Whether you’re a fan of Fortnite or not, you must have heard about it through various mediums. You have kids doing Fortnite dances at school, famous rappers collaborating with Twitch streamers, and cross-promotion programs for movie franchises. That is how a free to play battle royale game became a cultural phenomenon almost overnight. Things really took off when the famous rapper “Drake” did a Fortnite stream with “Ninja”, a Twitch streamer and former Halo 3 professional. As a gamer these days, you just can’t spend a single solitary hour online without having Fortnite shoved into your face. Browsing Twitch.tv? Well, the front page is probably covered with one of two things- Fortnite or IRL streams. Trying to watch some gaming content on Youtube? Their gaming section is filled with recommendations of videos from popular Fortnite YouTubers.
This sheer online presence makes you ask, is Fortnite the most popular game of all time? The answer to that is slightly complicated. First, we need to establish what “popular” really means. Are we talking about most units sold? Active player numbers? Total revenue generated? Or a mix of all these things? To put it simply, Fortnite isn’t the most played game of all time and it certainly doesn’t top the charts in terms of revenue generated. But it posted growth rates previously unheard of and is a big influence on pop culture right now. It is the biggest battle royale game in terms of the overall revenue generated and made $2.4 billion just in 2018. That is an insane amount of earnings for a free to play the game, and it beats many of the best AAA single-player franchises that charge $60 per game.
What made Fortnite so popular? Which games have higher active player counts than Fortnite? And exactly how does it make so much money despite being free to play? Our goal is to answer all these questions, based on data from reputable research firms and video game journalism sites. As we explained earlier, the question itself is abstract in nature and we need to establish the premise of “popular” before making any broad statements or arriving at conclusions. First, we shall approach this from the standpoint of active players. Then we will look into the revenue generated by Fortnite and compare it with other games in the Battle Royale genre, taking into account all platforms-, PC, console, and mobile. Finally, we shall evaluate the cultural significance of Fortnite, and how it still manages to stay relevant despite massive competition from other games in the same genre. So gear up and get ready for the drop, because we are going to determine once and for all if Fortnite is truly the king of games or just another fad that will wear out over time.
The Rise of Fortnite (And the fall of PUBG)
While the concept of Battle Royale itself isn’t anything groundbreaking, Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) is the original superhit game that made this genre mainstream. Just like DOOM came out in the ’90s, and every subsequent FPS after that for the next few years was called a “DOOM clone”, every survival-based coop shooter with a massive map and dozens of players was being called a PUBG clone for several months after the success of Brendan Greene’s creation. Battlegrounds were initially launched for Windows through the Steam game store, via an early access beta program in March 2017.
PUBG was an instant hit with famous Twitch streamers such as “Shroud” and “Dr. Disrespect” who spent hundreds of hours streaming the game to several thousand concurrent viewers. There were rumors that the studio designing this game, Bluehole, was involved in partnerships with streamers and was paying them loads of money to stream the game on a daily basis. Nevertheless, these rumors are hard to confirm, and the game was pretty unique for the time. You were dropped onto a gigantic piece of land with varying terrain, which supported both long-range and close-quarters combat scenarios. Weapons, ammo, medical kits, body armor, etc. would be distributed randomly across the map. There were a variety of weapons to choose from- fully automatic assault rifles, DMRs, shotguns, pistols, sniper rifles, grenades, etc. And you could customize the guns by swapping out sights, grips, stocks, etc.
While other FPS games had done this stuff before, none of them had the sheer expanse and tactical versatility of PUBG. It was truly a genre-defining game. And within months it quickly rose to the top of the steam charts with millions of concurrent players. But then the flaws in the game started to show up, one by one. Lagging servers, poorly optimized netcode, graphics that appeared dated, and for some reason, it seemed you required a NASA supercomputer to run the game even though it didn’t look all that special. Which is funny, considering the fact that it was designed on Unreal Engine 4. Ironically enough, this is a game engine developed and sold by EPIC games- the creator of what would eventually become the PUBG killer, Fortnite.
