A few days ago I popped into my Discord server to see something that one of my friends posted. It was a picture of the top games on Twitch and the caption? “OOF. league = dead”
Obviously, that’s a bold claim to make. The game that one day before this screenshot was taken had 300,000 viewers on a single stream, dead? Absurd. But it got me thinking. If, by the numbers, League of Legends is still the largest game in the world, then why does Fortnite consistently outperform during regular hours? Of course, who’s streaming at the time makes a big difference. When this screenshot was taken, Hearthstone’s Team 5 was streaming their final reveals for the upcoming expansion, accounting for over 100,000 viewers. And Ninja was streaming, as well. Ninja is head and shoulders above any other streamer on Twitch, single-handedly pulling more viewers than the entire game of League of Legends when there’s no major tournament going on. And he’s just a guy. He doesn’t have the production value of Overwatch League or the resources of Riot Games. So what’s putting him ahead of the game?
Tyler “Ninja” Blevins started his career playing Halo, but he’s hardly known for that nowadays. He got his start with Battle Royale-type games with H1Z1, the candle that burned the brightest. For reference, H1Z1 was one of the biggest early Battle Royale games, and despite its three-year period in early access and a smattering of bugs, the game kickstarted the Battle Royale genre that capitalized on the Hunger Games fantasy that FPS players so desperately wanted. Ninja jumped ship when H1Z1 lost popularity, joining PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds when that hit early access. After PUBG lost steam, Ninja spared no time switching to Fortnite, its spiritual successor. So what makes him special? He’s not the first Fortnite player, and he’s not even a storied legacy player like some League of Legends streamers. His strength comes from his adaptability. Ninja knew when his game was going stale, but he never switched genres. And why is that? Because he knows his audience. Battle Royale games are hectic, bloody, and most importantly, fast. League of Legends is the opposite: skilled players rarely die individually, and games can take upwards of an hour. Fortnite is an exceptional game for casual players. It’s fast, the learning curve is forgiving, and it’s free. League of Legends takes longer, is harsh on new or inexperienced players, and there’s less action overall. This means that League streamers have to rely more on their personality or flashy skills rather than the game itself. And even the popular ones can’t even come close to Ninja’s popularity. Imaqtpie, a veteran of the League of Legends scene and the largest streamer of the game, averages 20,000 over the course of the week. Ninja averages five times that much (as I write this, he just cracked 120,000 at 1:00 pm on a Tuesday). But, on the other side, you don’t hear about the big Fortnite invitational. Fortnite is the younger game by almost a decade, and while it doesn’t have the infrastructure that other massive developers and esports have, it’s been strangely silent for its popularity. Epic Games, Fortnite’s developer and distributor, doesn’t seem to be keen on launching its esports scene too quickly, even if esports brands like TSM are picking up full teams already. And this move, or rather lack thereof, by Epic shows yet another difference between Fortnite and League of Legends.
Consider football. Football is a traditional sport that is characterized by the bursts of action spaced between pauses and low-impact moments. League of Legends is football in this metaphor. Fortnite is like playing the guitar, in comparison. Listening to music or playing it is easy, fast, and rewarding. Watching one of your friends play is mesmerizing and enjoyable. But you don’t watch people compete over music unless you really like dueling banjos for some reason. On the other hand, people rarely play in a pickup game of football or go watch their friends play in the community rec league. It’s just not as enjoyable without the full experience: the commentators, the food, the cheering. And that’s why League of Legends and Fortnite have two completely different viewing experiences. One can be a successful casual experience without trying to match the other’s massive professional league style and vice versa. The guitar manufacturers of the world don’t need to host a massive Battle of the Bands competition, and the NFL is never going to change the game so that pee-wee flag football leagues are more enjoyable for the parents who watch them. League = dead? Probably not. But league = not as good for casual viewing as Fortnite? Wordy, but more accurate.