The business of video games has been turned upside down since the release almost exactly a year ago of Fortnite, the world’s most popular game with more than 40 million players logging in daily. Its Battle Royale-style matches pit 100 players against one another, and regular (generally goofy) updates keep fans coming back for much more, no matter what device they use to play. Now, following an exclusive Android distribution deal with Samsung, Fortnite and publisher Epic Games are changing the mobile business. Soon, Epic Games will bring Fortnite to esports, too, promising regular tournaments by early 2019.
But what’s been the driver of Fortnite’s success? What lessons can brands and agencies take from Fortnite? What are their opportunities in esports and mobile entertainment as Fortnite continues to boom?
To get some answers, I sat down with long-time esports and entertainment veteran Seven Volpone, who heads Big Block, a unique agency with a wide range of investments in technology and lifestyle businesses, including a big commercial production company creating ads for major sports leagues and car makers. Big Block’s holdings also include recent spinoff Subnation, which is bringing together agencies, brands, and musicians under a larger lifestyle umbrella that celebrates gamer and esports culture.
Because TV[R]EV is all about media convergence, you can read the interview with Volpone below, and listen to a longer form of the conversation on my podcast Bloom in Tech on Anchor.FM, Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, Overcast and other purveyors of smart audio content. The conversation was edited for clarity and length.
DB: Epic cut a deal with Samsung for exclusive access to Fortnite when it came to the Android platform. One estimate I saw said the move probably saved Epic $50 million that it didn’t have to pay Google for the usual 30-percent hosting fee. But the bigger news here might have been why Samsung wanted the exclusive: they’re pitching their Galaxy Note9 as a gamer phone. Are we going to see a new category of high-end mobile esports tournaments, similar to what we already see with the PC business?
SV: The mobile market is probably one of the biggest opportunities in gaming and esports because a lot of people have quicker access to it. Not everyone has a $5,000, $10,000 (PC) rig at their disposal. So you’re going to see people competing on mobile phones. It’s happening now. We’re looking at RFPs from major companies looking at putting together major competitions played solely on mobile phones. It is absolutely trending in that direction.
The interesting thing about mobile is there are a lot of easy, in-game purchases that help sustain those businesses and grow them. From a business standpoint, it’s good for the publishers, and from a brand standpoint, there’s going to be a lot of opportunities for experiences and ways to integrate in those games and within those tournaments and those communities and those lifestyles.
At Subnation, that’s where we really feel our sweet spot is. We feel there’s this white space that we’re executing in, and it comes from our time in (pioneering esports league) ESL and the tournaments we’ve thrown globally. There’s more competitions going on every Saturday night when four or five kids are getting together and they’re playing Fortnite together. It’s happening in every household and you’ve got these little micro-competitions taking place everywhere all the time.
The smart brands will be looking to integrate in a way that’s meaningful to this audience. And that doesn’t mean they’re throwing up a logo. It doesn’t mean they’re infiltrating the scene and saying, “Here’s my new car.” At (gaming trade show) E3, we were really fortunate to have Volkswagen as a partner. At our booth, they brought in a car, but they brought it in and used it as a canvas. They were smart enough to say, “We really want to do this on (gamers’) terms.”
And we partnered with Marvel and had a Marvel comic book artist paint on the car. We created an experience. It was the highest-rated social-content push that VW has ever had. So how did this happen? It’s really VW taking the initiative of being forward thinking and saying, “Let’s not push the car. Let’s push the experience.” And with Subnation, we were giving them the opportunity to curate that experience.
DB: Name three big gaming influencers that brands should know about, besides perhaps the most famous Fortnite player, Ninja (Tyler Blevins), who has played with celebrities such as Drake.
SV: There’s a lot of people, like TSM_Myth. He’s crushing it out there. He’s great for brands to get behind, too. He’s got great character. There’s also SSSniperWolf and Pokimane, who I really like. She’s got this “Wayne’s World,” very non-overly produced show, but she gets to the heart of her audience. There’s a lot of opportunities, then you look at how these influencers are interacting in the heart of culture. Look at our booth at E3 with (rap musician) Lil Yachty. Lil’ Yachty just joined FaZe Clan. You’ve got this new realm of celebrity gamer who are coming in. Josh Hart of the (Los Angeles) Lakers, he’s one of the best gamers in the NBA. The influencer list is growing, but those are my top three other than Ninja.
DB: One great thing about Fortnite is the way they sell skins and other customization that allows players to express themselves and differentiate from other players. How has that changed the culture? Now you see athletes and musicians doing the dances or quoting aspects of the game as they’re doing sports or other kinds of entertainment that have nothing to do with the game.
SV: Fortnite really tapped into what we at Subnation focus on, which is the lifestyle of esports. It’s not just about what’s happening in the game. What’s interesting is people are buying a skin, they’re buying an identity. It’s how I express myself. If you look at collegiate sports, the NFL, the NBA, the thing that really propelled those sports beyond the game was what was happening inside the culture. Fortnite allows people to find their identity in the game. Look at that, and what’s happening with apparel and limited-edition sneakers moving into the esports space. Look at the deals Adidas or Nike are doing with certain (esports) teams. There’s such a huge market for people who want customized items, limited-edition items. On Fortnite, you’re expressing yourself through your dance moves and through your skins. You’ll see that transform in the games into what’s happening in merchandise and in the streets as well.
DB: It feels like Fortnite creator Epic Games has been slow to expand into esports, even as it has expanded across just about every game platform out there over the past year, including Android a couple of weeks ago. After a couple of one-off events, they’re going to begin holding regular tournaments in 2019. So what are the opportunities for brands?
SV: I think one of the interesting things about Fortnite is they make it really easy for people to interact and have tournaments. But in 2019 when they sanction more official tournaments, I think there’s going to be a mad rush of people who want to compete, and it’s going to be a great opportunity for brands to be involved in that culture and that experience.
DB: In coming months, we’ll be seeing a lot of copycat games, and brands trying to figure out how they fit in. Are there lessons learned from Fortnite that brands can use to connect with gaming culture? Are there things Fortnite and Epic did right that everybody should be doing?
SV: Listen, Fortnite has changed the entire landscape in games and the way that everyone looks at esports and gaming right now. And it opens the door for other publishers who are really looking to create multiplatform games that can be played on mobile too. My 12-year-old son, last year I’d go pick him up from school and there would be nobody outside. The kids were not on the front lawn waiting. After Fortnite came out, you’d see boys and girls out on the lawn just sitting there, waiting for people to pick them up, all playing Fortnite on their mobile devices. So it’s just connected that entire community, which is really a phenomenon. It also opens a lot of interesting questions for the Xboxes and Playstations who’ve depended on hardware (to maintain market share). Look at what Microsoft just did (announcing Xbox All Access): you’re looking at almost a SaaS platform instead of having to go out and buy your physical game. It changes everything.
DB: That has really interesting implications for a business that’s always been so siloed, driven by what hardware you use. It was always about the platform exclusives. So, do you see multi-platform, cross-platform play with mobile as a big part of it becoming the future of games?
SV: You’re always going to have the purists who are the PC game players who love to play on PCs, and there’s a reason for it. There’s a high level of gaming that comes out of PC performance. What Fortnite has done is open up the mobile gamer. You’ve got guys on a mobile platform playing guys on a PC. It happens. But I really think it’s dependent on the game they’re playing, and Fortnite happens to be one that works in every capacity.