The circle is shrinking. Just four competitors left. Fortnite is perched in a makeshift tower, extending to the heavens. From there, it can see everything – PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds has limped into the circle, its armour shot to pieces. Blackout, the brash and ballsy competitor, and fresh challenger Apex Legends is chipping away at the tower.
Forgive me the laboured metaphor, but a lot of it rings true – Fortnite is king of a genre it jumped into, but how long can it stay atop that tower? Could it lose the Battle Royale of Battle Royales?
Just a couple of years ago, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was the talk of the town. In a way similar to the original Modern Warfare, it had taken over the zeitgeist of shooter fans. There was strategy, there was excitement, and above all else – there was seemingly nothing like it.
Until, of course, there was.
Fortnite, a long-gestating game about battling zombies and building defences, dropped in in late 2017. The rest, as they say, is history. Fortnite Battle Royale rose to the top of Twitch streams and revenue streams, becoming so popular that developer Epic Games was able to cancel another title they were working on just to focus more on Fortnite.
At the time, it seemed churlish to put all of those eggs in one basket, but now it seems like a stroke of genius. Fortnite’s seasonal structure and generous battle passes mean that it has become ubiquitous in the weekly news. New cosmetic unlocks, new weapons, and even new additions to its sprawling map are commonplace, a release cadence set by a studio that built the tools to make games and that has the time and ingenuity to reinvent the title on a monthly basis.
Fortnite has permeated workplaces and playgrounds in equal measure – its low cost of entry (its free, and runs on anything from a phone, to a console, to a high-end PC) makes it ideal for quick bursts of play after a long day of work, while its uniquely colourful aesthetic means that parents can look at their child playing and not have to worry about them trying to “kill” ninety-nine other human players.
Fortnite’s ever-evolving nature and mainstream appeal, however, is both blessing and curse. In the same way that Call of Duty’s popularity led to a contrarian culture of “CoD is boring”, there are outcries across the internet that “Fortnite is for kids”. Similarly, some Fortnite players bemoan the additions and changes made to the game’s original premise – in recent times, the addition of flying vehicles was criticised by a significant portion of the game’s fervent fanbase. As it was with PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Fortnite had small pockets of competition but it felt like nothing would come close.
Until, of course, it did.
Unveiling a campaign-less Call of Duty in 2018, Activision and Treyarch alleviated some fan concern by announcing Blackout, a Battle Royale mode built for Black Ops 4. Eschewing the slow-pace of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and the focus on heat-of-the-moment building found in Fortnite, Blackout is Battle Royale distilled into Call of Duty’s excellent shooting mechanics that have been iterated on for over a decade. Blackout saw impressive popularity, even among the aforementioned counter-culture that bays for Activision’s blood.
In 2019, a surprising new challenger appeared. Closer to Blackout than Fortnite, Apex Legends injects the subgenre with fresh ideas – character and team dynamics chief among them. It helps that Apex Legends is free (as per Fortnite), and that has seen it rise to the top of Twitch with impressive numbers. While Fortnite was an unknown quantity, a curio when it began, Apex Legends is a shooter from a team that makes excellent shooters, and its viewership illustrates an incredible rise in popularity in just a few short weeks.
Returning to the previous analogy, is Fortnite able to headshot the competition from its tower? Said tower is shrinking, sure, but Fortnite still has a fighting chance once it hits the ground. A game that has permeated the public conscience on such a level that eclipses even Minecraft, Fortnite is unlikely to go quietly or without a fight.
The next couple of seasons are vitally important for Fortnite, but this may be a Battle Royale without a winner. Between Fortnite and Apex Legends, there are two excellent and very different Battle Royale titles available for no money at all, and the option to pick up PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Blackout expands players’ options further.
If there is a winner, it’s almost certainly the consumer.