The teens — Hayden “Elevate” Krueger, 17, and Davis “Ceice” McClellan, 18 — are elite “Fortnite” players, supremely skilled at building fast and killing faster. Signed and sponsored by esports franchise 100 Thieves, they are suddenly on a wild ricochet from their parents’ homes to this training ground near Atlanta to the inaugural Fortnite World Cup finals July 27 at 23,000-plus seat Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York. On top of the main court of the U.S. Open, they will chase a share of the largest prize pool in esports history, one that dwarfs those of famed sporting tournaments like the Masters or the Cricket World Cup.
Such is the rapid and stunning success of one of the world’s most popular video games, one that has transcended mere home entertainment to ascend to the uppermost planes of pop culture, those populated by superstar athletes and celebrity singers. But for as big as the game has gotten, its name rolling off the tongues of everyone from Netflix execs to embittered educators, its fledgling competitive scene has been as volatile, unpredictable and maddening as its signature storm. And with the advent of the Fortnite World Cup, the game’s publisher, Epic Games, has created a kind of mammoth lightning rod — one that has attracted a world’s worth of players, media attention and controversy.
Fortnite is a worldwide sensation because anyone can jump into an online landscape, create something from nothing, align with friends, demolish foes and never know what the next setting brings. Mystery has fueled the free-to-play game’s intrigue, as its battleground — a fantastical island whose playing area shrinks inside the eye of a collapsing storm — has continuously evolved, providing new challenges and requiring its player base to adapt their styles accordingly. Elements of the game’s settings have changed radically between rounds of the World Cup competition — something antithetical to traditional sports — keeping players either on their toes or off balance, depending on their ability to compensate. For an event with as much money on the line as the World Cup, there appears to be an unusual amount of on-the-fly adjusting, at least to those grounded in traditional sporting competitions.
Given those conditions however, it’s appropriate that the first-ever Fortnite World Cup has resulted in a hastily arranged team of strangers landing in a rented house in Georgia and fending for themselves as the stakes keep getting larger and the competition keeps getting nastier. A lot of these players love to stir the pot via their social media accounts or streams on Twitch or YouTube, but it’s clear in this case the $30 million pot has stirred them.
The qualifying duo from 100 Thieves is a contrast: Krueger is quick-witted and visibly competitive; his room was dotted with Red Bull cans. (His handle used to be “Toothpaste” because his dad is a dentist.)
“I was that kid in Little League who screamed when other kids were in the outfield picking daisies,” he jokes.
McClellan is laser-focused and terse. His room was spartan. “If you can have that analytical mind, you can build things, you can create things,” he says. “That’s how you can win.”
The final will pit 100 players in a solo death match (six games to determine the winner), with another competition of 50 teams for duos. McClellan made it not only in duos but also as a solo; he’ll be a favorite in New York. “It’s $30 million,” he said. “It would change anyone’s life.” Asked what he would do with millions in prize money, McClellan said, “Spend it all.”
What happens when a video game tournament dangles that kind of prize? Well, in this case there has been a cheating conundrum and resentment over the alleged conspirators qualifying for the final despite their transgressions. (A “kick in the junk,” tweeted one outraged player.) There’s also been players shifting locales and shifting allegiances in an effort to get to the New York finale on July 26. Epic, the maker of the game and the tournament, has added to the drama with an unexpected change in the age requirements only a few weeks before the start of qualifiers. Then there are the in-game changes during the tournament, including the introduction of all-new dynamics like airstrikes just weeks before the finals. As if Fortnite was too drab before.
No competitors are complaining too audibly when the money’s that eye-popping, though. After all, the entire vibe of Fortnite — and a big part of its success — is how nothing is constant, from weapons to seasons. Epic has not yet made any announcement if there will even be another World Cup and declined to comment when asked if it had given any consideration to future formats or tournaments.
“We have no idea what Fortnite has planned after this,” says Eric Sanders, who recruited and manages the team temporarily based in Georgia for 100 Thieves. “We are ready to be reactive. [Epic is] very different in the sense that with other esports you have at least a six-month plan. Here it’s six months of TBD.”
But the potential rewards appear to make the headaches tolerable. Sanders, a former gamer himself — his “Muddawg” nickname is an old AOL account — had to scramble to find a furnished house with a rapid Internet connection for 75 days during the World Cup’s summer qualifying period. “I took a redeye and looked at five different properties,” he said. “The Internet is what really matters,” to eliminate any kind of delay between a player’s inputs and when they register on the screen. “If we have to sacrifice the longer Uber ride [to and from the city], the game takes priority.”
