LOS ANGELES -- From the moment you arrived at Secret Skirmish, it was clear the $500,000 Fortnite tournament wasn't meant to be found.
No welcome mat led fans to the L.A. Hangar Studios, the nondescript venue hidden on the northeast outskirts of downtown Los Angeles. There were no colorful floor pillows to lounge on, no gargantuan screens to watch the action, no complimentary Durrr Burgers or Slurp Juice offered beside a life-size Battle Bus. The only outward clue a Fortnite event was even happening was a small black-and-white sign positioned near the front gate: "Parking Pass Required," printed in the game's signature Burbank font.
All of Epic Games' past Fortnite LANs have been buoyant public celebrations of the game that has enraptured millions. Why was their latest tournament a closely guarded secret? What was Epic hiding?
The answer, revealed over the course of three days, was fairly mundane. It also might be quietly revolutionary.
On Monday, Feb. 11, preparations for Secret Skirmish already were well underway. Inside, 15-foot-tall black curtains segmented Hangar Studio A -- a 38,000-square-foot space that's been used for commercials, music videos and the ABC television show "BattleBots" -- into several distinct areas. The player's competitive zone was in the center; 100 standardized computers were organized into four rows and decorated with familiar faux-wood paneling used at previous Fortnite LAN events. The casting desk and analyst's corner were nearby, set against a curved all-white backdrop used in photo shoots. Nearly every wall had a posted warning that said, for secrecy reasons, no photography or the use of social media would be allowed.
Behind the curtain were two main production areas: the broadcast bullpen, where the show director and technical director facilitated the proceedings, and the observer pit, where a team of over 30 observers produced gameplay footage for broadcast. Most of the bulky NEP and Bexel production equipment that filled the surrounding space was identical to the setup for most broadcast events, sporting or otherwise (after Secret Skirmish, it'll head to the upcoming Academy Awards telecast).
Take away the cartoon violence, and we could be backstage at the World Series of Poker.
That afternoon, all hands were on deck to run a series of full, six-hour rehearsals leading up to Thursday's show. The total crew, accounting for contractors and Epic employees, numbered nearly 200. Local Fortnite players, each wearing the gamertag of an invited pro, tested the equipment onstage while real talent practiced casting their games.
At the moment, Zeke Mateus and Kristen "KittyPlays" Valnicek were on the call, trading quips as they followed the various engagements. Eventually, the duo of "Dmo" and "Tfue" secured the victory royale, and were "interviewed" on stage with bemused smiles on their faces.
"I'm having a ton of fun with not only the other talent, but also the crew involved, and all of the people who have come here to test some things," KittyPlays said. "It's a very supportive environment. What other developer would give us an opportunity like this to grow and hone our craft and create that connection between each other? I can't wait for the live show on Thursday; it's going to be insane."
For Secret Skirmish, Epic pulled the unorthodox move of flying all of its broadcast talent to Los Angeles 10 days before the event to practice. The choice was meant not only to foster chemistry among the 10-person unit but to provide real reps for casting newbies such as Arten "Ballatw" Esa and Sarah "Pookieface" Lynn, plus a chance to learn from veterans like Alex "Goldenboy" Mendez. Every rehearsal they'd rotate through one of the four roles -- caster, analyst, interviewer and host -- to discover their individual strengths and promising casting pairings.
Goldenboy has been around the esports scene for nearly a decade and has never seen this level of investment from a developer.
"Typically, you get called for a gig, you get one day of rehearsals, maybe you get a game in. After that, you're just off to the races," Goldenboy said. "But Epic's like, no, screw that. What we're going to do is we're going basically go through commentator training camp ... We went through everything. I leveraged my experience, was able to help out a lot of the people here, show them, like, hey, this is how we do it, but also adding that Fortnite flair and twist to it. I think it's been very fruitful for everyone involved."
Epic's reasons for organizing commentator training camp were twofold. They saw a chance to create a repertory group akin to "Saturday Night Live," which would bring consistency to their live events. But they also wanted to reward talented community members who were passionate about Fortnite. Jeremy Hoffmann, Epic's director of video production (though he's responsible for much more), explained why his company valued the authenticity of his invited talent.
