In the New York tennis stadium where the U.S. Open is played every summer, Fortnite players — many not old enough for a driver’s licence — are competing for a $40 million prize pool in a first-of-its-kind tournament.

Like many professional sports, video game competition is dubbed the World Cup. Like many professional athletes, the competitors warm up, train and scrutinize their strengths and weaknesses for hours a day.

“I’ve been going over my film,” said Canadian contestant Hayden Krueger, 17. “Going over, like, what mistakes we’ve made, our good plays, making new strategies, applying those into our games.”

Krueger is better known in the gaming world and to his 20,000-plus Twitter followers as Elevate. He beat 40 million hopefuls to become one of 100 contestants in the lucrative three-day finals. The winner will take home $3.8 million, the same amount tennis champions Novak Djokovic and Simona Halep each scored at Wimbledon this month.

Practising eight to 12 hours a day, Calgary-born Krueger, who now lives in the U.S., says he stands to make about $150,000 US in earnings this year from tournaments alone. That doesn’t include sponsorship deals or streaming revenues. 

“So it kind of just all adds up and it makes a good job,” he told CBC’s Steven D’Souza in New York. 

Krueger, 17, says he practices eight to 12 hours a day as a professional video gamer. (Steven D’Souza/CBC)

The teenager has a rigid routine.

“I wake up every day and I immediately warm up and then play scrims [practice rounds] against other professionals until super late at night,” said Krueger. “Then I’ll watch a TV show and go to bed and repeat that every single day.”

The commitment — and its payoff — is enviable enough that players have fans turning up in droves to watch them perform. Competitors, who range in age between 13 and 24, are often stopped between rounds to sign autographs or pose for selfies.

The award-winning battle royale game, which has become a cultural phenomenon since it was released in 2017, involves 100 players being dropped onto an island to compete for survival. It’s free to play, but part of Fortnite’s internal currency allows participants to make upgrades and purchase add-ons for their avatars, such as “skins” (costumes) and “emotes” (signature dance moves).

Fans filled the stands at the Arthur Ashe stadium in New York and stopped competitors for autographs and selfies between rounds. ( Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Eyes on the prize

It’s left some parents torn between trying to indulge their child’s interests and wondering whether their kids are spending too much time and money on the product. Kim Jeffords, who made the eight-hour drive from from Niagara Falls, N.Y., for her son, Nick, to attend the event, said she’s spent at least $25 a week on game-related purchases for him.

“I really don’t want to add it up because it will probably scare me,” she laughed.

Nick, blond and sporting a Nike T-shirt and polarized Wayfarer sunglasses, said he plays the game “at least 12 hours a day.”

“I don’t take breaks,” he said with a smile.

Kim Jeffords says she spends at least $25 a week on Fortnite-related game purchases for her son Nick, left. (Steven D’Souza/CBC)

At 11, his skills qualified him for the week-to-week round robin action. He was just too young to enter the finals.

“It is easy to get lost [in the game] because you want to become the best,” said esports journalist Victoria Rose. There are a lot of games with that issue.”

Among them, she says, are Grand Theft Auto, Dota and Starcraft. Rose says serious players will often switch to home schooling or take classes online to leave more time for the game.

“It’s mostly these very well trained, very educated players who know how to play efficiently, who know how to balance their work life to become the top players,” she said. “Just being here is a $50,000 guarantee. It gives you eyes to have sponsorships, to have a future.”

While Fortnite is still enjoying widespread popularity and massive revenue, some data suggests the game might be experiencing a slight decline in interest compared to when it burst onto the video game scene two years ago.

Fortnite, which came onto the market in 2017, is a battle royale game that drops 100 players on an island to fight for survival. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

‘Astronomical’ prize money

The World Cup, launched for the first time this year, could be another way to keep the game top-of-mind. Epic Games, which created Fortnite, has pumped more than $100 million in prizes over the last season of tournaments which is “astronomical in terms of esports,” according to ESPN sports host, Arda Ocal.

“This [event] is a massive deal, if not only for the giant prize pool itself, but also the amount of viewers that this entire season in competitive esports has had,” said the Canadian-born broadcaster. “For Fortnite, this is a great way for people to continue to know and learn about their game but also get engaged and be motivated to play the game after watching it.”

The first World Cup is one way for Epic Games, the creator of Fortnite, to ensure fans stay interested in the game. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

But just because the payout is high, doesn’t mean the contenders show up in the lap of luxury — particularly the Canadians.

“The organizers took a big convoy from just outside of Toronto and Waterloo. They drove all the way down to New York City, the eight- or nine-hour drive,” said Ocal.

“The CEO of the organization was driving and he had all the sponsor materials and the T-shirts and everything in the car. Although this is a giant multimillion-dollar operation, it’s still hilarious to hear that these kind of road trips are happening.”

The solo finals will be held Sunday afternoon. Next month, the Dota 2 esports tournament will surpass Fortnite‘s prize pool, offering over $40 million — the largest pot for this kind of competition.

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