Most American kids spent last week counting their remaining days of summer vacation. Kyle Giersdorf from Pottsgrove, Pennsylvania, spent his in the centre of a media frenzy. It was unfamiliar ground because usually Giersdorf spends every spare hour of his life sitting in his bedroom playing computer games. He is a 16-year-old boy after all.
But as it turns out, it is precisely because he spends so much time in his bedroom that Giersdorf ended up on the front pages of numerous newspapers and websites. In front of around 15,000 people at Arthur Ashe Stadium, New York, Giersdorf became the inaugural world champion of the video game Fortnite, booking a victory that earned him $3 million. It proved to every doubting parent that a teenager can make something of himself even when he does nothing but sit in front of a screen all day.
“A lot of people think it’s just a game, but he is practicing, dedicated, determined,” Giersdorf’s aunt told Agency France Presse (AFP). “I think he’s the definition of a professional.”
While the rest of the mainstream world shook baffled heads, amazed that playing video games could earn such an enormous pay-day, poker followers were similarly bemused by the tone of the media storm—but for very different reasons. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of tournament poker knows that it’s far from unusual for young boys sitting in their bedrooms to be winning seven-figure prizes. The much-documented “poker boom” started in similar circumstances, and there are several thousand people worldwide still making comfortable livings from poker having first played the game on the internet. In other words: poker did it first.
Yet even as commentators described Giersdorf’s win as “the moment” for esports—ie, its Moneymaker moment—subsequent discussions largely ignored the existence of poker. Most visibly, the German market research agency Statista published an infographic in which it compared the prize pool for the Fortnite World Cup with some prominent individual sporting events, such as tennis and golf majors, the Tour de France and surfing’s Pipeline Masters. There was no place on the graph for the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event, which finished less than two weeks earlier and awarded its winner, Hossein Ensan, $10 million. Needless to say, the WSOP would have landed at the top of the chart–as would every Main Event since 2005, its three Big One for One Drop tournaments, and the Triton Million, which began in London this week.
Some poker reporters considered the omission a glaring oversight, even if the chart’s title did make clear that it was comparing Fortnite’s prize only with “selected” events, and specifically from the world of sport. The other significant disqualifying factor, of course, is the fact that poker requires a buy-in, paid by the entrant rather than the organiser. The prize in poker is therefore not a freebie.
It’s probably best not to get hung up on the perceived injustice of poker’s omission from this discussion, but instead to look at the coverage of the Fortnite championship and determine what influence it might have in the world of poker. After a long period in the spotlight, poker is a hard sell in the mainstream these days—a plateau is not as attractive to editors as a boom, while what were once considered dizzying sums of money are now more commonplace. By the same token, poker has been there, done that and may be able to inform the world of Fortnite in how best to make the most of its time in the sun.
The more one analysed media coverage of Giersdorf’s success, the more parallels to the world of poker began to emerge. There was the proliferation of online nicknames (Giersdorf goes by the screen-name “Bugha” in the world of Fortnite); there were the mind-boggling player numbers (four million people entered online); and there was the grand live finale, where the last 100 players chopped the $30 million prize pool. There was, of course, also Fortnite’s status as a Twitch streaming sensation. Millions tune in to watch the top Fortnite players slug it out in the same way that Twitch viewers already rail the online poker tables.
When some reporters tried to tackle Fortnite gameplay strategy, the sentences could have been lifted directly from a poker tournament recap. “He’s one of the smartest players,” Giersdorf’s best friend, Colin Bradley, told AFP. “He knows when to attack, when not to attack, to stay high ground. He’s a strategic player.”
Similarly Giersdorf’s own language was that of the online poker player. “I’m just so happy. Everything I’ve done, the grind, it’s all paid off.”
Giersdorf eventually found himself on video link to the ESPN studios, where the presenter Ryan Smith expressed his surprise when the new world champion described a strict daily regimen of exercises and practice sessions, which take six or seven hours to complete. Giersdorf was also asked the old chestnut “What will you do with the money?” but swatted aside the cheeky suggestion that it would be “Sodas for all!” and said: “Definitely I’m just going to save the money and invest it. I’m not going to do anything dumb with it. I definitely want to get a new desk, that’s about it.”
It’s the kind of thing we used to hear from Jeff Williams, Mike McDonald, Jason Mercier, Harrison Gimbel and other fresh-faced young poker phenoms forced blinking into the spotlight following a major breakout victory on the European Poker Tour. The ESPN anchor’s “Damn!” belied the same kind of incredulity that used to greet the news that not all poker players were decadent wasters and that some actually had a solid grasp of finance management.
For all that, arguably the most significant aspects of the media debate surrounding the Fortnite story were the ones that took a more negative tone—and again echoed familiar fears surrounding online poker. Some of the shrieks of “Won’t someone think of the children!” could be quickly dismissed as knee-jerk hysteria, but there were other more balanced responses that considered the subject of possible addiction as well as the apparent dangers to health and education if kids spend too long playing games.
An editorial in the Financial Times stated: “While the academic debate around gaming addiction remains unsettled, parents have long worried about the hours children spend on gaming. The World Cup, with millions of views on YouTube alone, seems to glamorise this behaviour…As in other hyper-competitive fields, only a tiny percentage of players make it to the top. For the rest, hours spent online offer little more than myopia and dry eyes.”
None of the debate covered particularly new ground, but it was surprising to learn just how many pastimes had previously drawn similar censure, and for how long. In a spirited Twitter thread in response to the FT piece, the British political journalist Ian Dunt decried the “finger-wagging what’s-to-be-done bullshit which seems mandatory whenever the press covers video games”. He was quickly informed that similar finger-wagging had taken place in the 19th century when people started reading books to themselves and even when people started spending too much time playing chess.
