‘Fortnite’: Battle royale, concert venue and, maybe, the start of the metaverse

Even if you’ve never played, by now you know of “Fortnite.”

Five years ago the battle royale debuted for millions of people across the world, becoming one of gaming’s biggest titles and even launching some of its top players into new stratospheres of celebrity.

But what’s more interesting is what Fortnite could yet become — and how the game could reshape the internet as we know it.

DrLupo has made millions while streaming to his 4.5 million followers on Twitch and another 1.8 million subscribers on YouTube. He’s used that platform to raise millions more in fundraising for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, serving as something of a celebrity to the hospital’s patients, as well as their benefactor. All of this success, he said, can be traced back to five years ago when he decided to start playing a cartoonish shooter game called “Fortnite.”

“It’s the base for a lot of what I’ve been able to do in my career,” Lupo, whose real name is Ben Lupo, told The Washington Post in August. “It was hands down the most important thing that I ever did with streaming.”

[How well do you know 'Fortnite's' island? Take our geography quiz!]

“Fortnite,” the wildly popular battle royale that pits a hundred players against each other in a fight to be the last player or team standing, first released in September 2017. The game became an instant success, growing to hundreds of millions of players and raking in hundreds of millions in revenue every month despite being free to play. In the process, it became much more than a moneymaker, resonating in ways few entertainment products ever have.

For starters, “Fortnite” catapulted a number of Twitch streamers, such as Lupo, into a new stratosphere of fame. When Lupo started streaming the game, he played with Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, a friend and fellow streamer who, with his blue hair and knack for winning, became the poster child of “Fortnite’s” early viral success. Over time, Lupo said his Twitch channel grew from a few hundred viewers to more than 10,000 people all simultaneously watching him play “Fortnite” with Blevins and others.

Nowadays, Lupo, 35, has an exclusive streaming deal with YouTube for an undisclosed amount (Lupo said it leaves his family secure for life), and he’s raised more than $10 million for St. Jude from streaming “Fortnite” and other games. Meanwhile, Blevins is streaming everywhere — truly, on all possible platforms — and he’s turned his meteoric rise from “Fortnite” into an apparel line, a cover story in ESPN the Magazine and a gig co-hosting the 2018 New Year’s Eve festivities from Times Square.

“It blew the top off of gaming for everybody across the board,” Lupo said.

When “Fortnite” first launched, it filtered into all facets of life. It was ubiquitous and unmissable. Kids whipped out their “Fortnite” dances in the schoolyard. The game was blamed for a Boston Red Sox starting pitcher’s carpal tunnel. Parents, partners and, even, professional coaches all eventually asked the same question: “When will this end?

It hasn’t yet. “Fortnite” is available on any internet-connected PC, console, phone or tablet near you, in part thanks to a mode now playable on web browsers. Some of the world’s most popular media franchises and sports leagues — from Star Wars and Darth Vader to the NFL — have in-game characters, apparel or set locations for “Fortnite’s” virtual island. The Russo brothers, the Hollywood directors best known for making some of the most ambitious movies in Marvel’s cinematic universe, brought their work into the game when “Fortnite” gave players control of the reality-bending Infinity Gauntlet owned by the Avengers’ nemesis, Thanos.

“As storytellers, we are motivated by our desire to consistently push the envelope of what is achievable,” Joe and Anthony Russo wrote in an email, responding to questions from The Post. “Bringing Thanos to the Fortnite Universe in such an authentic way was very gratifying to us and we are extremely interested in finding ways to continue to be a part of the Epic ecosystem.”

The Russo brothers added that their collaborations with Epic are based of a “shared vision of the future of storytelling.”

“No other game had done that at that point,” Ali “SypherPK” Hassan, said about the Thanos event. Hassan, a streamer with 6.2 million followers on Twitch, found success making videos about all the events and updates on “Fortnite’s” island.

“Fortnite” found mass appeal by swapping the hyper-realistic grit found in shooting games such as “Call of Duty” for a bright, cartoonish world that appeals to both adults and kids. As Lupo points out, there’s no blood in “Fortnite.” Other players are just eliminated.

LEFT: Darth Vader enters the battle royale. RIGHT: Spider-Man and other Marvel heroes have made frequent appearances in “Fortnite” as well. (Epic Games)

“You can have John Cena and LeBron James face off against Master Chief and Goku,” Lupo said. “It feels like a fever dream. Go back five years and tell me this is going to happen and I’d laugh in your face.”

In 2019, Drake and Travis Scott played “Fortnite” with Blevins and NFL wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, shattering viewership records on Twitch at the time. Since then, the lines between popular music and the game have continued to blur. A year later, popular music producer and DJ Marshmello hosted the first-ever musical performance within the game in a suburban part of the island called Pleasant Park. Travis Scott and Ariana Grande followed up with shows of their own and recently MTV added a new music award to recognize the best such in-game performances. Now, iHeartRadio has created a private island within “Fortnite” to host performances, and it’s sponsored by insurance company State Farm.

