MLB All-Star week is a lot of things. It's an annual celebration of the game's best players at the season's halfway point. It's a celebration of a sport during the dog days of summer. It's the excitement of the Home Run Derby. It's moments like Alex Rodriguez ceding shortstop to Cal Ripken Jr. during the latter's final Midsummer Classic. It's seeing Manny Machado bid a final farewell to Orioles fans down the highway from Camden Yards.
But this year, for many of the game's best players, it's something different. The chance to swap usernames and challenge each other for supremacy in the vast, wide world of the Fortnite video game.
Before the media session with the All-Stars on Tuesday, Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman challenged Yankees slugger Aaron Judge to a game of Fortnite at some point in the future. The challenge, of course, was accepted.
"It's crazy because we used to go out and chase after girls, but now we'd rather play Fortnite," Bregman said. "We finally have our priorities straight."
Fortnite, an open-world, co-op survival game, akin to a cartoon version of the The Hunger Games, has become the dominant small-talk topic among baseball players, both in the majors and minors, this season.
In a profession conducive to downtime—on the airplane, in the hotel room, before and after games, pregame before batting practice—players around the country are sitting down in front of their TVs and plugging in. Whereas in previous seasons, games like FIFA, Madden, Call of Duty and The Show often permeated clubhouses, the focus has shifted completely to one video game in 2018.
The Milwaukee Brewers, at the beginning of the season, hooked up a console to the Miller Park Jumbotron to truly get a large-screen experience.
"It's taken over. I used to dabble in a bunch of different games, but now it's the hot commodity," Judge said. "People are playing Fortnite in the clubhouse, playing it at home, texting and calling each other if we're going to get online tonight. It's pretty crazy how it's transformed the gaming world."
The scene after games on the road looks similar across many teams. Players pack the console of their choice, pile into one hotel room and compete with each other and online in solo, duo or team mode. Some minor league players estimate that 90 percent of their teammates play the video game, while the other 10 percent get in on the fun by watching.
"I've gotten into it by watching my teammates play," said Reds top pitching prospect Hunter Greene. "I'm not a big video game guy, but I love watching it. I love seeing people get into it and then rage when they lose."
The numbers appear to be a little different at the major league level.
"I don't play video games," said Astros second baseman Jose Altuve.
But the impact is seen across the sport. Many players have adopted the game's signature dances as celebrations for accomplishments on the field. Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts broke out the "Take the L" dance on second base after hitting a double, while the Astros outfield has awesomely come together to pull out the "Jubilation" emote at the end of a win. Red Sox pitcher David Price came under fire when the Boston media questioned if the lefty's carpal tunnel syndrome arose from excessive Fortnite gaming.
For many of the younger players on the road in the minors, the game has served a different purpose: connector of friends on different teams and an activity to do on the road in small minor league towns across America. In the morning, Colorado Rockies top prospect Brendan Rodgers tends to gravitate toward solo mode, while he chooses to join more group games with teammates after games in the evening.
"It calms me down when I play a little bit," Rodgers said. "I always played Call of Duty, but when I tried Fortnite, I was really bad at first. You really don't know what you're doing."
While Blue Jays prospect Bo Bichette certainly uses the game to connect with teammates, he also bought a PlayStation for his dad, former major leaguer Dante Bichette, in order to chat with him about non-baseball stuff during the season. Since Christmas, the elder Bichette has become addicted to the video game, requiring his wife to set boundaries and rules for when he can actually turn on the PlayStation.
"During the season, most of our conversations are about baseball and sometimes it's nice to get away from that," Bo said. "It was funny, because for about a month, he told us he was going to play by himself to get good and then said he'd call us when he was ready. About a month later, he did and then he saved us three times in Squad mode. I had no idea what was going on."
The wins in the video game often come less frequently than those on the field. When Rodgers is asked about the last time he won a match, his face lights up and he smiles wide, recalling a game when he was the last member standing of a four-man squad and single-handedly won, finishing the game with 15 kills.
"So, do you cherish the Fortnite wins more than the baseball wins?" I ask jokingly.
"Sometimes," Rodgers says with a laugh. It depends on the situation. We win way more baseball games than we win Fortnite games. Winning never gets old."