While H1Z1 Pro League started its inaugural season a few miles away at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, nearly 700,000 people were watching random players try to kill Fortnite star and popular Twitch streamer Tyler "Ninja" Blevins for money.
It was called Ninja Vegas '18, a fan event for the eponymous streamer hosted by the Esports Arena in the Luxor on Saturday. The premise was simple: Ninja would play with 80 other players. If a player killed Ninja, they would win $2,500. If a player won the match, they would win $2,500. And if Ninja managed to survive and win, $2,500 would be donated to Alzheimer's research.
On the surface, the event was a fun way for Ninja to meet and engage with his massive following while giving back to charity. But beneath that, you could see Fortnite's esports roots beginning to form with Ninja Vegas '18 as the potential watershed moment for the game's future professional scene—the next step in what has already become a cultural phenomenon.
Name a More Iconic Duo
Ninja and his wife, Jessica "JGhosty" Goch, for their part, were able to slot back into their former lives with ease—Ninja as a professional player and Jessica as host and interviewer.
Ninja, once eliminated, would go from competitor to streamer, bantering with commentators Ben "DrLupo" Lupo and Jack "CouRage" Dunlop while explaining his thought process, analyzing his play and providing critical commentary on the remaining competitors. Meanwhile, Goch hosted the event, interviewing the players that managed to kill her husband or the adoring fans that came out to meet him.
While the Fortnite power couple were able to effortlessly orchestrate the event with the help of veteran host Sue "Smix" Lee, another duo got their chance to shine, making Ninja Vegas '18 feel like more than just a fan event.
DrLupo and CouRage, already two of the most popular Fortnite streamers, set a high bar for casting Fortnite esports. With the duo's high-level understanding of the game and existing relationship with Ninja, they were able to translate the game's complexities to a more casual audience.
CouRage readily stepped into play-by-play shoes and naturally added hype to the huge moments throughout the game. DrLupo—as a Battle Royale veteran and frequent duo partner with Ninja—drew on both his knowledge of the genre and his friendship with Ninja to analytically break down the game and Ninja's mentality.
If Fortnite players weren't already aware of the game's building nuances, they were now as these players highlighted techniques like edit peeking. If viewers weren't aware of the importance of the high ground, they were now. If they didn't know why Ninja's favorite gun is the grenade launcher, they explained why.
Together, DrLupo and CouRage seemed like they had been casting together for years—a chemistry and flow that major esports duos before them have gone to great lengths to cultivate. The strategies and performance that competition breeds were explained and broken down with care and expertise. Because of that, Ninja Vegas '18 felt elevated.
Squads vs. Solos
Among the Battle Royale titles that have branched out into esports, squads has become the standard. Titles like PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and H1Z1 have defaulted to teams of four or five competing to be the last squad standing.
Many initially thought that the world of Fortnite esports would follow suit, as big names in the esports space like Team SoloMid and FaZe Clan began to recruit their own teams. Ninja Vegas '18, though, offered a potential new take on what Battle Royale esports could look like.
The production and format of the event was all fairly normal stuff in the esports space. Players huddled together in individual stations or split screens when people are in a close gun fight is hardly innovative in the scene. The difference, though, was when the same people—often unknown or smaller names—would show up again and again, killing Ninja or making it to the top 10.
Blind, who won $7,500 in the first heat, almost immediately garnered a cult following as the first person to kill Ninja. And as more relatively unknown names like Sneak E Beaver, Saint or 14-year-old 4DRStorm got their shot at challenging Ninja, a concept and format became clearer and realized.
Not only was it easy to quickly get familiarized with the same names that kept making it to the final circles, but the narratives around these individuals created themselves, resulting in a captivating and tense viewer experience.
Fortnite's esports potential seems like it can draw from the success of fighting games and esports titles like Street Fighter and Super Smash Bros. Melee, where outside of skill and talent, the personality of the individual competitors shines.
Add the game's already massive following—with multitudes of big Twitch streamers like Ali "Myth" Kabbani billed as the main threat to Ninja's chances of winning—and it seems like if solo Fortnite wasn't in Epic Games' or any other tournament organizer's plans, it certainly is in the discussion going forward.
A Winning Fortnite Formula
Ninja Vegas '18 worked as both an entertaining fan meet and a competitive showcase because Ninja was able to distill his entire gaming experience—everything he's ever known in his many years in the space—into one singular event.
He merged his professional past with his streaming present, and in doing so, Ninja gave us a glimpse at how this game can evolve.
And when you think about it, who else but the face of Fortnite would've shown us what the game's esports future could be?