Indeed, Fortnite has taken priority for both teams and players since the February announcement of the World Cup and the $100 million in total prizes Epic would dole out to winners from the start of the qualification process to the conclusion in the finals. Speed and dedication were prized virtues.
“I spent the first three months learning the game and learning the players. Learning everything,” Sanders said of his initial foray as the head ops guy for 100 Thieves. Sanders also had to quickly woo the right mix of gamers to battle the tournament’s array of big-name streamers, wet-behind-the-ears up-and-comers, and any-given-Sunday long shots from around the globe.
The dollar signs helped the recruiting pitch. Parents who may have refused to back their gamer’s unusual path previously are suddenly a little more open-minded. “They didn’t think the best of it before,” said Gabriel “Kyzui” Harlos, 16, who left his home in Sacramento to train in Georgia. “But once they saw that money was involved, they started understanding.”
Krueger, got an assist from his older brother, a former StarCraft player who convinced their parents that there was a real future in Fortnite for his little bro. “Back in August, when I told my parents I wanted to do this, I was having anxiety about going the traditional route and going to college,” Krueger said. “There was way too much stress. I wanted to do this. This is a dream — the life I wanted.”
Krueger, and the others inside the 100 Thieves house in Georgia, practice at all hours, pausing to order Chick-fil-A or scarf down some Totino’s (a team sponsor). There are a few bloodshot eyes in the house. Adventures outside are very rare, and there isn’t much to do in Monroe anyway. The 100 Thieves team has a host living here, both to assist the players and allay parental concerns, but there isn’t much for him to do. If the three lines of cables are at work, he doesn’t really have to be.
“Wake up, take a shower, spend the whole day on the game,” Kyzui said. “That’s about it.”
Anything less than a full commitment could cost a player his or her spot in the final field. In a last-ditch effort heading into the final week of qualifying, 19-year-old Alex “Fiber” Bonetello and his duos partner on Team Liquid decided to part ways.
“I had an old partner for about a year almost, but we decide to split up for the last week of the World Cup,” Bonetello said. “He wasn’t really on a lot to grind, and that affected how he played. He didn’t really want to practice.”
The team also flew Bonetello to Washington so he could compete on a lag-less Internet connection. Though he ultimately fell short of qualifying, the team saw it as an expense well worth it to give their player the best possible shot.
Others, however, embraced more dubious tactics.
A money chase like this rarely ends without controversy. Epic’s first round of competitive Fortnite play last year was marred by cheating or hackers using illegal modifications to improve their aim. From the outset the World Cup competition was beset by players willing to cheat to win big. Epic suspended more than 1,000 players from the competition, including 196 prize winners, who were subsequently stripped of their winnings. (There was also a DQ after a player lied about his age.) The format for advancing, which relies on eliminating opponents and top placements in the last-person-standing, battle royal survival game, has proven vulnerable to ringers who coordinated with World Cup competitors, allowing themselves to get killed to boost the stats of the would-be qualifiers.
Epic suspended one duo, who play under the gamer tags Xxif and Ronaldo, when it found evidence to suggest the tandem was engaging in such a tactic. But the ban lasted just two weeks, and the pair returned from punishment and qualified anyway — earning $50,000 for securing the spot in the finals. Bonetello believes Xxif “should have been banned forever.”
“If you give him a two-week ban, I don’t think that’s enough time,” he said. “He cheated people out of a lot of money, so he should have been banned longer.” If Xxif and Ronaldo win any significant money in the finals, that scandal may overshadow the entire event. Neither Xxif nor Epic replied to repeated requests for comment.
Competing against the pair, and a field of 49 other finalists in the duos division, will be Krueger and McClellan. That field will not include their housemates Harlos and Maurilio “Blind” Gramajo, however. They’ll remain on the team but they failed to qualify for the World Cup. As for the team, it moved quickly to bolster its ranks as 100 Thieves signed two other qualifiers, including a 15-year-old with the handle Arkhram.
Only a few minutes after finishing first, Krueger and McClellan sat on the living room couch for a long moment, checking their phones. Then it was back to the rooms, and then to the big city, leaving the house and its long tangle of cables behind. By the time they all start in New York, Fortnite will have added its airstrikes and attacks will arrive from even more directions.
As in the game itself, shelter is temporary, scenery shifts and no one knows exactly what’s coming next.