NEW YORK -- Outside iconic Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, a production crew is at work setting up for the US Open, the biggest tennis tournament in the country and the final Grand Slam event of the calendar year.
The workers, though, aren't discussing whether Novak Djokovic will continue his reign of dominance or if Naomi Osaka can repeat as champion. They're talking about video games and the merits of the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) ratings -- and whether video games should be age restricted at all.
Behind the production crew at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the reason for their heated discussion is clear. Weeks before the US Open descends upon Flushing Meadows, Epic Games and its worldwide free-to-play phenomenon, Fortnite, has taken over the tennis grounds for a monumental world championship, dubbed the Fortnite World Cup Finals. The tennis grounds, often occupied by socialites and celebrities, have been converted into the dream destination for every kid on the planet, with a multitude of activities and games structured around the world of Fortnite.
Epic Games has taken the parameters of a classic tennis venue and flipped it on its head, creating a feeling of worlds colliding, as the Fortnite World Cup is a mixture of musical festival, sporting event and Chuck E. Cheese.
"I'm a big tennis fan," FaZe Clan's Nate Hill, one of the players competing to become a millionaire this weekend, said in a pre-event news conference. "I've unfortunately never been able to get tickets to the US Open, so this is kinda like I'm going to the US Open, minus all the tennis spectacle and I'm a part of it. I'm really excited for it."
At 24, Hill would be considered a player entering his prime years in tennis. He would have his entire 20s to establish himself as a top talent and make money on tour. Roger Federer, 37, just played in the Wimbledon final. Serena Williams? Also 37 and a finalist earlier this month at Wimbledon. Even Djokovic, who beat Federer at Wimbledon and has been ranked No. 1 in the world for more than three years, is 32 years old.
Hill in Fortnite? He is considered nearly over-the-hill. Of the nearly 200 competitors at the Fortnite World Cup, 24 is the oldest age of anyone competing in the tournament. Cori "Coco" Gauff, 15, made headlines when she made a deep run at Wimbledon before losing to women's world No. 1 Simona Halep, the eventual champion. At the Fortnite World Cup Finals, 17 years old is more of the average than the outlier, with the youngest entrants at the tournament coming in at 13 -- and only stopping there because of an age restriction.
"I used to play basketball, and I love running," 14-year-old Cody "Clix" Conrod said when asked what his hobbies are outside of playing Fortnite. "But [now] I wake up, hop on my computer and play all day. Eat, sleep, that's about it."
Since the inaugural Fortnite Pro-Am in Los Angeles last year, Epic Games has done everything in its power to differentiate itself from the competitive gaming competition. Whereas the League of Legends World Championship is a monthlong event, spanning multiple cities and countries and focusing solely on the competition itself, Epic knew that wasn't what it wanted to do with Fortnite and its own world championship.
Fortnite's audience isn't the same as League of Legends, Counter-Strike or any other leading esport in the market. Families, sometimes including children too young to even be allowed on a computer, are flocking to these Fortnite events, with the primary fan base hovering around the average age of the World Cup players themselves.
To create an experience like no other, Epic Games brought 62 production trucks (and two separate semitrucks just for the gaming chairs) to Flushing Meadows for the World Cup Finals. It had to book 859 hotel rooms for everyone involved and accommodate for 350 players (including those in Friday's Celebrity Pro-Am and Creative Showdown) by having a 24-hour catering service. On top of all that, to create a spectacle that could entertain the live audience throughout the day, it brought in ziplines, zorb balls, Nerf gun target ranges and a dedicated stage for attendees to dance on with their favorite characters from the game.
They even procured 65 pounds of llama-shaped confetti to drop on the eventual winners of the event.
Be it inside Arthur Ashe Stadium where the main action is going on or on the grounds where families are ziplining past water fountains as a teenager twirls with a life-sized tomato in the background, Epic Games wants there to be something going on at all times during the World Cup Finals. Downtime is the enemy.
"[This is] the hardest logistic problem-solving event we've ever produced," said Jeremy Hoffmann, director of video production at Epic Games.
For as much Epic Games is attempting to push a happy-go-lucky vibe to the World Cup festivities, this weekend's results will turn teenagers into millionaires. If by chance one of the players qualified for both the solo and duos portions of the tournament take both trophies, that player would receive $4.5 million, surpassing what someone like Williams or Federer could make by winning the US Open in August.
"[I want to get my] mom and dad a house," said Aydan Conrad, 20, of Ghost Gaming in regard to the mammoth prize pool. "My duos partner said if we won he'd buy me something nice, buy me a Rolex or something, so I'd have to spoil him too. Besides that, I'm already pretty good at saving my money so I'd probably save the rest of it."
In the long history of esports, the player that has received the most prize money is Team Liquid's Kuro "KuroKy" Salehi Takhasomi in Dota 2. He has won $4.2 million over his vast professional gaming career, which began in 2010, when esports started to grow in the western regions. KuroKy, 26, an all-time great in Dota 2, could see his record surpassed in a matter of two days by a 14-year-old who was in preschool when KuroKy started playing professionally.
Traditional sports fans might not like their sacred grounds being transformed into cartoon-themed miniature golf courses and dance parties.
Esports fans might not like their hallowed records being shattered by a video game that sometimes treats their competitive scene like a beta test for the more casual audience.
Epic Games personnel don't care what anyone thinks of how they conduct themselves. They're OK with the heated arguments. They're OK with the eye-rolling at how they handle what a competitive gaming event should look like. In 2018, Epic Games reportedly made $3 billion in profits off the back of its juggernaut battle royale game.
While people are debating what Fortnite is and whether it is or isn't an esport, Epic Games will continue onward, with dancing fish men, laser shows and all, mashing together the multiverse known as pop culture.