'It Took My Life Over': Inside NBA Players' Fortnite Addiction

Leo Sepkowitz@@LeoSepkowitzContributorMarch 20, 2018

B/R

"The funny part about it is I really suck," says Andre Drummond, a 2018 NBA All-Star. "I'm just not that good."        

The NBA's leading rebounder is phoning from a team hotel room, where he's posting up for the night, self-evaluating. When he calls, Detroit is a few games out of the playoffs, and he is coming off of a five-point game. But basketball is not the topic of conversation. If you've ever watched Drummond hoop, you know he doesn't suck.

However, if you've watched him play Fortnite—or if you've competed against him online—you might acknowledge his room for growth.

He rarely tallies any kills. For now, he says he is focused on staying within himself—and on not dying in the opening moments of the game.

To be fair, he's relatively inexperienced. About a month ago, teammate Reggie Jackson, who had been logging heavy hours on the video game, introduced it to his pick-and-roll partner.

"It took my life over from there," says Drummond, who notes he is playing the game as we speak.

He's far from the only NBA player so entranced. In Detroit, Stanley Johnson and Eric Moreland are hooked, too. In Minnesota, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins game until dawn. In Oklahoma City, Paul George is known to play with strangers (link contains NSFW language), and Steven Adams lets people know about his wins. In Orlando, Terrence Ross leads a team of young devotees. In Los Angeles, Josh Hart hosts multiplayer gaming marathons and recently rocked a pair of custom Fortnite kicks.

All of this has come about recently.

Epic Games released Fortnite in July on PlayStation, Xbox, PC and Mac. The developer announced it soon will be playable on cellphones and tablets, too. In February, it cleared 40 million users. The game briefly crashed over Super Bowl weekend as 3.4 million people played simultaneously. People across the world have spent more than 5,000 years watching Fortnite streams on a video game streaming service called Twitch over the past two weeks alone. Even Drake can't resist (NSFW language).

There are two modes from which players can choose: the Fortnite base game, which consumers pay for, and Fortnite Battle Royale, which can be used freely. NBA players seem to be drawn to the latter.

Ross, the 2013 Slam Dunk Contest champion, breaks it down.

"Basically, it's like the Hunger Games," he says. "One hundred people on a map, survival game—find your supplies, weapons, materials. And basically after that, it's every man for himself." (Or every team for itself—you can play in a duo or a quad.)

Among Drummond, Ross and Hart, the Lakers rookie is the most experienced player. He picked up Fortnite on a friend's recommendation back in the fall. He didn't enjoy it at first, but much has changed since then.

Hart, calling while stuck in L.A. traffic, says he's already logged a good 90 minutes on Fortnite that day. He's on his way to the Staples Center, but he'll plug back in later that night.

He can lose track of time while playing, going deep into the night with his headset strapped on, determined to win one before retiring to bed. One such session spanned until at least 4 a.m., with a 1 p.m. tip scheduled for the next day. (He proceeded to double-double.)

In February, Hart broke his left hand, forcing him off the court—and off of the sticks temporarily, too.

"At first, it was a couple days when I couldn't play [Fortnite] because I had a plaster cast/splint thing on," Hart says. "I couldn't use my hand, really. I was trying to jam the controller and bend the plaster a little bit, but it didn't work for me. Now it's fully healed, so I don't have a brace. Now I'm good."

When the Cavaliers were in town the prior weekend, Hart had a chance to reunite with his old buddy, Larry Nance Jr., who the Lakers traded to Cleveland at the deadline.

"Saturday, he was over for probably 12 hours," Hart recalls. "Me, him and two other friends had four TVs in my living room, four different Xboxes, all playing as one squad."

Indeed, Fortnite has helped Nance and Hart stay close despite the trade. Some evenings, when Nance finishes his (basketball) game and Hart has some free time, they'll link up online like the good old days. Hart admits Nance is probably the better player, but with Nance out of the picture, he holds the Lakers' Fortnite crown.

Across the country, Orlando is Ross' turf. Sure, Mario Hezonja is solid; Jonathan Isaac is quick with his scoping; Aaron Gordon is coming on. But Ross sees himself as the Magic's premier Fortnite player.

"It's all about awareness, knowing where stuff's at," he says. "It's so funny because people think you take it too seriously, but it's actually a little more military than people think. Someone's coming south, west, here, there—you have to outthink all 99 people."

For a long time, Ross was a loyal Call of Duty player. But months ago, fans who knew his online gamertag began peppering him with requests to play Fortnite. What the hell is Fortnite? Eventually, he caved and downloaded the game. A cousin then showed him the ropes.

Now, "Fortnite is ruining my whole PlayStation experience," he says.

He only wants to play one game, and he plays it every day at least for a few hours. As we speak in the early afternoon, he acknowledges he's already logged on earlier in the day. What's worse (or better): He's ponied up what we will call a three-figure dollar amount to unlock some of the game's added perks—otherwise reserved for only the most devout players—such as a Keanu Reeves-based John Wick character.

In Ross' defense, he's been unusually idle since suffering a knee injury in late November. Fortnite has been a friend to him during the rehab process (much to the bewilderment of his girlfriend).

Still, active players crush Fortnite on off days (to unwind), on game days (if only for an hour or so), after a good game (to celebrate) or after a bad game (to clear the mind). It is perhaps most valuable on the road, when teammates bunk up with nothing to do. Arriving at the team hotel means immediately hooking up their gaming systems.

Ross likes to bring his PlayStation 4 in a backpack on those trips. Hart owns a briefcase specifically designed to safely transport his console and a 19-inch TV, so he can play just about anywhere.

Drummond prefers to travel unfettered. When the Pistons leave town, rookie Luke Kennard transports Drummond's PlayStation, plus two controllers. It is a true gamer's idea of hazing, although once the system is unpacked, Drummond transforms into the raw prospect.

"I'm just a supply-grabber for my team," Drummond says. "I gave myself that role. I just go around collecting supplies and giving it to the guys." The most kills Drummond has tallied in a game is three, which is the norm for Hart. Ross says he reliably notches six or seven.

Someday, Drummond would like to step into a leading role. At that point, perhaps he'll reveal his true identity when playing, or maybe he'll tweet out his gamertag. His dream is to incorporate Fortnite into his YouTube channel. But first, he needs a little more seasoning.

"I don't want anybody to know that I suck yet," he says.

Ross, on the other hand, is unafraid. In fact, he invites challengers to find him online at tross971—with a caveat.

"Only good people," he says. "I'll open it up for a little bit, but if they start asking too many basketball questions, it's a wrap. Fortnite only."

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