Fortnite Winter Royale shows Epic Games' disconnect with pro scene

People crowd the display area for Fortnite at the 24th Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3 2018, in June in Los Angeles. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

By Game 3 of the Fortnite Winter Royale's first North American heat, Harrison "psalm" Chang was set.

A victory royale in Tuesday's opening match was valuable enough to qualify him for Wednesday's final and a chance to partake in the $500,000 prize pool. But as psalm went through his rotations in Game 3, he noticed something unusual happening in this particular lobby.

"I was playing normally, and then I saw [Mark "Neace"] Neace in the kill feed over and over," psalm said in a postgame interview with host Alex "Goldenboy" Mendez. "I saw him get top 3 with 10 kills and was like, 'What's going on?'"

The answer to psalm's confusion defined Winter Royale, an event that frustrated and entertained in equal measure while calling into question Epic Games' commitment to making Fortnite a competitive esport. The cultural sensation's first truly open tournament whittled down 9.2 million players across North America and Europe to the top 400, culminating in two drastically different regional finals held 10 days apart. North America's final bore little resemblance to Europe's version or the qualifiers that preceded it, thanks to, among other things, the introduction of one very sharp object.

For the third straight game, Neace pulled the Infinity Blade from its Polar Peak pedestal uncontested. Added mere hours before the day's twin heats began, the Infinity Blade -- ported directly from its eponymous mobile game series that Epic quietly removed from Apple's app store one day beforehand -- was so new that competitors weren't sure what to make of it.

Neace had a feeling the one-of-a-kind item was potentially game-changing, and his performance in Game 3 proved it. The League of Legends YouTube coach turned Fortnite professional stunned his opponents with a 10-kill third-place finish, good enough for eight points under Big Bonus rules that rewarded high placement and eliminations.

Even by Fortnite standards, the Infinity Blade is an eyebrow-raising item, a singularly powerful tool that warps the game around its fantastic abilities. To wield it, a player must first pull the blade from an exposed plinth in the arctic mountains. Doing so permanently empties their loadout of all items (save the sword and pickaxe) but doubles their effective health maximum to 400, increases movement speed, provides one point of regeneration per second and enables devastating slash attacks that break any structure upon contact.

Neace's Game 3 rampage did not go unnoticed by his enemies. Come Game 4, wannabe sword bearers eager to replicate Neace's success packed Polar Peak. Psalm was one of them, and he eventually ended up with the legendary blade after outdueling Aircool with a gray tactical shotgun.

Following Neace's lead, psalm was nearly unstoppable as he tore through the opposition for a staggering 12 eliminations and a 10th-place finish. His aggressive hack-and-slash tactics found little resistance in Game 5 as psalm again drew the Infinity Blade, resulting in a fourth-place finish with seven eliminations.

When the dust settled, psalm had earned 17 points and advanced first out of the five-game heat, and Neace finished second with eight points.

Big names like Jake "Poach" Brumleve, Timothy "Bizzle" Miller, Ali "Myth" Kabbani and Tyler "Ninja" Blevins all failed to make the cut with a combined zero points, as did Cody "Fulmer" Fulmer, the top North American qualifier from the open stage.

As overpowered as he made the Infinity Blade look, psalm said he thinks it will only be a matter of time before the community adapts. Less than 24 hours old at the time of the event, the sword's power stemmed as much from its newness as its features.

"The sword can't damage through walls," psalm said, "so if you play with a pump or something, you take a shot and build a wall to block their hit, I think you can outplay the sword. I just don't think players are exposed enough to it yet. They'll learn how to punish it soon enough."

Time was unevenly distributed during Winter Royale as players were presented with different gamestates depending on their region or heat assignment. Because Epic always conducts its competitive events on the current patch, Europe's finals were completed before the seismic changes brought by Patch 7.00 went live. Europe didn't have to deal with a new map, an X-4 Stormwing meta or the Infinity Blade's shing-shing of death. Though the Pop-Up Cup rules transitioned from Scavenger to Alchemist, Europe played their finals in essentially the same state as their qualifiers, which might explain why top qualifier Clément "Skite" Danglot also took home first place and $75,000 in prize money.

