makes League so fun and so playable is there are so many possibilities. Every game there’s different possibilities, skills and players, so it really varies game-to-game, and that’s what Fortnite is like. There’s a huge skill ceiling. You’re never the best. Ninja is close to god tier right now, but even he’s not mechanically sound and perfect 100 percent of the time.”
Scribner loves to watch streamers like Pokimane, Ninja and Myth, saying that he’ll tune into Twitch most nights just to see what’s happening. That’s what sets Fortnite apart for other esports, quite a few fans told me: it’s fun to watch even if you have no idea what’s going on.
The tournament plays out with similar, joyous chaos. At the end of the three matches — one solo, two duos, all for a grand prize of $3 million for charity — players who fans didn‘t think would win took home top prizes, while players like Ninja and Myth struggled to win. Ninja and Marshmello finally did win in their final match, redeeming themselves and giving fans a match worthy of paying attention to.
The stadium shakes as people clap, cheer and stomp their feet. This was the moment they came to see. Ninja, a god-tier player as Scribner described him to be, basked in the glory of his moment. As I said in a piece about his matchup:
But this is a story of redemption. Blevins stole back the crown, and reminded everyone in attendance why he was their favorite in the first place. And a favorite he was. People swarmed him as he entered the stadium — fans darted across the white floor, carefully avoiding folding chairs set up for the tournament — just to get a glimpse of the Twitch streamer in person. The Pro-Am tournament was a reminder for many people that Blevins isn’t just a funny streamer on Twitch who’s friends with Drake. He’s not just a celebrity touring the world to do appearances and commercials.
Tonight’s tournament turned him into a heroic athlete — he’s Fortnite’s shining kid, and just about everyone wants to see him dominate. Even if that means putting up with a few disappointing losses from time-to-time.
When the tournament is over, Ninja and Marshello embrace before taking their trophies and joining fans in celebrating the exciting moment. This was one of Fortnite’s first major tournaments and Ninja came out on top. People wait around after the competition ended to tell Ninja he did a great job, or give him a high-five before walking out of the stadium. Everyone felt like they knew Ninja after watching him for hours at a time day-after-day, and now they were able to jump in on his celebration.
It‘s a sweet moment, and one that other streamers could appreciate even though they lost.
“I would love to win an event like this,“ Myth tells Polygon. “But sometimes that doesn‘t happen. You can‘t predict the future. I‘m just happy to be here, and really watch Fortnite become the competitive sport that we‘ve wanted it to be.“
If there‘s any major takeaway I left with after the tournament calmed down, it‘s that Fortnite’s competitive scene is only just getting started, but there‘s a voracious appetite for it. The countdown to the World Cup in 2019 begins.