Drake recently rose to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 with his latest hit, “God’s Plan,” and its heartwarming music video in which the rapper gives out nearly $1 million (the budget for the video shoot) in the form of groceries, gifts and donations to lucky recipients across the Miami area.

But the Grammy-nominated artist has stayed in the news not only for his music, but for another endeavor that has captured the attention of celebrities, athletes and college students alike — “Fortnite Battle Royale, ” the video game that is sweeping the nation and only gaining more momentum.

“Fortnite,” as both a pop culture phenomenon and a revenue-generating stream, seemingly came out of nowhere in the past six months. But a closer read reveals “Fortnite” is just one of the many games that make up the booming eSports industry, a market that has been steadily growing and grasping more and more opportunities for mainstream sponsorship and advertising deals.

eSports are defined as any multiplayer video game played competitively, oftentimes for spectators both live in arenas and via the internet. These games are beginning to take the classic form of traditional sports — a series of competitions that accumulate points for the players, ending with a final tournament hosted in a national stadium or streamed live on TV. With viewership of professional sports like the NFL dwindling, it might be time to consider eSports a real threat to the status quo in American media.

On March 15, Drake, fellow rapper Travis Scott, NFL superstar JuJu Smith-Schuster and “Fortnite” guru Tyler “Ninja” Blevins came together to play a few hours of the popular game in what quickly became the most watched Twitch stream of all time, gaining over 600,000 simultaneous viewers at its peak. Twitch is a live viewing platform that was acquired by Amazon for close to $1 billion in 2014.

Blevins, who is slowly but surely becoming the Michael Jordan of “Fortnite”, claims he makes more than $500,000 per month from YouTube subscribers and Twitch streamers.

His expected annual salary, which would amount to about $6 million, is greater than those of NFL and MLB players. Though such success from a man who sits in his basement and wears pajamas may seem shocking, the eSports following is nothing new.

In 2017,  the global eSports industry was valued at $493 million, with some sources projecting market revenue to reach $1.65 billion by 2020. Originally a phenomenon originating in Asia and gaining the most viewership in China and South Korea, the industry is transitioning to the United States through games like “League of Legends” and “Fortnite.” 

What makes the eSports industry such a captivating market is its ability to take video games — ideally played on a couch with a bag of chips and soft drink — to an arena suited for basketball or hockey. In fact, the 2017 “League of Legends” World Championship was played in Beijing National Stadium, otherwise known as the Bird’s Nest, or the same place that held the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremonies. That same event in 2016 garnered 400 million viewers, whereas the 2018 Super Bowl saw only a little more than 100 million tune in. Other eSports statistics are even more shocking: 100 million “League of Legends” players per month, 600 sponsorship deals with companies like Red Bull and Coca Cola and 2.7 billion videos streamed last year in North America.

The facts don’t lie. eSports are tapping into global markets in ways traditional sports cannot, and it is finding innovative methods to grow its revenue and sponsorship streams around the world. The newest development is a proposal to build an eSports arena in a Las Vegas casino, a move that would completely transform the landscape of gaming culture in the United States.

It helps, too, that the NFL has faced controversies over player protests and concussions that have altered the landscape of the league and slashed viewership to a recent low.

These factors together have converged on the newest craze, “Fortnite,” and aided its rise to popularity. Though there is no way to tell whether or not it is just a phase, the status of “Fortnite” in pop culture is such that a wide array of stars have hopped onto the bandwagon — rapper Lil Yachty, NBA all-star Gordon Hayward and Boston Red Sox phenom Xander Bogaerts, to name a few in addition to the star-studded, “Ninja”-led squad mentioned before.

Unsurprisingly, the game has found a home across university campuses and high schools as well. It is practically everywhere — a walk through any college dorm will reveal a slew of students glued to their TVs, more concerned with finding a chest or rare gun than completing their homework. Recently, “Fortnite” had to launch an update on its mobile version in which the loading screen reminds the user to stop playing in class.

All of this is to reinforce the idea that eSports are much more than the traditional video game our parents think turn us into lifeless, computer-addicted zombies. Games like “Fortnite” are a revenue-generating, pop culture phenomenon that will soon be the next mainstay on ESPN or Fox Sports.

Until then, we can sit back, turn on the Xbox and play “Battle Royale” until our thumbs start to cramp. And if we’re lucky, maybe Drake will be online to play a round of Duos.

Ben Charlson can be reached at bencharl@umich.edu.

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