"We're in L.A. If I did an open call to host a Fortnite thing, there'd be a line down the block," Hoffmann said. "But how many of those people would actually care about the game? It'd be a fraction, and that's not the way we want to do it ... We have a lot of really good casters that are really great Fortnite fans, that if we put the effort in, can become great casters. Ultimately, as long as they're authentic, I think people are going to want to listen to them more than anyone else."
It'll take more time for the group's on-camera skills to improve, but Epic can afford to wait; the company intends to use its growing casters for more events than Secret Skirmish. Off-camera, they're reinforcing friendships that cannot help but register during the cast. Each person who was present at a recent Korean barbecue dinner remembered getting emotional when KittyPlays asked them all to say something they were thankful for. Of course, they named each other.
Jack "CouRage" Dunlop brightly kicked off Day 1 of the Secret Skirmish on Thursday, Feb. 14, despite the rain pouring over Los Angeles. As 50 randomly assigned duos plummeted to their drop zones for the first time, spontaneous cheers and applause erupted from the broadcast bullpen.
"It's like launching a rocket," creative producer Matty Kirsch said as he sat near mission control.
It wouldn't be the start of a Fortnite tournament without some 11th-hour shenanigans. Epic released Patch 7.40 that morning, once again sending tournament participants scrambling for a read on the meta. Fortunately, nothing reached the game-breaking level like the Infinity Blade or Boombox; in fact, many of the live adjustments were changes pros pined for. X-4 Stormwings no longer broke structures. Hand cannon damage was nerfed so it couldn't one-shot wooden builds. Rocket launchers could only be obtained from supply drops, removing a luck-based advantage for players who found the weapon early. Pop-Up Cup material rules were applied, reducing the cap from 2,997 to 1,500, increasing harvest speeds and granting materials plus effective health on eliminations.
"This is like the one time a change the day of the tournament has been such a great change for the competitive scene," said caster Ali "SypherPK" Hassan. "All of these changes enhanced competitive [mode]. If they threw another sword in, that would be a problem, but they didn't. To be honest with you, all the competitive games that I've watched, casted, or been a part of, this one seemed like the most competitive, most entertaining one."
An unforeseen downside to the new patch was production's need to update all of its player systems, requiring a download so massive and quick that their ISP auto-throttled the connection. Though the tournament was mostly run offline, the throttling was significant enough to require a hasty phone call by Hoffmann to an ISP representative, begging for bandwidth release. Epic eventually resolved the throttling -- no harm done.
One new element production had plenty of time to train with was a fresh broadcast HUD, decluttered and reorganized for a clearer view of the action. Materials were no longer organized by type on the right side of the screen; instead, they were represented as a single build number next to player health (10 materials equals one build of any structure design). Most of the information that was on the top of the screen (the mini-map, circle indicators, players left alive) was moved to the bottom.
Competitive Fortnite had never looked better, save for one crucial aspect: The elimination feed was missing, lost in the shifting of HUD pieces. To compensate, Epic began the Secret Skirmish relying on its new mid-game analyst breakdown, plus a postgame recap, to show replays of the eliminations the main broadcast didn't catch. Still, fans of specific players were disappointed that they often couldn't see the fate of the player they were pulling for if he failed to make the final circles or wasn't a camera darling.
That disappointment eventually spilled over to social media, which partly influenced the creation of a separate Twitch stream -- titled "fortniteactionfeed" -- that simulcasted the elimination feed used internally by Epic. The additional stream was a stopgap for the intended adjustment -- a Twitch overlay for the main stream -- that didn't materialize in time, so it was little comfort for mobile users.
Elimination feed issues aside, the HUD changes create a wider, clearer field of vision to follow the gameplay. It's a boon for game director Phil Englert and his team in the observer pit, all of whom act like individual cinematographers when they compose wide shots. Englert is a graduate of Chapman University with a BFA in film production, and all of his observers take shot composition classes to learn best practices like the rule of thirds, framing, the golden ratio, headspace, depth of field and bokeh.
