Fortnite, the interactive game where player avatars fight to the death, is the undisputed game of the summer. Wall Street Journal reporter, Sarah Needleman, speaks with NPR’s Audie Cornish about her investigation into coaches being hired to help level-up players.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Parents have always shelled out cash to pay for their kids to be better at the things they enjoy – piano, soccer, baseball, dance, karate. And now we can add to that list Fortnite. The Wall Street Journal reports a growing trend of parents hiring gaming coaches to hone their kids’ skills at Fortnite, an online game that has drawn 125 million players worldwide. The game is free, but coaches typically charge between $10 and $25 an hour depending on their level of expertise. Joining us to discuss the how and why of this is Sarah Needleman. She’s a tech reporter with The Wall Street Journal who’s written about the phenomenon. Welcome to the program, Sarah.
SARAH NEEDLEMAN: Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: So first tell us a little bit about Fortnite. What’s the overall objective of this game, which is basically a shoot’em-up?
NEEDLEMAN: Fortnite is a bit of a combination between Minecraft and Call of Duty. You’re building things, and you’re shooting enemies. And the mode that most children are playing is called Battle Royale because it’s free. And in it, about a hundred players are dropped onto a map. And they fight each other until there’s only one player or one team left standing.
CORNISH: Here’s the thing. You wrote that for many children, Fortnite has become a social proving ground and that there’s a lot of pressure to be good, right?
NEEDLEMAN: Correct. With this game, you want to be that last person standing. And so what a lot of children do is they brag about it – how many times they’ve gotten to that point. So they say, I’ve won this many times or that many times. It’s really exciting for them to be able to brag and share that number.
CORNISH: So is this when the parent decides, OK, I’m going to get you a coach? (Laughter) Like, how does this conversation happen?
NEEDLEMAN: Well, in some cases, parents said that the kids were complaining that they weren’t getting any wins. And they felt left out on the playground because all their friends were boasting, and they weren’t able to do the same.
CORNISH: With that comes some pressure, and parents are succumbing to the idea of paying for lessons. Do you have any idea, the scale of this? How popular is it to find these coaches?
NEEDLEMAN: It’s hard to get a good number on it, but Bidvine has told me that they’ve contracted out more than 1,400 Fortnite coaches since March.
CORNISH: Did you just say 1,400?
CORNISH: OK, go on (laughter).
NEEDLEMAN: And I asked them how many coaches they’ve contracted out for other games, and the numbers were not as high. And some of those games they’ve had coaches for much longer. I mean, bear in mind Fortnite has only been around for about a year.
CORNISH: Right. But just like other games, there are tournaments and, you know, even colleges – right? – that are willing to pay scholarships for Fortnite players. Is that factoring into all of this?
NEEDLEMAN: Well, Epic Games, the company that makes Fortnite, did announce recently that they’re giving out a hundred million dollars in tournament prize money over the next year. So they’re going to be arranging a bunch of competitions, and I believe a couple of them already kicked off. And then there have been some schools that have offered to – have offered scholarships for Fortnite, but those are very far and few between. There are plenty of other scholarships out there for other games that have been on the competitive circuit for a lot longer such as League of Legends or Counter-Strike: GO, for example.
CORNISH: Now, I know there’s some handwringing about the state of the world when people talk about videogames, but is this all that different from, you know, dad and son playing catch? Like, why are parents…
CORNISH: …Willing to jump on this?
NEEDLEMAN: I think that people are a little surprised by it because, you know, videogames do sometimes have a negative reputation as being a real time-suck. And they are very, very immersive. And they can last indefinitely, so it’s not like, you know, watching a movie that has a beginning and an end. You could be at it for quite some time. So I think people are a little bit surprised by it. But just like anything else, the parents told me that they bought their kids swim lessons, parkour lessons. They go to the gym. They play on different teams. This is just one of many activities that their children do.