Charlie Puth, who’s preparing to release his third studio album in October, recorded a live performance that debuted on the island at the beginning of the month.

“I’m not even going to pretend I know a lot about ‘Fortnite.’ I didn’t even know that they were doing virtual concerts,” Puth said. “I felt bad that I wasn’t one of the first ones doing it. So, I just hopped at the opportunity.”

To Puth, who isn’t much of a gamer, the show with iHeartRadio was just another platform to connect with fans online.

The game’s impact has been felt outside of the entertainment world as well. Last year, “Fortnite” was the focal point in a courtroom battle between Epic and Apple, in which the game developer claimed the iPhone maker was operating as a monopoly by requiring all iOS app distribution and monetary transactions run through Apple’s App store. When a judge ruled that Epic had failed to prove Apple to be a monopoly, it dealt a blow to Epic chief executive Tim Sweeney’s ultimate vision for the game and his company — the creation of the metaverse.

[Silicon Valley is racing to build the next version of the internet. Fortnite might get there first.]

The metaverse, simply, is an online digital world in which users can easily and seamlessly interact with brands, intellectual properties and each other online. In many ways, “Fortnite” has provided one of the clearest models of how such a vision could work. Epic Games is already in a long-term partnership with Lego, one of the most-popular building-blocks companies in the world, to create and “shape the future of the metaverse” together.

“Fortnite” did not start off as a battle royale game. In fact, it was originally launched as “Fortnite: Save the World,” a game where four players fend off zombies together by building defensive structures and crafting weapons. The game’s battle royale component, “Fortnite Battle Royale,” was developed in just two months after the launch of the initial “Save the World” mode. “Fortnite” wasn’t the first battle royale, an increasingly popular genre during the late 2010s, and was preceded by “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” and “H1Z1.” But, two weeks after the free-to-play portion released, “Fortnite Battle Royale” already had over 10 million players.

Epic Games declined to make anyone at the company available to discuss the creation, development and direction of “Fortnite.”

When “Fortnite” first released, Lupo said he was a bit hesitant to parachute in and leave his other games behind. He had some gripes with the gameplay but Epic just kept releasing new updates. Bugs were solved. Gripes were addressed. Epic continued to call the game a “beta” long after it first released. And alongside every update came a new weapon for players to fire off in the game.

“It used to be that you would see an update to a game every six months or maybe a year,” said Matthew Ball said, a former Amazon executive and the author of a book on efforts to construct a metaverse. “When ‘Fortnite’ came out, there weren’t very many other publishers that were making updates of significance every 90 days, but also minor changes three times per week.”

Ball said any notion that Epic’s success with “Fortnite” was a stroke of luck would be a mistake. “Fortnite” was not Epic’s “first or second big hit,” he noted. That honor belongs to “Unreal Tournament,” the seminal sci-fi first-person shooter Epic released two decades ago that helped make Epic the company it is today.

“Unreal’s” true legacy came from the game’s engine — a software framework that acts as the foundation and building blocks of a video game. It’s common practice for developers to license a game engine from another creator, and the Unreal Engine has been used to power hundreds of games today including “Mass Effect,” “BioShock,” “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” and of course, “Fortnite.” More recently, Unreal Engine has found a home in Hollywood, where it’s been used to create virtual sets for Disney’s “The Mandalorian” and HBO’s “Westworld.”

“Epic Games, they own ‘Fortnite’ but, really, their moneymaker is Unreal Engine,” Hassan, AKA SypherPK, said. “Their plan is to give people Unreal Engine tools to customize the ‘Fortnite’ experience and create new game modes.”

If people stop playing the battle royale “Fortnite” is based on, that’s fine, Hassan said. Epic Games wants to host user-generated islands and games that can live on “for years” past the original game. At the start of the year, Hassan announced he’s launching his own production studio in Austin to support content creators and potentially build maps or new game modes within “Fortnite.”

“If anything is going to be a separate universe that we hang out in, it would be ‘Fortnite,' ” said Kathleen Belsten, a 29-year-old Australian streamer known as “Loserfruit.” Belsten is one of a handful of streamers who have their own likeness in the game, which she describes as “cloning yourself in another universe.”

“ ‘Fortnite,’ as a game, over the years has slowly but surely transitioned into becoming a gaming platform. I think that genuinely is the future of ‘Fortnite,’ ” said Ali “Myth” Kabbani, a Twitch streamer with more than 7.4 million followers who first found an audience playing the game.

Kabbani and other streamers said Epic is attempting to turn “Fortnite” into a virtual sandbox. The game’s creative mode already lets players build, share or explore islands created by other players. Kabbani said that when Epic gives people more of the tools to really create entire games within “Fortnite’s” framework, it’ll be “a different ballgame” — less battle royale, more metaverse.

“We’re talking ‘Roblox.’ We’re talking ‘Minecraft’-level of creativity and community,” Kabbani said.

“Maybe we have already seen the peak of ‘Fortnite,’ " he said. “But I think we have yet to see the second peak of ‘Fortnite.’ ”