In a year where anything and everything went viral, there was only one meme that lived through an infinity war, handed out L’s at the World Cup, kept Drake and NHL players up at night, and even got Michelle Obama and Santa Claus dancing.
Marvel’s one-two punch of “Black Panther” and “Infinity War.” Beyoncé’s transcendental Coachella performance. “Roseanne” canceled. Even a royal wedding. The world buzzed about each of these pop cultural moments. But in the end, they were mostly footnotes in the year of “Fortnite.” The free-to-play game kept a sustained level of hype throughout the year, and with over 200 million users according to the game’s publisher, Epic, it was inescapable, sparking debates over parent-child relationships, inspiring athlete celebrations, elevating gamers to stardom and making gobs and gobs of money.
“Fortnite,” like Facebook, is an app you download. And also like Facebook, you’re either on “Fortnite” or you’re not.
The omnipresent multiplayer online game was an amalgamation of older ideas that created a perform storm that enveloped everything in its path (or your child’s path). “Fortnite” was actually released in July 2017, cribbing the still popular premise of independent game “Playerunknown’s Battleground.” But in 2018 it turned from a game into a phenomenon.
Like a TV show, “Fortnite” has seasons and thus you don’t have to wait a year or years for new content in the form of a new game release. Instead, “Fortnite” just continually evolves. Each season lasts 10 weeks, introducing players to a new batch of challenges and rewards to win for a limited time, all the while introducing new themes and geographic changes to its famous island battleground. The game, currently in its seventh season with snow-capped mountains and newly introduced airplanes sailing through the sky, looks vastly different today than it did even two months ago.
Along the way, the game helped turn its top players into stars, most notably Tyler “Ninja” Blevins. Blevins has already been on Jimmy Fallon and Ellen. He performed at Lollapalooza of all places, and the crowd emitted an audible “awwww” as a large screen showcasing his gameplay went offline. He is the first esports player to grace the cover of ESPN the Magazine. In an interview with The Washington Post, Blevins said the game’s success is tied to the fact that it’s free, and that it’s on every platform capable of playing it, including smartphones. It has, he says, brought people together.
“Countless times people come to me and say it’s reconnected them to their kids or another family member,” Blevins said. “'Oh I haven’t talked to my best friend in seven years and now we’re playing Fortnite together. I’m on PlayStation and my best friend is on Xbox.' But guess what? You can play even if you’re on completely different platforms. The game really brings people together.”
In cafeterias and classrooms across the nation, it was inescapable. And sure enough, older “Fortnite” players acknowledge that it’s the children that led the way for its ubiquity.
“The game would’ve been popular no matter what, but its absolute dominance in the gaming scene was a result of its appeal to kids,” said Reddit user Badstriking. “Like it or not, Fortnite is what it is because of kids, and because of that it will always be associated with them.”
The game also appealed to older players because of its simplicity, said Reddit user SlippyC57. “It’s not like other [player vs. player] games where you have a gun, specs for a gun, perks to go with your character, etc.,” they wrote. “I feel like those games draw away from the fun. ‘Fortnite’ kept it simple. You have guns and your pickaxe.”
Despite the game being free, the game sells a variety of cosmetic items to spice up how you look in the game. Spending real cash on something that makes no difference in the game? It may seem silly, but Vox’s Rebecca Jennings reporting earlier this year compared paying a few bucks to style up your online self to buying a particularly photogenic and expensive latte for a single Instagram photo.
“If clothes are dying and millennials care more about experiences than stuff, snagging a rare Fortnite skin instead of a Zara bag that everyone already owns actually makes a lot of sense,” she wrote.
Here’s a timeline of how the game dominated the cultural conversation across several mediums:
March: The game’s breakout moment arrived when Blevins played with the world’s biggest music artist Drake, along with another hip-hop heavyweight Travis Scott and Pittsburgh Steelers wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster. The eclectic four-man squad was a snapshot of the cross-section of highly influential people obsessed with the game. Their late-night session broke Twitch streaming records with about 628,000 concurrent viewers online.
Also that month Epic Games announced a “BoogieDown” contest asking players to submit their own dances that could be incorporated into the game. The contest amassed thousands of entries.
April: Fortnite launches on the iPhone. Just one month later, Education Week reported on how teachers across the country were frustrated by students playing the game in class. And a small child in an orange shirt captured the hearts of the community with a humble dance (that’s also a “great exercise move”). Despite coming in at 23rd place, meme YouTubers such as Dolan Darker campaigned for “orange shirt kid” to get in the game. Epic put his dance in, labeled the “Orange Justice,” and I promise this becomes important later.
May: Even though “Avengers: Infinity War” broke box office records, the Disney/Marvel juggernaut couldn’t resist latching onto the “Fortnite” hype train, as the game announced a collaboration between the Avengers franchise with a special “Thanos” mode, allowing players to play as the supervillain. Meanwhile in Major League Baseball, Boston Red Sox pitcher David Price had to publicly deny his carpal tunnel syndrome was not a result of his many hours playing the game.
Also, we learned that “Fortnite” (reminder: this game is free to play) raked in $300 million in April.
June: Epic Games announced the game has 125 million players. And the game got its first worldwide story event, as millions logged on to see a once-in-a-Fortnite rocket launch that made even more changes to the game’s landscape. It also ignited a debate over whether one player’s move to eliminate dozens of players who had declared a truce to watch the event was a work of evil or genius. The act set the game’s record for eliminations in a single match.
July: World Cup fever grips the world, and “Fortnite” was ever present as so many goals were celebrated with various “Fortnite” dances, including Frenchman Antoine Griezmann doing the infamous “Hold the L” dance. And on our side of the world, the NHL openly fretted about how the game was affecting training and recruiting.
September: Deepening its cultural cachet, SNL performed an sketch around Fortnite that featured Adam Driver. And after months of public outrage, Sony broke its long-standing rule and allowed Fortnite players from rival platforms (like Microsoft’s Xbox One and Nintendo’s Switch) to connect their accounts to console market leader PlayStation 4.
October: The game finally launched on all Android devices, the largest mobile operating system in the world. Even during a beta period that started in August, the game was already downloaded 15 million times.
November: Fortnite hits 200 million registered players, an online community that would make the seventh-largest nation on Earth. And unlike the NHL, the NFL openly embraced Fortnite fever with a partnership to sell the league’s uniforms in the game.
December: After months of conversation about whether the game is “appropriating” dances from pop culture, lawsuits drop. First from rapper 2 Milly for the “Milly Rock” dance in the game. And later, Alfonso Ribeiro, the actor who played Carlton Banks in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” as well as Russell “Backpack Kid” Horning, joined the lawsuit, sparking conversation about the idea of choreography as intellectual property.
And if you thought “Wow, politics is conspicuously missing from this whole Fortnite craze,” you’d almost be right. Michelle Obama performed the now-infamous “Orange Justice” dance with Santa Claus.