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School. Football. Fortnite. One video game has infiltrated Washington State’s locker room … and isn’t going away anytime soon

December 23, 2018

PULLMAN – These days, it’s hard to spend 30 minutes in any quadrant of Washington State’s locker room without hearing the F- word slip out at least once or twice.

No, not that F-word.

Not football, either.

Fortnite.

Next to their books and playbooks, nothing else has infiltrated the lives of these Pac-12 football players, and football players elsewhere – just about every football player, it seems – like the cooperative video game that gained notoriety when it was introduced in 2017, and has since registered more than 200 million users worldwide.

“It’s school, football, Fortnite,” WSU safety Jalen Thompson insisted.

Just to give you an idea of the mania: Hunter Dale, a starting nickel by day and Fortnite whiz by night, admits to ignoring text messages – no, text messages from girls – on multiple occasions to complete a mission.

“Yeah,” Dale said, shrugging. “No doubt.”

And he probably isn’t the only one.

Five on the WSU football team all estimate that 50 percent of the roster, if not more, has been infected by the Fortnite craze. The other 50 percent is comprised of players who either haven’t been persuaded by a teammate to take it out for a spin, or have played and retired, realizing it was getting in the way of life’s other priorities.

The reason the game has become so hot, so quickly? Mainly because picking up the controller is much easier than putting it down. Some WSU players have spent up to 12 hours a day staring at their screen, steering a personalized character through the virtual world that is Fortnite.

Over the summer, with a much lighter workload, Dale stuck to a consistent routine: from 8-9 a.m., football conditioning; from 9 a.m.-1 p.m., Fortnite; from 1-6 p.m., weightlifting/7-on-7 scrimmages; from 6 p.m.-bedtime, another dose of Fortnite.

While some caution against too much Fortnite consumption, this particular group of student-athletes sees the benefits. Team chemistry, for one, has improved in 2018 – something coach Mike Leach has stated multiple times this season – and there’s no question the game brings players together unlike any other nonfootball activity.

“I may just hop on and be like, ‘Marcus (Strong), Molt (Darrien Molton), get on real quick,’” Thompson said. “Just hop on, play a couple of games. I love it.”

“You get together with a few of your teammates and talk about whatever while you’re playing,” left tackle Andre Dillard said. “Just kind of exciting moments within the game. Kind of brings you together a little bit, just a fun thing to do with your friends.”

And there isn’t much evidence to suggest the adverse effects of too much Fortnite – at least not in this instance, with this football team. On the field, the Cougars have matched a program record with 10 regular-season wins. They also just set a PR in the classroom, with a record 12 players named to the Pac-12’s All-Academic team.

Among those is starting nose tackle Taylor Comfort, who set the team’s highest mark with a 3.33 GPA. He, too, is a Fortnite buff who may spend hours at a time next to his console, plugged into the game that’s captivated just about everyone in his generation.

Interrogated about his Fortnight usage earlier in the season, Comfort responded: “You can’t ask me that. No comment.”

Fortnite fever

On a hot afternoon in late July, the two players representing WSU at Pac-12 Media Day are taking a lunch break from interview obligations at the Hollywood & Highland Entertainment Center.

In between bites of roast beef and vegetables, Thompson, the Cougars’ All-Pac-12 safety, explains how Fortnite offers three modes to users. There’s a solo option in which one brave player can go head-to-head with 99 other solo players. You can also form a duo, or a squad of four to accomplish the same mission. In each of the three modes, the goal is to be the last man standing.

Sitting a few chairs away, wide receiver Kyle Sweet perks up.

“You guys talking about Fortnite?” he asks. “That is the most popular thing in the world today.”

Bogged down by football questions all afternoon, this is one topic Thompson and Sweet don’t mind elaborating on. Sweet guarantees any of the 24 players in attendance at Media Day would entertain a Fortnite inquiry, and would be willing to carry on a long, detailed conversation about the game.

“If you go up to any player here and talk about Fortnite, (they’d know),” he said.

And their coaches? In most cases, it’s still a bit of a foreign language, though most at least know their players indulge.

“I don’t know how to do that,” Leach says from the other side of the table. “You have to be good at pushing buttons. If it’s slow. If it’s slow button pushing.”

A popular live streaming video platform called Twitch allows players to broadcast themselves playing the game in real time – sometimes in front of hundreds of thousands of viewers from all over the globe. Viewers have the option to chip in money – yes, real money – to the streamer if they like what they’re seeing. The only thing more surprising than that is that some actually do.

“I’m telling you, if you do a live stream – a bunch of gamers stream themselves playing Fortnite – if you get coach Leach on there, that thing would get a million followers,” Sweet said.