In the midst of gamer outrage regarding bad optimization, bugs, hackers, etc. Bluehole studios announced PUBG as a timed exclusive for the Xbox One in E3 2017. Now if you thought Fallout 76 is a terribly designed game, you should see PUBG for the Xbox One when it was first released as a preview. Filled with choppy graphics, textures that wouldn’t load, and countless bugs, the game was a nightmare as it barely managed to hit 30fps even on the mighty Xbox One X.
Unfortunately for PUBG, Fortnite had already released its free to play Battle Royale mode to much critical acclaim in September 2017, right as the cracks in PUBG’s armor were beginning to show. Unlike PUBG, Fortnite wasn’t geared towards a niche audience who wanted a super realistic, hardcore survival shooter. Instead, it combined the cartoonish art style of Team Fortress 2 with the fast-paced gameplay of Call of Duty. The result was a surprisingly awesome product, which immediately caught the attention of streamers and gamers worldwide. It started out with just 1 million players in August 2017, and within 5 months in January 2018, the player count had skyrocketed to 45 million. It hit the 100 million mark by June and closed in on 200 million by November 2018 (these numbers take all platforms into account). This meteoric rise in popularity can be attributed to two main factors- accessibility and fun gameplay.
While PUBG wanted to be realistic and gritty, Fortnite was targeting a much younger audience. This is evident from the cartoonish character designs, lack of violence and gore, and relatively simple weapon mechanics. But simple doesn’t mean bad, because Fortnite is one of those games which is super easy to get started with and enjoy if you’re a casual, but it can also be insanely competitive at the higher levels of skill. The skill ceiling for this game is increased by a unique mechanic- building. You can construct, towers, platforms, barriers, etc. to traverse across elevated terrain, buildings, and you can even construct shields around yourself mid firefight which offers tons of opportunities for outplaying enemies.
And on top of all this, the game was actually well optimized. Unlike PUBG which ran terribly even on a GTX 1070 and i7 7700k, Fortnite would perform well even on slightly older gaming PCs. And they lured players in with colorful emotes, dances, and skins which ensured you would keep coming back for the next season of Fortnite. This is a great way to increase player retention, and EPIC games kept pumping out new content on a regular basis to keep the game fresh and entertaining.
Fortnite Player Counts Compared to Other Large Online Games
According to a February 2019 article by pcgamesn.com, the player counts for Fortnite was revealed by EPIC games CEO Tim Sweeney in an interview with Engadget. He claimed that the Battle Royale market leader had set new records for both total and concurrent player counts- pushing the total number of people playing Fortnite up to 250 million. This is an increase of 50 million compared to the November 2018 figures released by market research firm Statista. The concurrent player count had gone up as well, from 8.3 million in November 2018 to 10.8 million in February 2019. That is an increase of 25 percent in total players, and a massive 30 percent increase in the number of active players. This indicates that Fortnite isn’t just attracting new players but is also doing a good job of retaining them.
While these numbers are an aggregate of player counts across all platforms- console, PC, and mobile, EPIC claims that 85 million are from the EPIC launcher for PC. These massive player counts aren’t just for show, because Fortnite supports crossplay. This means that gamers on Android, iOS, Xbox One, PS4, and PC can all play with each other (with some exceptions, of course). Learn more about Fortnite cross-platform play through this Polygon article. But right now, what we want to see is how Fortnite’s player numbers stack up against some other highly popular online games.
Surprisingly enough, while PUBG is relatively dead on PC the same cannot be said for its mobile port which is available on both Google Play (Android) and the App Store (iOS). According to a June 2018 article from Polygon, the total player count for PUBG has risen to 400 million. This is an astonishing figure, especially when you consider the fact that some surveys claim there are a total of 2.5 billion gamers on the planet. That would mean 16 percent of all gamers worldwide have played PUBG at least once. Of course, the figure is a combination of total player counts from PC, mobile, and console.
