Epic Game’s new hit, Fortnite, has a whopping 125M players today, blowing out other games like LoL: League of Legends (100M players) or Overwatch (40M players) out of the water. How did this all happen in less than a year?
I unpacked further what’s the deal; tl;dr: its colossal success is attributed to four areas: 1. social nature of gameplay, 2. accessibility of the ecosystem, 3. timing to product market fit, 4. relatability with pop culture & influencers.
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Let’s start with an overview of basic Fortnite stats; it now has 125M total players (40M MAUs to be specific), with over 3.4M concurrent playing users at any time. Over the past year, they pulled in $1.2B in revenue, with a record $318M in May. This is overall more than a 100x jump since the previous year in August.
The game also hit the top spot by revenue on iOS, and has the highest conversion rate of any free-to-play PC game of all times. It’s a matter of time before it ventures into e-Sports and e-Leagues globally.
Now, let’s talk about how it got to where it’s at today..
Social Nature of Gameplay:
In previous years, the hottest gameplay styles are RTS (Real Time Strategy) like Starcraft, MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role-playing-game) like WoW: World of Warcraft, Hack & Slash like Dynasty Warriors, MOBA (multiplayer online battle arenas) like LoL: League of Legends, or FPS (first-person shooter) like CoD: Call of Duty.
But since 2017, the hottest genre is known as “Battle Royale”. Here’s how it works: you start off with 100 players, and you only have 1 death life (meaning, once you die, you’re out). It’s a free-for-all (for fans out there, this is called “Slayer” in Halo), and you try to kill all 99 opponents until the end.
You begin by getting dropped off in their large default playing arena (off a plane, to be exact), and parachute down to any location. Then, you try to hunt everyone down – the map is almost the physical size of San Francisco, so you can imagine the difficulty. Once in combat, you can perform actions like building walls from wood you chop down, in order to better stay concealed or defend, or orchestrate a tactical ambush or flank.
If you are the unfortunate one that got killed, the game partakes in a practice (not unique to itself) where users who die continue to spectate the rest of players attempt to kill each other off. Why this is ingenious is because it welcomes both old spectators (Twitch streamers) as well as new ones (dead players).
This builds a competitive, incentivizing climate, because there’s great pride involved when you’re the king of the hill. It is also self propagating; having others spectate teaches them how to play, both from actual gameplay as well as cultural etiquette (I talk more about this below).
Fortnite went viral in the same way that filters spread on Snapchat in the early days; when you saw your friends put one for the first time, you want to learn how to do it too. It also works better when actually playing with your friends, because again: you want that social cred and pride.
Many times, it’s impossible to completely win out a 100-person match, so teams often build truce until the end (though, with occasional sabotages). It’s also delightful to see your friends play; whereas other experiences (say single-player games, or even sites like Twitter) has 1% of power users generating some 60% of content (a guesstimate), it’s all about the camaraderie in Fortnite.
Overall: this is high quality, social virality generation!
Accessibility of the Ecosystem:
The game is currently free to play on almost every existing platform out there (which isn’t always the case for most games):
Fortnite is also entering China soon (along with its competitor PUBG), pumping into the global ecosystem even more (especially since the publisher will be Tencent, which has several games under its belt already). It plans to infuse $15M in capital into esports primarily in China and in the rest of the world.
Timing to Product Market Fit:
There is really only one main competitor in the Battle Royale space: PUBG. It was that game that helped bring the concept of Battle Royale to popularity, not Fortnite. But the timing of riding off of PUBG’s wave was impeccable.
The main differentiator that is obviously known is that PUBG currently costs $30, while Fortnite is completely free.. even though PUBG is making less. Some stats here show how that, amongst other characteristics, is affecting its growth:
On a more critical note, today a massive amount of users stream on Twitch; streaming audience now tops 665M people, with a 21% predicted CAGR from today to 2021. Here’s a compelling visual of the breakdown by % of Twitch viewers per Game, across the past year:
Fortnite is now the most streamed game on Twitch (capturing almost 50% of all viewers); currently, there are approximately ~15M viewers every month streaming active gameplays. They have collectively watched more than 5K years worth of Fortnite in the past two weeks alone (for perspective: PUBG, on the other hand has 2.5K years worth in same period).
Fortnite also has nearly 2.3x the number of concurrent viewers PUBG has, even though Fortnite’s active user count is just 1.5x greater. That means: Fortnite’s streamers to players ratio is really high, and is a good sign of a really healthy ecosystem where people who don’t play simply wants to watch.
Relatability of Pop Culture & Influencers:
Fortnite appeals well to the Gen Z population because the game is full of “fun”. For example, victory dances is a big deal (after you win, you mimic popular dances IRL, like “The Floss” or others):
Another example is that the game has many secrets, easter eggs and hidden corners that makes it difficult to locate, but rewards the finders with social credibility. There are many Reddit forums and blogs around this, with each new discovery driving media pick ups and conversions into published articles.
At that time, this one Drake v. Ninja live game topped a whopping 628K concurrent viewers alone in March. With his 100K Twitch subscribers and consistent record-breaking viewerships, he’s making past 6 figures monthly. He alone can build enough critical mass to boost Fortnite into the mainstream.
But he isn’t the only popular gamer on the platform, and influencers don’t only come in the form of traditionally male-dominated players; many influencers today are women (like my screenshot of FB live player above). The overall gender split of all Fortnite players is near ~50/50, which is not common (gaming has had a history of sexism shrouded by male domination). It could be that the game is so easily accessible to mobile (which, again every Gen Z kid has today), or that the game force-assigns a player to a gender type (50% chance you are female) and thereby creates a welcoming experience for women.
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The colossal rise of Fortnite wasn’t expected – it’s similar to what happened in the age of MOBA: Multi-Player Online Battle Arena (a type of gameplay where you have players on one of two sides, with 3 battle lanes and the objective of destroying the opponent’s territory). The MOBA game called LoL (League of Legends) overtook DotA (Defense of the Ancients – which was the first to invent this genre). Warcraft III, which owns DotA, wasn’t able to quickly capitalize on its quick rise because they were spread thin across many other gaming experiences (DotA is only one of hundreds of map skins in the game). This enabled LoL to swoop in for the kill and build a gaming empire for a while.
When Fortnite was launched in July 2015, it was met with horrible reviews and sales. But it was social, accessibility, timing and relatability that enabled it to rise fast. Nowadays, it’s hard to tell what can get viral. But one thing’s clear: gaming isn’t simply about best graphics or being on PC, XBox or Playstation anymore.. it’s about being good in everything.
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I'm a Product Manager on Mobile @ Dropbox. Previously was a PM at Uber and FiscalNote, & studied CS at Stanford. I was also a KP Product Fellow, and in the past sourced for Sequoia & General Catalyst. I used to write on Medium.
Ping me email@example.com, or follow me: @dcliem – let's chat.