If you haven't heard of Fortnite, you haven't met any child or teenager or large adult manchild (hello) since last June, when it launched. Basically, it's an outrageously popular shooter in which you're airdropped onto an island that is devoid of people but replete with weapons and resources. Ninety-nine other players are also airdropped. Reader, you have to kill them all. Sure, you can explore the map and you can build stuff and you can team up with your friends, but what it comes down to is that you have to kill. Everyone.
It turns out that people love this. The game is truly, wildly, disgustingly popular, a precise term that refers to the 125m people who have played it in the year (the YEAR!) it's been around. After Jesus Christ and oxygen, Fortnite is possibly the most popular thing of all time.
All of which is interesting and impressive, etc, but then there's the money. It's difficult to say exactly how much of it is swilling around the enormous world of Fortnite, but, to use another technical term, it is a metric s***load. The game is free, but to make your character look cool and to unlock dance moves (we’ll get to that) you can pay real money, an enterprise from which the game's makers, Epic Games, earns an estimated $300m a month.
After this point, the trunk that is Epic Games' portion of the Fortnite economy branches into so many untrackable roots that I get a bit dizzy, and more than a bit pound-signs-in-my-eyes excited, just thinking about it. You can buy coaching online, you can earn ad revenue by persuading enough people to stream videos of you playing and talking about playing, and if you're really good – like, super-fast-twitch-muscle good, supercomputer-in-parents'-basement good, haven't-seen-daylight-in-years good – you can compete for cash prizes. The biggest eSports, such as Dota 2 and League of Legends, make multimillionaires of their best players, and Fortnite is hurtling very rapidly that way too: supplementing the third-party tournaments that already exist, Epic Games are ploughing $100m into making Fortnite into a spectator sport as well as a game.
So here's the deal with Fortnite: you can have fun shooting teenagers, and you can bond with your friends by playing cooperatively, both of which are enjoyable, but also, importantly, you can get really rich. Let me reiterate the point: you can get really rich by playing a fun game. So that's why I decided to get really good at it, despite having not played a shooter since I acquired the legal right to buy alcohol, and that's why I asked to spend an afternoon with my man Harry Darwin.
Harry, aka DarzFN, is an actual professional. He has earned thousands of dollars winning Fortnite competitions, and makes money on the side from coaching amateurs who want to win competitions of their own. Harry is being chased by several of the professional teams that investors are building in the hope of winning some of that $100m, and if he signs up he'll be taken to a "gaming house" where players live and train together. This will make a big change from his current lodging, which is, uh, with his parents in suburban Ipswich. Harry's mum, Claire, answers the door and offers us tea.
Aside from the obvious matter of living in his parents' house and gaming in their spare room, Harry is – thank the Lord – not your stereotypical PC World-issued asocial gaming lad. He's relaxed and welcoming (his mum has taken us to the spare room, at which point Harry strolls in), and looks suspiciously tattooed and sporty, as if he's some kind of nerd-jock ubermensch bred in a Silicon Valley laboratory by the investors who're gunning for the prize pot (did I mention it's $100m?). 22 years old, he abandoned a degree in business, finance and accounting so that he could concentrate on his gaming career. "I'm an entrepreneurial person," he tells me later. "I don't like the idea of doing a 9-5."
Harry shows me his gaming set-up: a desktop PC, boxy-looking and presumably of the discreetly supercharged variety, with a large silver microphone of the kind you might use to record a highbrow podcast. The keyboard sits on a big rectangular mousemat-type thing with a greyscale map of the world design. Next to the PC's monitor, there's a big TV screen into which we've plugged the Playstation I'll be using. This is where Harry spends about eight hours each day, either gaming or conducting business around gaming. He believes in living in a balanced way, he says, and tries to keep reasonable working hours that allow him to get outside and go to the gym in the morning. He doesn't play as many hours per day as many of his rivals, but he doesn't mind. "You've got to enjoy it, so playing too many hours a day is counterproductive," he says.
I feel bad that I'm about to waste two of his allotted eight daily hours of Fortnite, but we boot up our machines, me on the Playstation and him on the PC, and I load the game for the first time. The graphics aren't that advanced, judging by the cartoonish, huge-bummed state of the Lara Croft-ish avatar I'm assigned by default, but apparently that kind of compromise allows dozens of people to play at once. This is the main attraction of Fortnite: inflicting defeat on a human is much more enticing than inflicting it on a computer.
Above: one of the videos Harry has posted on Twitch, the gaming platform, of his Fortnite escapades
This time, though, it'll just be two of us. Harry, whose avatar is wearing a sleek black faceless jumpsuit with an array of flags hanging from spiked, golden poles mounted on his back, sets up a practice game in which he and I will be unperturbed by challengers. We begin as all Fortnite games do, with an airdrop from a flying "Battle Bus" over the aforementioned island. You can choose where to bring yourself down, jumping out and using a hang glider to reach a useful corner of the map. Drifting to earth from an indigo sky, I see emerald-coloured vegetation, thickets of trees, stubby cliffs and burnt-out buildings. Harry leads us to a corner of the map that contains a couple of bigger buildings, one with the look of a warehouse, the other more like a house. I hit the ground running and follow him to the warehouse.
