There are many wild stories in the annals of concert history: Ozzy Osbourne biting the head off a bat; Hells Angels handling security (with deadly results) at Altamont; or Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire on stage.
Such expect-the-unexpected environments are a big part of the draw for some concert attendees.
But Travis Scott managed a concert-first earlier this year when as he performed virtually for 12.3 million fans on video game platform Fortnite. If that attendance figure seems like it's straining the edges of plausibility, it should be noted that Scott’s concert was a first-of-its-kind event hosted by Fortnite.
The first, but not the last. Fortnite parent Epic Games has announced a three-week concert series that kicks off Sept. 12 with a performance by Dominic Fike live from Epic’s new Los Angeles studio (custom-designed for in-game concerts).
Fortnite is betting that virtual concerts aren’t just a pandemic-created fad. The company hopes that even when arenas and theaters open again, musical acts of all kinds will play the Fortnite virtual stage in exactly the same way they might play Cleveland or New York.
“This is a tour stop,” Nate Nanzer, Fortnite’s head of global partnerships, told The Verge. “If you’re on tour, you want to stop on the Fortnite stage. It’s a unique way to get in front of an audience that maybe you’re not reaching through other means.”
And Fortnite is good at reaching an audience. So good, in fact, that it has turned a “free” game into a multibillion-dollar business by successfully leveraging the magic of microtransactions with a highly enthused fanbase.
Fortnite managed to side-step the usual outrage among gamers with its wide array of microtransaction offerings by being an innovator that figured out it should separate game play mechanics from commerce mechanics. Playing Fortnite is an identical experience whether a player buys anything or not.
Fighting Apple and Google
However, plenty of players decide to buy cool extra outfits, victory dances and access to side quests that make their characters look cooler. In fact, Epic has gotten so good at persuading consumers to make in-app purchases that the company has recently found itself in a big legal battle with Apple and Google.
Epic attempted to bypass the Apple App Store and Google Play when it came to such in-app purchases, a situation that ultimately saw the massively popular game maker booted from both. The fight started with a post on the Fortnite website regarding what the gaming giant called its “Mega Drop.”
“Today, we’re … introducing a new way to pay on iOS and Android: Epic direct payment. When you choose to use Epic direct payments, you save up to 20 percent as Epic passes along payment processing savings to you,” the post stated.
Apple and Google both ruled the move a violation of app store guidelines, which prompted blocking Epic from both online stores. Epic then filed antitrust complaints against Apple and Google in response.
Offering More Than Just Video Game Fights to the Death
And while the legal struggle is unfolding, it seems Fortnite is expanding via moves like building up the platform’s musical side. That could make the platform more desirable and stickier for users, who could conceivably pressure Apple and Google to bring back their favorite gaming and virtual events app.
After all, it seems like Fortnite aspires to be more than just a place where friends and strangers gather for a (virtual) fight to the death that leaves one player standing at the end.
Fortnite recently launched Party Royale, a violence-free zone of the game with a concert stage and theater space to give players a place to hang out with friends instead of trying to murder them. And Fortnite’s virtual space has thus far attracted some fairly big-name musical acts, including Diplo, Deadmau5, and Kenshi Yonezu.
The virtual theater has also been used to screen a discussion about race in America, a trailer for the movie “Tenet,” and one of the better parody ads in history — “Nineteen Eighty-Fortnite.”
“They’ve been performing really well,” Fortnite’s Nanzer told The Verge. “We’ve seen millions of people come and engage with these different shows that have happened to date in Party Royale. So, we’ve been looking at that and figuring out how we can do this more often.”
In this case, going bigger means moving from DJs broadcasting from their home studios to a state-of-the-art Los Angeles space meant to more realistically create the experience of being at a concert.
Events so far have been brief, more accurately described as interludes than concerts and lasting only 10 or 15 minutes. But Nanzer told The Verge the goal is to build appearances out to 45 minutes, an hour and beyond for acts with “a bigger catalog.”
“I imagine we’ll continue to do amazing events in the future,” he said. “But we want this to be a regular heartbeat of awesome live music events, between those bigger moments in time.”
Is This Just the Warm-Up Act?
So, will Fortnite be the live music venue of the future?
Well, with an audience of 350 million players to offer up, it certainly has that appeal for musical acts, particularly when real-world venues are either closed or modified for drive-in use only.
But when the pandemic ends, “real” concerts resume and artists can charge $100+ per ticket to COVID-vaccinated customers, will fans gather in crowded venues again?
Fortnite certainly won’t replace large venues anytime soon, but it’s possible to imagine that its virtual stage will be a stop on a lot of tours for some time to come.