No fewer than two weeks later, between 20-30 Cougar players huddle around a screen in Lewiston to watch one of their comrades take on 99 virtual opponents.

At Lewis-Clark State College, WSU’s makeshift home during fall camp, there’s a game room with multiple televisions, a pingpong table and a foosball table. But even with plenty of multiplayer activities at their disposal, the Cougars would rather form a barricade around kicker Jack Crane and watch him make a run at Fortnite immortality.

“Down in Lewiston, when you have 15-20 people crowded around you, it’s kind of cool because they’re all like rooting for you, hoping you get the win and everything,” said Crane, a redshirt sophomore who was used on kickoffs this season. “Expecting you to win. It’s cool in the sense that everybody’s together and just cheering you on and everything like that.”

On this team, it’s widely acknowledged Crane wears the Fortnite crown. He has more than 1,100 wins under his belt – a puzzling number when you consider at the start of every game, each of the 100 players theoretically have the same 1 percent chance of winning.

“Jack’s insane,” Dale said.

But if there’s anyone who can hold a candle to Crane, it’s Dale, the senior from Louisiana.

And sometimes they’ll join forces, unlocking a new level of dominance.

One-two punch

From the second floor of a two-story condominium in Pullman, Dale and Crane are stationed in separate bedrooms, and entrenched in their separate Fortnite worlds, winding down from another taxing day of fall camp in mid-August.

Crane, who doesn’t live in the condo and has stopped by for a night of gaming, is playing on Corey Magdaleno’s account. Magdaleno shares the living space with Dale, Dillard and quarterback Gardner Minshew.

Crane points out Magdaleno’s character is outfitted in a unique skin – “probably the rarest skin in the game,” he said. Fortnite is offered free to its users over a variety of gaming platforms: Xbox, PlayStation, PC, iPhone, Android. You name it.

But some have estimated Fortnite’s developer, Epic Games, could reach a net worth of more than $8 billion, largely because of the money users spend within the game.

Each week, new items are available for purchase, allowing users to make fashion statements with new emotes, character models and skins (outfits). Fortnite recently struck a deal with the NFL and offers team-themed uniform skins for all 32 clubs.

“I did get to that point,” said Dillard, a Fortnite retiree. “I spent like $30. It’s almost purely cosmetic things you buy on the game. It’s not like you get an advantage. You just look cool, basically.”

Dillard sighs as he talks about the money Fortnite sucked out of his wallet. But he’s not quite the spendthrift Crane is. The kicker estimates he’s dropped around $300 since downloading the game last November. And Dale?

“If not $300, more than that,” Dale said. “They come out with new stuff every day at 5 on the dot for Western time. So people spend money, no matter what.”

Crane was lured to Fortnite last year by a roommate, who insisted he take the game out for a spin. There was some skepticism initially … and then addiction.

“I was terrible at first and everything and so I started playing, so I was like, yeah I don’t know how I feel about this game,” Crane said. “He’s like, all right, well, I’m going to go to the gym, I’m going to work out. Then two hours later he comes back and I’m still playing.”

Peering over his buddy’s shoulder, Magdaleno points out the field of players in Crane’s game has been whittled down to seven – including Crane.

“And I’m about to die,” the kicker sighs.

But he escapes, hollering to Dale in the next room, “Yo, Hunt, I’ve got six people left.”

Of the original 100, it’s down to five. Then four. Three. Two …

“You might want to record this,” Magdaleno said. “He’s about to win.”

Finally, Crane eliminates the last of his foes to seal the victory.

“Hey, Jack, did you win?” Dale bellows. “Hell, yeah!”

It’s suggested to Crane that the sensation of outlasting 99 other players in Fortnite’s Battle Royale mode might be comparable to kicking a winning field goal.

Not exactly, he said.

“But at the same time it’s cool, just different feelings, different nerves. Maybe if it was my first time ever playing and I ended up getting a win, it would be amazing and everybody would go crazy and everything like that. But everybody expects me to win anyways. If I don’t, everybody’s like, ‘Ah, why didn’t you win?’”

Now Crane and Dale will test out their chemistry and form a two-player team. Although they’re about a first down’s distance apart from one another, they’ll communicate through headsets. Their characters descend, or “drop” onto an island together, and extinguish other duos until they’re the ones eliminated.

“We just died in that game,” Dale said. “We’re going to drop again.”

Dale’s eyes are fixated on a computer screen that’s set up no more than a foot away. Behind that, attached to his wall, is a flat-screen TV used to monitor other live streamers through the Twitch app.

The second game for Dale and Crane goes more smoothly. Nearly one-half hour has elapsed – on average, games take 25-30 minutes to complete – when Dale comes to life, blurting out, “Hell, yeah. Woo! That’s how you do it, Jack,” and a few other words not fit for print.