(l) 1859: journalist berates young man’s chess tournament win, a game that ‘robs…valuable time that might be devoted to nobler achievements’.
(r) 2019: journalist berates young man’s Fornite tournament win, a game ‘responsible for so many lost childhoods’.
plus ça change. pic.twitter.com/GGxqLJV2Ah
— Simon Parkin (@SimonParkin) July 30, 2019
Dunt added a blunt conclusion: “Maybe teens spend hours a day in these games because they like them. Maybe they learn things. Maybe there is socialising taking place, in a way you have failed to recognise. Maybe the culture around that game – playing it, talking to friends as you play, discussing it in school, watching others play it, reading news and reviews about it – is like an art form and sport rolled into one.”
WHAT POKER CAN LEARN
There was an obvious temptation when watching footage of the Fortnite World Cup to think: “Wow, imagine if poker could attract an audience like this.” But it’s fair to say that stadium poker is never going to fly. Even sophisticated experiments in allowing spectators to see hole cards in real time, such as in the Global Poker League’s (GPL) “The Cube” experiment, did not catch on. Poker is too slow, too complicated and too low-octane to thrill 15,000 people in stadium seats.
That said, one suspects poker broadcasters will have watched the action from New York with interest, and noted a few areas that could be borrowed for poker broadcasts. In particular, the manner in which viewers were able to click between of any of the Fortnite players, and see the game from that individual’s point of view, feels close to some of the experiments taking place in poker streaming.
This summer, for instance, we were able to drop in on Jason Somerville’s Run It Up Home Game, where poker streaming takes place without a broadcast delay and offers far more interactivity than ever before. It’s a step in the right direction. PokerStars content editor Brad Willis said: “People are always going to want to watch games, and if poker wants to even try to keep pace with egaming, it needs to evolve fast, and it needs to learn from what it saw this summer at the Arthur Ashe stadium.”
WHAT POKER CAN TEACH
When talking about the $30 million Fortnite prize-pool, and Giersdorf’s $3 million victory, it’s also critical to remember another reason why poker is not a perfect overlap. Poker contains a tangible further degree of danger because it involves the real prospect of losing money as well as time. (Fortnite is free to enter. Poker tournaments usually are not.) But online casino operators have long been aware of their commitments to responsible gaming, and have stringent age verification procedures as well as mechanisms to limit game time and deposit amounts. The FT article states that though “Fortnite has an age rating of 12, it lacks a system for verifying this.” These are areas in which the games industry could potentially learn from the online gaming companies.
The good news is that in Giersdorf, Fortnite has a sharp and articulate ambassador, who is evidently aware of the common fears surrounding his chosen pastime and is unafraid to address them. “Addiction is terrible for anyone going through it,” he told ESPN. “You should definitely get some professional help for it. But I see Fortnite as a way of creating friendships and bonds and honestly, this has changed my life forever and I can’t be more thankful for it.”
A well reasoned and thought-provoking article in The Guardian exposed one other troubling element to Fortnite’s success, and one that definitely sounded familiar to people from the poker world. The tech and games journalist Keith Stuart wondered why there wasn’t a single female player among the 100 competitors in the Fortnite World Cup final.
“The easy answer is because no women qualified,” Stuart writes, adding that though the “pro gaming scene likes to present itself as a meritocracy, where pure talent is all that matters…the real issue goes deeper and it’s about why women are under-represented across the esports spectrum.”
Stuart continues, in words that again could be applied to poker’s continued problem with attracting women to the game: “Partly it’s down to the culture of ‘hardcore’ video game communities, which are overwhelmingly dominated by young men and as a consequence, often unwelcoming to women.” He continues: “Even when they’re simply playing online with a group of strangers, women players are sometimes belittled and objectified, their abilities constantly questioned.”
(Stuart had possibly not even seen a story that dropped on a news wire describing a female player named DanyanCat as a “stunning Mexican gamer with huge breasts”. The article continued to quote a commentator observing: “Wow what big and beautiful headphones.”)
Poker is a lot better than it used to be with respect to the objectification of women. The superlative skills of players such as Kristen Bicknell, Maria Ho, Maria Konnikova and Liv Boeree have forced the poker world to acknowledge that gender is no barrier to success at the tables. However, we still regularly see women hired to do little more than stand around and look pretty at poker events, while some of the game’s top female talents, including Vanessa Selbst and Annette Obrestad, have drifted out of the game. There is not one coverall reason for their departure, but the fact remains that the gender imbalance in poker is still hugely pronounced.
Fortnite has already attempted to address its problem using approaches also tested in poker. But Stuart says the game has encountered drawbacks that will also be wearingly familiar.
“One solution has been to set up female-only leagues and competitions, allowing young women players a less toxic environment in which to hone their skills and compete,” Stuart writes. “However, this has proved controversial, with some seeing sex-based partitioning as a means of sidelining and undervaluing women players: unlike in traditional sports, there are no physical differences at play to justify gender segregation. There is a lingering belief that young men are simply better at games than women.”
Esports, however, are currently riding the crest of a wave, growing ever more popular with men and women alike, and the world of poker would therefore be well advised to pay close attention to what happens in Fortnite, particularly if it manages to untangle this particularly knotty issue.
“If things are to improve, the onus is on the game publishers, event organisers, big-name sponsors and team owners to attract and employ more female gamers, to challenge the sometimes sexist culture of the competitive gaming scene through better moderation and stiffer penalties for abuse (for pros as well as amateurs), and to pay well-known female players the same as their male counterparts,” Stuart writes.
Giersdorf told ESPN: “This is pretty much just the beginning. Honestly, I’m going to keep on improving, going to every tournament I can, and just become a better player.”
One hopes and expects the game he represents to do something similar too.