Phil and his team are contracted through Next Generation Esports, which has assisted Epic with live production since the Paragon days. They helped build the Live Spectator client, creating in-game cameras based off real equivalents with millimeter lenses.
The observing process for competitive Fortnite is straightforward to describe and highly demanding to execute. The NGE observers -- all avid Fortnite players -- are broken into teams responsible for watching certain sections of the map. Each team has two wide observers armed with Xbox Elite controllers (the paddles give more mapping options) that give context to a fight, while one observer watches gameplay from four different player perspectives. Their choices travel up the command chain to Englert, who stands focused in front of over a dozen screens, calling out camera transitions for the technical director to execute. His choices blend broadcast narrative, caster focus, player skill and game knowledge into split-second decisions that result in what is shown on air.
Lately, Englert has drawn composition inspiration for teamfights from the long takes (or "oners") popularized in auteur filmmaking. One favorite that comes to mind is the opening combat scene in Alejandro Iñárritu's "The Revenant," where fur trappers are ambushed by Native Americans.
"It's this adventure you're taken on where you're in the battle," Englert said. "One second, you're with this person, they're fighting and they get picked off. Then, you're whipping around and the next thing you know you're on a horse, you're riding with a horse somewhere. It was this beautiful flowing experience that not only increased the intensity of the battle, but it also gave me this full immersion. I think that's what our main goal here is on the observer side, to make the viewer feel completely immersed in Fortnite."
With help from Englert and his team, CouRage and Benjamin "DrLupo" Lupo adeptly called the Game 1 action, a fast-paced affair buoyed by the positivity of Patch 7.40. In an odd bit of symmetry, the test game results repeated. This time, the real Dylan "Dmo" Moore and Turner "Tfue" Tenney outdueled Harrison "Psalm" Chang for the tournament's first victory royale, the duo's lethal pressure enough to secure the solo's elimination.
But it was the second game of the day that viewers will remember, even if no one in the hangar remarked on its significance at the time.
Once KittyPlays and Pookieface sat the desk for Game 2, they became the first female duo to ever cast a major esports event. The pairing's chemistry was discovered during rehearsals as they constantly threw curveballs at each other, with Pookie's puns acting as a fine balance to Kitty's game knowledge.
"We knew, but kind of in the back of our minds," Pookieface said of the groundbreaking cast. "At the end of the day, we just want to do a good job and put on a good show. But if we can inspire one little girl who is watching it to say, 'You know what, I want to be like them, I want to work in esports and I want to work in video games,' I've done my job. I've always tried to be a good role model for younger girls that watch my stream and look up to me. I just want to inspire them to just do whatever they want to do."
The historical context seemed lost on the broadcast crew, who, like everyone else in the studio, continued working as if nothing special occurred, which itself was a minor triumph.
"It's nonchalant because it should be," Goldenboy said. "It should be commonplace. We have on this broadcast four Hispanic people, we have Balla who's of Somalian decent, we have multiple women, we are diverse. That's the world we live in. We are in a diverse world of people who bring a variety of talents to the table, and it doesn't matter the color of your skin, your gender, your race, religion, color, creed, sexual orientation. It doesn't matter. You just love Fortnite -- that's it.
"Fortnite does a really good job of that, of never really highlighting that we have so many diverse characters. Other people would have put out a press release that we have this thing, it's so great, check us out. Fortnite doesn't need to do that. When you put it out there, it speaks for itself."
Rain continued to fall throughout Friday's Secret Skirmish solos. The storm never dissipated, and neither did Ghost Gaming's utter dominance of the field. During Thursday's duos, the org had four of its members finish inside the top four, one in each slot. Friday was no different, as Timothy "Bizzle" Miller won his first competitive Fortnite event with a hand cannon clutch in the final game. The victory royale was enough to eke out a 12-11 first-place finish over teammate Rocco "Saf" Morales, who won duos with Ronald "Ronaldo" Mach on Thursday. Bizzle walked away as high-money man with $65,250 in winnings.
