Last weekend, Fortnite Twitch-streaming phenom Tyler "Ninja" Blevins tested his mettle in competitive Fortnite for the first time. He did so in a tournament centered around him: Ninja Vegas 2018, a truly bizarre, unprecedented competitive event in which players could buy tickets for a chance at a $2,500 bounty on Ninja's head.
Over the course of nine matches, the face of Fortnite learned that he's far from untouchable. And he learned it while a record 667,000 concurrent Twitch viewers watched. Here's what I took away from the event overall.
Skilled streamers aren't always skilled competitive players
With Ninja center stage, the competition played more like a game show sold on the idea of watching a known pro execute under high pressure. Matches were limited to 75 players, any of whom could nab $2,500 for taking Ninja out (streamer mode prevented players from being able to actively seek him out), and another $2,500 for winning each match. If Ninja won, his bounty carried over into the next match stacking into a total possible $30,000. Clearly, we were gearing up to see the master at work.
Ninja ended the show with just a single win and two close calls in second place. It's no small feat in a pool of over 200 skilled players, but disappointing for anyone expecting a star performance from Twitch's current star. It's even more surprising considering Ninja's past. He may be the biggest streamer in the world, but he built that reputation off a lucrative competitive career in Halo and H1Z1, most recently playing PUBG at IEM Oakland.
So why didn't Ninja do better? Logically, streamers who win a lot at Fortnite are bound to win competitive Fortnite tournaments, right? Not quite. Watching any skilled Fortnite player stream a public match is a bit like watching those videos where a couple pro footballers compete against an army of children.
They're entertainers, and such a streamer's habits tend to form around tooling with newbies to get a thrill out of the viewers rather than cold, tactical concentration. Within the first few minutes of a given public match, Ninja typically steamrolls a few players and sucks up their resources for a packed arsenal: an assault rifle, shotgun, hunting rifle, a full shield, and some healing supplies. Bad luck and the sheer force of 99 other players can always lead to Ninja's ruin, but more often he's outbuilding players with confidence and ease and regularly racking up wins as a solo player in squad matches.
But in competitive play, paired against dozens of cautious players competing for cash, we saw Ninja desperate for a shotty at times, sometimes devoid of building supplies after an early building battle or two, already pinned between two or three or four incoming players with bottomless stacks and SCARS and blue pumps all around. Positioning, anticipating player movement, resource gathering, and luck are significantly more important than in the lackadaisical play of public matches.
The extra pressure on inventory forced more conservative play at the outset, at times seeing Ninja hunker down to watch the player count drop before making a move, stealthier play, and far less thoughtless aggression. Ninja even opted out of some encounters, something you just don't see in normal play.
As we've seen in major PUBG tournaments so far, competitors at Ninja Vegas spread themselves out, avoiding crowds at the usual hotspots like Tilted Towers. In public matches of Fortnite there are massive swaths of the map that barely get touched, so it was nice to see the entire island in use. With a sparse population density, the player count ticked down more slowly and produced tense, unpredictable play. It's a completely different game.
It's unlikely that Ninja would go pro when the inevitable Fortnite competitive league arrives, but not because of his skill. Pros-gone-performers like Shroud have made it clear that being a top streamer is by far more lucrative than becoming an esports champion. It's also probably easier on the ego. Another well known and talented Fortnite streamer TSM_Myth competed in the third heat, but didn't even get close to a win despite predicting a "minimum two" in a pre-game interview.
The best players are still out there
Built as an exhibition for Ninja's talent, Ninja Vegas 2018 actually managed to destroy the image of popular streamers as Fortnite demigods and the public perception of what competitive Fortnite looks like.
Winning two out of three matches in the first heat, mystery Fortnite savant Blind showed us what top tier play might look like in Fortnite's nascent competitive scene. In the very first match Blind managed to take out Ninja and win. It wasn't a fluke either, because Blind followed with another win.
I and the rest of the internet immediately scoured Twitter and Google to try and figure out who this guy was. The Verge managed to get in touch with Blind, who stated that while he's not ready to become a public persona quite yet, he came to the tournament hoping to get signed. With the last few months dedicated to private pro-level scrimmages arranged through Discord groups, Blind was well prepared for the event, and now he's already in talks with a few organizations about possible pro-level play.
For a no-name to show up to Ninja's dunk competition and take the first two victories out of a three-game heat is astounding. Ninja had nine matches to stack up two wins, and while he got close a few more times, Blind had the best win percentage of the night with only three games to get it. No doubt the final results would have been different if he could have stuck around. Keep an eye on Blind.
The incoming generation of esports teens will destroy us all
During one of Ninja Vegas 2018's most surprising moments, 4DRStormYT commanded a victory with the confidence and skill of an esports veteran, only for the the camera pan out and reveal a 14-year-old at the helm.
Dazed after an unexpected win to a record Twitch audience, 4DRStorm stumbled with his Q&A afterwards. I don't blame the kid. $2,500 in teen-bucks is a fortune. But should 4DRStorm's victory really be that much of a surprise? While he's too young to play professionally, Fortnite itself is the intersection of what kids his age were raised on: Minecraft, Call of Duty, and H1Z1. Unless mom and dad say no, we'll see him in a few years.
Fortnite will be far more watchable than PUBG
Granted, the event was streamed from Ninja's POV and limited to 75 players rather than the usual 100, but Fortnite action swells and shrinks in ways that are much easier to track than in PUBG. The first minutes in any battle royale game will be nearly impossible to follow, but keeping an eye on big names is an easy way to predict action, or to at least study high level play. Once the herd thins out and players gear up, conflict is almost always signposted by massive towers shooting into the sky.
Whereas in PUBG shootouts start and end in seconds, Fortnite's build battles can last for minutes and usually attract as many players as they eliminate. A small map with bright, contrasting colors pushes players into conflict faster and makes the action easier to eyeball. In tandem with Epic's new replay tools and good casters (former Destiny YouTuber and Ninja duos pal DrLupo did an excellent job for his first time at the table), Fortnite could be as watchable as battle royale gets. We didn't get to see the replay tools flex in a live environment while tracking dozens of players, but the potential is definitely there.