Video game developer Epic Games is bringing a major soccer collaboration to its wildly popular free-to-play Battle Royale game Fortnite, allowing fans to play wearing the kits of clubs from across the globe and to "emote" using Pele's iconic goal celebration.
Fortnite will launch the "Kickoff Set" on Jan. 23, featuring uniforms in-game as playable skins. The list of 23 clubs includes global powerhouse teams such as four-time Premier League champions Manchester City, Serie A giants like Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan, Major League Soccer franchises Seattle Sounders, LAFC and Atlanta United and teams stretching around the globe from Latin America, Europe, Asia and Australia (full club list below)
Players will be able to choose from 10 different options of male and female outfits -- which are purely cosmetic in-game purchases where users can customize their character in-game but does not provide any in-game advantage -- which can be swapped to any of the football clubs on the list.
Epic Games global head of partnerships Nate Nanzer says that sports collaboration is a growth area for the game. He told ESPN via Zoom call: "We think about the evolution of Fortnite, and all of the different IP integrations that we've done and bringing all these different worlds into the game, I think we've done a pretty amazing job across movies and comics. Batman plays with Deadpool and Wolverine and Iron Man. We brought all these amazing worlds together.
"But in sports, we've had an amazing partnership with the NFL, but we haven't really done much beyond our NFL partnership. Over the last year, we've really been focused on how we can grow our footprint more in sports."
Though no data was publicly shared, Nanzer noted that a significant portion of Fortnite's player base (which largely falls within the 13-24 age group) are also sports fans and that soccer is consistently one of the top sports requested for a presence in the game. For clubs, brought on board with the help of management agency IMG, it's a chance to speak to a demographic for which it can be tough to cater.
"That's an audience that is notoriously difficult to reach," Nanzer said. "So I think for these leagues and teams they see an incredible opportunity to have their brands experience and get in front of that audience in a way that isn't marketing, that's actually adding value to their experience."
The collaboration will also feature Brazil great Pele's iconic "air punch" goal celebration as an emote. Although the activation does not include the ability to play as Pele in Fortnite, Nanzer notes that the 80-year-old three-time FIFA World Cup winner and his team were well aware of Fortnite and were "super energized. He was a great partner."
A "Fancy Footwork" dribbling emote will also become available in game. Emotes are core to expression in Fortnite. They include a wide array of dances and actions, which often are popular dance routines or viral social media memes at the time such as the "floss" or "infinite dab," that can be chosen to use during a game. They have even made their way on to the soccer pitch, with stars such as Barcelona's Antoine Griezmann and Tottenham Hotspur's Dele Alli celebrating goals by mimicking Fortnite emotes.
When asked if there will be similar collaborations in the future with today's soccer stars, Nanzer said it's certainly possible: "There could definitely be things that we do with modern footballers going forward in the future, and I think given that so many of them are huge Fortnite fans, there could be some fun things that we do in the future."
As an example, Paris Saint-Germain and Brazil striker Neymar has been known to play and love video games, including Fortnite, where he played alongside popular streamers Tyler "Ninja" Blevins, Jack "CouRage" Dunlop, Ben "DrLupo" Lupo and Tim "Timthetatman" Betar at the "Ninja New Years" event in Times Square in New York City in 2017. Last year, David Beckham joined esports organisation Guild esports as a spokesperson and investor.
Nanzer noted that as part of this overall collaboration, esports and gaming brands will also be launching their own activations, mostly in the form of tournaments. For example, FaZe Clan, one of the biggest brands in the gaming/entertainment space, will be launching the "FaZe City Cup" on Jan. 21, an open tournament that will allow teams of two (duos) to compete to earn early access to the Manchester City skin and emotes, and the top 10 players will earn exclusive Manchester City and FaZe Clan merchandise. City Football Group's chief marketing officer Nuria Tarre said in a release: "The FaZe City Cup featuring Fortnite is an exciting first for the club in one of the most popular gaming titles globally and we hope fans worldwide will get involved in the competition and wear their Manchester City outfits in-game with pride."
FaZe Clan and City have an existing partnership dating back to 2019, which has included content featuring players and crossover merchandise.
Fortnite has proven to be a highly lucrative and successful collaboration realm for many brands, athletes and artists, particularly in game. Epic Games announced in May that Fortnite reached over 350 million registered players. Perhaps the tie-up that is most pointed to in terms of a successful case study is the "Travis Scott and Fortnite Present: Astronomical" in-game musical performance that was seen by almost 28 million players within the game, and the official YouTube video on Travis Scott's channel currently sits at 128 million views. According to Forbes, Scott grossed roughly $20 million from the event.
A recent Fortnite skin reveal featuring Spanish Twitch streamer David Canovas Martinez, AKA "TheGrefg," shattered the concurrent Twitch viewership record with over two million people waiting to see what his likeness would look like in the game.
Many athletes also stream Fortnite and have played in competitions including the Streamer Bowl, a charity Fortnite tournament that occurs around the Super Bowl. There have been sprinkles of sports in Fortnite in the past, including an Air Joordan shoe drop in 2019, and Liverpool's Premier League title celebration being immortalised with the "Raise the Cup" emote; but the only other major in-game collaboration with a sports league thus far has been with the NFL, where players can suit up in NFL jerseys. The partnership began in 2018, and one that Nanzer calls "very successful."
The key to success, according to Nanzer, is partnering with brands to make an authentic experience. "There's no brand that's ever paid to be in Fortnite. It's all about finding great partners that are going to be super collaborative, and then we can do something authentic that really adds a lot of value for our players and for the fans of our partner."
Nanzer says that soccer is a targeted growth area and there is certainly more to come. "This is really the start of what we want to do in soccer specifically, but also, I think what you'll see is a big year [Epic Games and Fortnite] in 2021 and into 2022 and bringing more sports into Fortnite. Today we're doing outfits. We've done some limited time modes. I think you'll see with this drop this week, we're also leveraging creative mode a bit more around the drop, and there's going to be a cool, creative experience that players can go in and play. I really think that the future could obviously be bringing more sports into the game, but what's the cool gameplay that's associated with that?"
Nanzer stressed that collaborations are deeply involved and "high touch," and are not taken lightly. But, if the past is any indication, the sky's the limit. Could we see a totally unique sports experience within Fortnite? Perhaps for a Champions League final, a World Cup final, a Super Bowl Halftime show? Could we watch games within Fortnite?
"I mean, anything's possible," Nanzer says. "We're constantly trying to, you know, surprise and delight our players and do continue to push the envelope on experiences both within the game and outside the game as well. I mean it's technically possible today. We did a lot of experimentation this year in Party Royale. We partnered with ESPN to bring The Ocho into Party Royale. We showed movie trailers. We showed full movies. I think we did 10 concerts last year. Really, I think a core part of the Fortnite experience and something that is a huge goal for us and everything we do is that we're creating really compelling experiences that, importantly, you experience with your friends."
The 23 clubs involved are:
West Ham United
Western Sydney Wanderers