Out of those 400 million players, 50 million are through sales on PC and Xbox One. So we can assume at least 350 million PUBG mobile players as of now in June 2019, although the number is likely higher. PUBG Corp. claims that their game receives 87 million daily players and 227 million monthly players. We can assume the majority of those are from mobile, particularly from the China region where they are huge fans of mobile gaming and spend tons of money on skins. If you go on steam charts, it is evident that the PC population for PUBG crashed heavily around January 2018 and it currently lags behind Dota 2 most of the time in terms of concurrent player counts on PC. So most of those 87 million daily players are Chinese, and a lot of them are rumored to be bots. Either way, PUBG has a higher number of total players than Fortnite (thanks to PUBG mobile), despite not being nearly as relevant in the esports or pop culture scene.
What about League of Legends? This is one of the most played MOBAs on PC, and almost every single mobile MOBA such as Vainglory or Arena of Valor is a copy of Riot’s original creation for the PC. Back in September of 2016, Riot Games released official estimates on the total player count for League of Legends, and it stood tall at over 100 million. The number of monthly players was estimated at 67 million, which makes League the most popular MOBA on PC by a large margin. For comparison, the 2nd most popular MOBA- DOTA 2, registered a peak concurrent player count of 1.29 million and their monthly unique player count for May 2019 was 11.7 million. After 2016, Riot has not published official player count data. Many on the League subreddit and other online forums suspect this is because Riot doesn’t want to give the impression that League is losing players, owing to the Battle Royale craze. Has League gained players between 2016 and 2019? Some League of Legends analysists estimates the number to be at 120 million right now (total player count). Remember that even if the player count is at its old value of 100 million from 2016, it still beats the PC player base of Fortnite which is 85 million (based on numbers released in Feb 2019 by EPIC). Unlike Fortnite, League doesn’t have a console or mobile version. So for now, we can safely say that it is still the king of online multiplayer games on PC. If we look at Twitch viewership data from Statista, League consistently places in the top 3.
So there are at least two games which beat Fortnite in terms of player counts, League does it on the PC and PUBG mobile does it on… the mobile phone. And if we look at the number of monthly active players, Minecraft beats Fortnite with 91 million vs 78.3 million. On March 12, 2019, Microsoft stated that Minecraft draws upwards of 91 million players each month. And based on EPIC’s fall skirmish post from September 2018, Fortnite has 78.3 million active monthly users.
Is Fortnite The Most Profitable Video Game Ever?
Hardly, if we take a look at total revenue. But there is more to it than just gross revenue over a period of years, we also need to take into consideration game development and marketing costs in order to calculate profitability. While Fortnite may not have the insanely high development budget of some AAA games released these days, it certainly spends a ton of money on marketing and cross-promotional material as they did with the Avengers Infinity Gauntlet event, collaborating with Marvel Studios. They even hosted a Marshmello live concert event in-game, which had 10.7 million players tuning in to enjoy the virtual show by DJ Marshmello.
Anyways, back to the topic of profitability. Fortnite set a new record for “the most annual revenue of any game in history” by making 2.4 billion dollars in the year of 2018. This is according to game analytics firm SuperData. Within its first 10 months after release in September 2017, Fortnite had already made 1.2 billion dollars in revenue. Just in April 2018, this “free to play” game made 300 million dollars! If we take a look at the list of top-earning free to play games in 2018, 2nd place is taken by Dungeon Fighter Online with 1.5 billion dollars, and 3rd place is occupied by League of Legends with 1.4 billion dollars in revenue.
The top-earning premium game of 2018 was PUBG with 1.028 billion dollars, followed by EA’s FIFA which made 790 million. It is truly impressive that free to play games are outperforming these paid or “premium” games when it comes to yearly revenue. But Fortnite is just one game and has barely been around for 2 years. Still, if we are talking about total money made in the history of gaming, Fortnite doesn’t even come close to franchises such as Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Pokémon, Mario, etc. which have been around for decades by now and have amassed tens of billions in revenue.