“If you run up to these trees, and hit these trees, that’s gonna give you your material,” says Harry. Dashing up to a proud trunk, I press the triangle button to whips out a wackily-oversized pickaxe. RIP proud trunk. As I batter the tree down, my stock of wood, I can see from a counter on my screen’s right, rapidly increases. For a while, it’s satisfying. I hack at tree after tree like a William Gladstone, who felled oaks recreationally until the age of 81, stranded for eternity in a simulation.
Harry wants me to arm myself, though, so I run into one of the buildings and pick up a pair of glowing assault rifles. I batter a few doors and tables down too. We run up some stairs to the top of the warehouse – you don’t walk anywhere in these games, you run indefatigably – and Harry shows me how I can use the wood I’ve harvested to build square panels of wood, casting hologram versions around the room before settling on a placement and angle. You can do this to build walls, stairs, floors and ceilings, Harry explains. “Building is where the biggest skill gap between players lies,” he says ominously. “Building is the only way to grab those victories and stay alive in the game until the end. Without it, you are a sitting duck.”
I have a bad feeling that that is exactly what I am going to be, but after exploring the map some more we go into a real game, with 98 other people to wipe out of existence. If Harry’s tight black costume had coat-tails, I’d be hanging onto them. We run to a resource-filled corner of the map, stock up on wood, metal and brick by bashing things up, and watch the count of active players go down: people have started attacking each other. “They’re already killing each other!”, I say with delight. Occasionally, someone will come near our warehouse, and Harry picks them off from range before I’ve even seen them with a gun that I didn’t even see him pick up.
One of the cleverest features of the game is the way it corrals players into an ever-decreasing area of the map. It does this by imposing a “storm circle”, marked by a ring on the map in the top right. If you’re not in it, you die, and it gets smaller as the game goes on. People try to predict where the storm circle will fall, but without much success. You get a little bit of warning, and so we gather a few more resources before running into the circle.
Above: Dele Alli, the Tottenham and England midfielder, displaying the 'flossing' celebration
We start building. While I puzzle over the placement of a wall like a fastidious interior designer, Harry builds a huge siege tower construction with rapid stabs of his thumb on the controller. I follow him up. “Now we’ve got a little base,” he says. “There’s players here” – oh my God, I think, peeking over the rampart, there are, and they’re comi– “so I’m just going to have to...” – a barrage of yellow lasers hits body after body – “fight these guys a little bit.” At these points of triumph, players often throw the dance moves, aka "emotes", they’ve earned or bought (footballers such as Dele Alli, above, reference these emotes in their goal celebrations), but Harry doesn’t bother.
Admiring my ally’s work, I am promptly sniped, but Harry, like a well-prepared teacher on a Duke of Edinburgh expedition, has packed a first aid kit, and restores me to full health. This happens several times. Harry keeps building, retaining the high ground and I keep following him, attempting under his instruction to augment his structures with further defensive panels.
Suddenly there are only three other players left. I’ve killed nobody. One tries building a structure of his own, but Harry snipes him/her out of contention. Two more follow us up. “Keep moving!”, says Harry (I am indeed a sitting duck). Eventually I’m taken down, still having killed nobody, and I just watch Harry whip up slope after slope, his structures rearing from the hills like stairways to heaven, while spraying his last opponent, alternately chasing and hiding, with colourful gunfire.
He wins, obviously, which means I am also a winner by virtue of being sort of on his team. I am a winner in style of late-career Martin Keown, wheeled onto the pitch for the last few minutes of Arsenal’s final games of their unbeaten Premier League season in order to meet the minimum number of games for a medal.
Harry was clearly better than anyone else on the map, but beyond talking about the importance of building, he’s frustratingly unable – much like some elite sports players, those who play with intuition and grace rather than those who build careers on hard work and preparation – to precisely articulate what is it that his talent is composed of. He identifies quick reactions, which tail off in your late twenties, as part of what you need to be a top-level gamer, and good decision-making, but the nature of that decision-making is that it’s adaptable, and so it’ll never be easy, I suppose, to explain it beyond principles like “good building.”
As for my performance, Harry concedes that I was more of a hindrance than a help. “You’re a quick learner,” he says generously, “but don’t quit your day job.” Fortnite is not the get-rich-quick treasure chest I longed for – the skill gap between professional and amateur, in the space of a year, has become vast, even allowing for the way the professionals benefit from their expertise in other games. At the very least, though, thanks to his coaching I am now much better able to kill strangers on the Internet and perhaps even my friends. Who could ask for more?