As Bizzle strode through the black-curtain partition on the way to his victors' interview with former duos partner KittyPlays, the camera took care to hide the secret of Secret Skirmish. Six of the 100 player consoles had been separated into their own row facing the rest, outside most of the floor camera's view. Sitting on a raised platform, each had high-end LED screens carved into the front-facing wood panels. Epic was using them (and the randomly assigned players sitting there) as lab rats during the LAN to experiment with the newest iteration of competitive Fortnite.
Hoffmann spilled the beans. He dreams of Fortnite in the round, each player sitting at a console while a front-facing camera on an LED screen displays game indicator overlays such as health, shield, loadout and score. Inside a sold-out stadium, Hoffmann wants 60 players on the bottom circle and 40 players in a raised inner circle, with 20 more LEDs hanging from the ceiling that rotate gameplay footage and player perspectives. Fans could move about the building to sit in vision of their favorite players. Maybe there'll be an LED ticker near the floor with a running elimination feed, and when a player is thirsted, a red light would be flashed on his station in addition to a red "X" on his screen.
Hoffmann spoke at a rapid clip as he outlined the dream, the shadow of his ever-present sly grin morphing into a full-blown smile. The feeling was infectious.
"If we're not doing something fun and different, what the f--- are we doing?" Hoffmann said. "Why am I here? I think we all want to do things that are different, and change the way people see entertainment, and competitive modes, and players, and fans interacting with them. That's why I show up to work every day.
"For us, it's spectacle and entertainment. We're moving as quickly as the game allows us to move. People expect the game to change, and we have to change with it."
The secret of Secret Skirmish was the same secret Epic's kept since it launched the celebrity Pro-Am at E3 last summer in Los Angeles: Everything is a test. Every skirmish, every royale, it's all an experiment, a new iteration for what's next. It needed a space to test new ideas at scale with the best players in the world, and Secret Skirmish was born.
It's tempting to characterize July's upcoming $30 million Fortnite World Cup (not to mention the $1 million it's giving away every week starting April 13) as a final exam, a culmination of this crazy competitive Fortnite endeavor. The senior Epic employees at Secret Skirmish disagreed. For Michael Gay, Epic's director of cinematic production, the goal of observer tool iteration is to one day make them available through Creative Mode. Anyone who wants to run their own Fortnite tournament would be able to, unburdened by expensive state-of-the-art equipment.
"Everything we've done is leading to a tighter, more efficient show, and creating the tools to make this easier so everyone can do it," Hoffmann said. "That's the thing that's important, and that's what we're building up to. There is no end goal because there is no end. That's the Epic mentality, always on a path to another thing."
That Epic mentality, the urge to lift up others by virtue of your own largesse, believing that many things can be great without detracting from each other's greatness, is not just exhibited by Epic's willingness to share observer tools they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars perfecting. It's also the motive behind offering Robert "Butter" Van Lingen -- a rank amateur from Torrance, California -- the chance to compete with the best at Secret Skirmish for life-changing money. It's the instinct that recognizes and rewards passion, like Zeke Mateus showed when he feverishly pursued shoutcasting as a QA tech. Epic's uncanny omission of ego keeps it agile, ready to grow and adapt to explore new frontiers (or match new challengers).
No Epic employee was prepared to say that Hoffmann's dream setup will be available for the World Cup in July, but the hope? The intention? It's there. All of their rehearsals in the days leading up to Secret Skirmish were also rehearsals for the World Cup and what lies beyond. Alberto "Crumbz" Rengifo never appeared on the broadcast, but before he returned to a League of Legends analyst desk last weekend, he was at Secret Skirmish with the rest of the talent troop, testing out a Spanish-language cast with Paola "Pancakepow" Alejandra.
"[Epic] is constantly making moves outside their comfort zone to push their audience to other areas of entertainment," Crumbz said. "Because at the end of the day, that's all this is -- entertainment. You can define it in various ways, but entertainment is escape-slash-forgetting. Sometimes, I don't want to think about my emails to answer -- I just want to play Fortnite, play League.
"It's the same thing as taking a walk in the park. We just need time away from some things, and the more that time away expands and teaches us new things, the better. You wouldn't want to take a walk in the same park forever."