According to Wikipedia, the Call of Duty franchise is estimated to have generated 17 billion dollars in revenue as of 2018. This isn’t factoring in Call of Duty Blackout, and who knows what will happen when the new Modern Warfare comes out later this year (the trailer looks super good). Our favorite Italian plumber Mario has been making tons of cash for Nintendo- 30.25 billion dollars. That’s a whole lot of gold coins! Pac Man, Space Invaders, Final Fantasy, Street Fighter, Warcraft- each one of these franchises have generated upwards of 10 billion in revenue since their time of release, spanning across a series of games.
But you must remember Fortnite: Battle Royale was released in September 2017 and is free to play. It holds the record for most yearly revenue by any video game in history with 2.4 billion dollars, and if it were to maintain these figures for another decade it could easily become the most profitable video game of all time. Only time will tell, and you can see other large AAA developers are rushing to copy Fortnite’s success. Everybody wants to release a “games as a service” title, which is free to play and is monetized with in-game microtransactions.
The Cultural Presence Of Fortnite
When Drake partnered up with Ninja to stream Fortnite, it gave birth to a new pop culture phenomenon. Kids and teens who were previously unaware of this game saw their favorite rapper playing it, and their easily impressionable minds meant a massive influx of new players. EPIC games took advantage of the popularity and incorporated many classic dance moves like flossing and the Carlton dance (from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air). Things got so intense that the creators of many of these dance moves sued EPIC games, claiming that their moves were copied and put in the game without any permission.
Nowadays you see athletes doing Fortnite dances for post scoring celebrations and the 2018 Youtube rewind was more of a cringy Fortnite commercial than an actual rewind (why did you do it, Will Smith). Nerf is making Fortnite themed blasters, and Nike has partnered with Fortnite to create in-game Air Jordan outfits. Things have gotten so serious that Prince Harry himself wants Fortnite to be banned because he is afraid it might induce addictive behavioral traits in children. First, we had the Catholic Church making its own version of Pokémon Go, and now we’ve now got the Prince of England wanting to ban Fortnite. Seems like gamers just can’t catch a break.
If we had a nation with a population equal to Fortnite’s player count, it would be the fifth most populous country in the world, underneath Indonesia and above Brazil. Fortnite has already beaten the top-grossing movies of 2018 such as Spiderman Homecoming, Jumanji, Wonder Woman, etc. and it pulled in more than twice what Solo: A Star Wars Story did in the box office. And now EPIC is going to host the Fortnite World Cup in New York with a $30 million dollar prize pool up for grabs, it seems like they are trying to overthrow Dota 2 which is the current leader when it comes to esports prize pools.
Big pop stars such as Ariana Grande have had promotions within the game, and movies like Suicide Squad were doing collaborations with EPIC within Fortnite through unique cosmetic skins. Every gamer is familiar with the John Wick skin in Fortnite by now, and they even teamed up with NFL last year for the Super Bowl. We even had a Marvel cross-promotion where you collected power stones in order to transform into Thanos within the game. When you aren’t watching Fortnite ads on Youtube, you’re listening to news channels talk about how Fortnite is causing video game addiction among kids. It is safe to say that Fortnite has been the most culturally influential video game in recent times, and it is literally everywhere.
Fortnite changed the way people look at video games, for the better or worse. While some consider it a kiddie game that cannot be taken seriously in a competitive sense, others see it as a way to market their products to a young, impressionable audience. All these cross-promotions with movies, pop stars, etc. have transformed Fortnite from just a game to one gigantic advertisement platform. The big AAA devs like EA and Activision are rushing to copy Fortnite’s model, by releasing their own Battle Royale games (Call of Duty Blackout and Battle V Firestorm). It made 2.4 billion dollars within 2018 alone and has amassed a massive player base across all platforms. And it is leading the path when it comes to crossplay, forcing even Sony to enable crossplay for Fortnite on the PS4. Fortnite is the only battle royale that is completely free, playable across all platforms- Android, iOS, Windows PC, Xbox, Nintendo Switch, and PS4. Is it the most popular game of all time? We don’t think so. But in terms of cultural influence, no other video game even comes close. So in that sense, you can say that Fortnite is the most influential game of the current generation.