The release of snatching a Fortnite win is part of what makes the game so appealing. Or often in Crane’s case, the release of not losing.

“You get chills and everything. Your blood starts pumping, you get nervous,” he said. “Now since I have so many wins, it’s like normal. It’s like, if I don’t get a win then it’s kind of frustrating. A ton of people all ages play it and I think just because it’s so addicting in a way – it’s kind of like gambling, I think. You don’t win, you feel like you need to play another.”

But that’s also a double-edged sword.

Peeling back

Dillard, a senior, is an Associated Press third-team All-American and, by most accounts, projected to be WSU’s highest NFL Draft pick in April.

After stints of World of Warcraft, Call of Duty and Halo, Dillard was tugged into the Fortnite world. He’d play between six to seven hours a day, often with wide receivers Brandon Arconado and Dezmon Patmon, running back Max Borghi and fellow offensive lineman Liam Ryan.

“It keeps us here, occupied, out of trouble, if you want to put it that way,” Dillard said. “It’s a fun pastime, but it can take a lot of hours without you realizing it.”

That’s when Dillard diagnosed his addiction.

“I’ve seen it happen and I’m afraid of it happening to myself, so that’s why I hopped off of it,” he said. “It’s just a frustrating game. It stresses me out, but I kept playing for some reason. When you get eliminated from a match, you think so much about what you could’ve done different. Then you’re like, ‘OK, one more, one more.’ So it stresses you out like no other, but it makes you keep going.”

WSU coaches are aware of the game’s presence, and its influence, and a few of the strength trainers encouraged players to “peel back” on their usage during the academic semester, Dale said.

Some can strike the balance better than others. Dale, who downloaded the game in February after watching quarterback John Bledsoe, still plays with a variety of friends from Louisiana, including Duke Riley, an ex-LSU star and current Atlanta Falcons linebacker, and Justin Reid, a former Stanford safety with the Houston Texans.

The Los Angeles Lakers’ Josh Hart admitted to playing the game for 10 consecutive hours before a game and famously compared the feeling of his first Battle Royale victory to winning an NCAA championship with Villanova. The question was broached in a Washington Post story titled, “Are pro athletes playing too much Fortnite? Some teams are worried.”

According to the story, some NHL teams have asked their prospects about the game in a blunt matter: “Are you addicted to Fortnite?”

If Dillard wasn’t already, he was getting dangerously close.

Athletes are encouraged to complete what they started. Football players are urged to never quit on a play. But forfeiting Fortnite was most necessary for the Cougars’ offensive lineman – a top draft prospect who elected to put all of his chips into the game that matters.

“Once football started I was like, you know, I’m going to hop off,” he said. “I’ve lost sleep because of it, so it’s not the best idea for me personally. Other people can handle it better, but I knew I had to hop off.”

Here for the long run

While the Halos, Call of Duties and World of Warcrafts have all lost some popularity, Fortnite is still booming and some think it could be here to stay.

More than 200 million users around the world are hooked.

“I honestly think that this one will stick around longer than most games ever have,” Dillard said. “Just because of how big it has gotten and things within the game that you can kind of tell how it’ll just last a long time.”

Fortnite is more than a bloody free-for-all. It’s appealing to users because they can build within the game, using strategy and technique to defeat opponents – sniping them down from self-built towers or whacking them with giant pickaxes.

“That’s what makes the game fun, because you have different strategies you can use while building, techniques, avoiding getting shot and stuff like that,” Dale said. “They always come out with stuff every week – new stuff every week that keeps the game interesting. New guns, new challenges and stuff.”

It isn’t losing popularity in WSU’s locker room, either.

The Cougars had a Fortnite obsession before they won their first game of the season at Wyoming. As they attempt to win their 11th on Dec. 28 at the Alamo Bowl, many are still setting aside blocks of time to play – especially now the academic semester is over.

While Crane and Dale hold Fortnite supremacy, the consensus is that receiver Calvin Jackson Jr., quarterback Cammon Cooper and Sweet are all proficient with the sticks.

On the other end of the Fortnite spectrum, Crane and Dale both throw WSU’s star running back, James Williams, under the bus.

“James Williams is definitely the worst I’ve ever seen,” Crane said. “He’s pretty terrible.”

Understandable, given Williams’ other responsibilities. The Cougars’ touchdown leader got engaged in the spring and spends the bulk of his time with his fiancé and her daughter. Fortnite falls to the bottom of his priority list.

“He shouldn’t be playing Fortnite,” Crane said.

And Crane?

“Fortnite’s my wife,” he cracks.

It seems like it could be long marriage, too.

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