Epic did not afford North America the same consistency. Players who competed in NA finals Wednesday did so in a game fundamentally unlike the one they qualified for on Nov. 25. The Pop-Up Cup rules shifted to Explorer, adjusting resource caps and granting materials on eliminations. The new ruleset strengthened Infinity Blade users, who could swing with further abandon knowing that every lethal stroke would net them crucial materials plus 50 effective health.

Though all of North America was caught off-guard by the Infinity Blade, players drafted into the second heat had more time to prepare. Superior preparation forced blade-carriers down a more conservative line, leveraging its health benefits and close-quarters combat for late-game superiority rather than a constant popoff. Legedien, an unaffiliated unknown, did exactly that in Game 1 of NA's finals, earning five of his seven eliminations in the final three circles to secure the victory royale and six points. He wouldn't post another point all day but still walked away with $30,000 in fifth-place prize money.

Competitive inconsistency and Epic's willingness to nullify weeks of scrimmage prep with oversized last-minute changes have divided the community. A vocal segment decried the rapid modifications as against the core principles of sport, which value fairness and skill honed through practice. Others enjoyed the spectacle created by a new toy and argued that adaptability ranks near macro in importance. Without a firmer indication of what direction Epic wishes to take competitive Fortnite, expect the debate to rage on.

Epic's endgame remains a mystery, but the developer's insistence on iteration and experimentation, even in the face of conventional wisdom, should surprise no one who has followed Fortnite's meteoric 2018. Each decision Epic has made, from the Summer Pro Am through Winter Royale, is part of the same investigative process, throwing out idea after idea to determine the shape of Fortnite to come.

Summer Skirmish was about discovering a replicable points format as Epic troubleshot Live Spectator. Fall Skirmish blurred the lines between professional players, content creators and ambitious amateurs until they became interchangeable, all while pushing gameplay boundaries with increasingly zany content. Winter Royale served its purpose not as the balanced tournament it was never intended to be, but as Epic's first major step toward the fully open, online competitive endeavor the company clearly craves.

Of course, it was going to be unbalanced and riddled by hackers; how could it not? The point of an initial iteration is to learn from its inadequacies, and with $1.25 billion raised in outside investment capital on top of Epic's personal war chest, it can afford to patiently play a long game.

Committing $100 million in prize pool money obfuscated Epic's process, applying the veneer of an accomplished esport to something imperfect and deciduous. With the money came expectations that couldn't be met, born from the playbooks of other established esport circuits. But with their recent announcements of Fortnite Creative, The Block and a game store aimed to rival Valve's Steam, Epic is operating with a different set of expectations in mind. Epic is hosting a Fortnite Pro-Am on Friday in Seoul, the first of its kind in South Korea. The Fortnite World Cup is on the docket for 2019. After that, who knows? We can't see the big picture yet, only the small details that indicate broad ambition.

Whatever its gameplay shortcomings, Winter Royale delighted from a broadcast standpoint, showcasing a markedly improved viewing experience. New details included a handy graphic in the top left corner that tracked players remaining, storms remaining, a storm timer and the game number. Epic preproduced a handful of player-focused video segments that aired between games, connecting viewers with the personalities at the heart Fortnite's growth. Cameron "Sundown" McGrory filled time by breaking down top replays, as did Goldenboy with several live player interviews.

Psalm was one of those interviews. A West Coast player, psalm spoke to Goldenboy from a LAN café in Virginia, having flown there to improve his ping for the tournament. A sheepish grin played around his face as he answered questions about the Infinity Blade, and who could blame him? Watching psalm spin and jump-slash across the map like Link was electrifying, reminiscent of the melee assassins he specialized in as a Heroes of the Storm Flex for Tempo Storm.

Psalm left TS in June to pursue a Fortnite career and in less than six months has already earned over half the prize money he won playing HotS for three years. Even though psalm finished Winter Royale 57th with a $1,500 consolation prize, no one is likely to forget the stunts he pulled with the Infinity Blade anytime soon.

"I guess a really good way to publicize yourself is to use a new mechanic and dominate with it," psalm said. "That's one way to get your name out there. I'm sorry, guys, but it was kind of fun."

Epic Games has since responded to the criticism levied at the Infinity Blade.