Fortnite wants to remain relevant, and part of that is tapping into the massive potential the game has in an esports setting. Weirdly enough, Fortnite has never really tried to capitalize on its ubiquitous presence at the top of Twitch's streamed games with a professional scene. Instead, developer Epic Games has remained content with personalities like Ninja carrying the brand without much outside assistance.
Obviously, that model has worked for Epic Games. Fortnite continues to remain one of the most popular games in the world, although it has begun ceding a significant share of viewers to Apex Legends. It's one of the only titles that can boast the ability to attract musical acts to perform in-game, and it has become so pervasive in popular culture that regular sports teams have had to address Fortnite's addictive nature.
Unfortunately, that model won't work in esports, which is where Fortnite is heading next. Epic Games announced the Fortnite World Cup 2019, a tournament series that would award $100 million in prizes over the course of a single calendar year. That's obviously a massive commitment, and it's yet another indication of strength after Epic previously launched its own digital distribution service late last year. Ahead of a $30 million tournament in June, though, Epic Games has remarkably little to show for a company attempting to establish itself as a serious presence in esports - professional players can't even practice for a life-changing tournament properly, and those familiar with the industry are beginning to notice:
Fortnite will have the largest esports prize pool in history with 30 million dollars on the line but players can't practice for it because there's no custom games. Absolutely ridiculous and yet again amateur hour for Epic Games.— Rod Breslau (@Slasher) March 5, 2019
Calling it "amateur hour" might be a bit harsh, but Breslau, someone who has been involved in esports since well before the debate on its spelling was settled, has a point. If players are supposed to take the game seriously - and if Fortnite is supposed to be a viable professional pursuit - then there has to be a change in how Epic Games addresses its competitive scene. As it stands now, the only custom servers players can participate in for practice require them to be a part of Epic's Winter Royale Discord, which sits at about 200 people and has issues with lag.
Beyond the dismal state of affairs for custom servers, that also means 200 players have an advantage over the rest of the field. Professional players have been reduced to needing to host large Discord servers that include other pros, with teams attempting to queue into one another to get the best practice they can. There is a massive difference between playing Fortnite in public matchmaking, where players tend to drop more quickly and the end-game lasts for much less time, and a professional game. The latter tends to feature more impressively navigated stalemates and some high-end play that can't be found elsewhere. Practicing that becomes nearly impossible without a better custom games option.
It's not like players are demanding something that Fortnite has never had, either. Fortnite briefly flirted with custom matchmaking for content creators before removing the feature later. With so much money at stake, it makes sense to support the developing professional scene with an easier practice system, rather than bogging it down with outdated, obtuse approaches like the ones in place now. Some players are keeping the faith, though:
Im believing in epic right now, I feel like we’ll have customs before the world cup (40ish days)— Kaysid (@TSMKaysid) March 5, 2019
Fortnite adds updates extremely quickly. There's no reason the pro scene should be without custom matchmaking, a feature that has existed in the past, even if only for a select few. Fortnite was able to riff off Apex Legends' ping system in just a few weeks of that game being available, so it doesn't seem like the company should have trouble implementing new, major features in a quick manner if it feels the need.
Even if Epic Games does what many in the community feels it should and bring back custom matchmaking as soon as possible, the real story is that Epic Games allowed this to happen at all. The developer, on the surface, appears to be diving into esports in a huge way. The fact that giving a burgeoning professional scene a platform to get good practice in escaped the studio, however, leaves many wondering what other details Epic Games might have missed ahead of events that will be under the scrutiny of the gaming world at large. With $1 million qualifiers set to run in a matter of weeks, it will be interesting to see how Epic Games reacts to the backlash instigated by some fair, honest criticism of a lopsided, repugnant practice setup that is dramatically affecting teams' ability to perform and practice for the biggest matches of their professional lives.