In a windowless room under the stairs in his house, new Wild winger J.T. Brown leaned forward in a high-backed, green-trimmed chair, three computer monitors and a microphone in front of him.
Headphones on, right hand curved around a mouse, left-clicking away on a keyboard, Brown studied the screens, seemingly rambling to himself.
“There’s no mushrooms here. Did they take them out?”
“I got high ground. I just don’t know where they’re coming from. You got eyes?”
“I just got Boogie-Bombed.”
That last statement, uttered with disgust, came while a cartoon man who looks like the night sky — complete with shooting star revolving around his head — danced a disco for five seconds across the middle screen before taking a bullet and dying.
This online video game — Fortnite — has swept Brown and other young male professional athletes into a new level of obsession along with an estimated 125 million players worldwide.
As Brown played this past week in his own personal batcave — complete with noise-canceling foam on the walls so he doesn’t disrupt his pregnant wife and young daughter — a framed poster from the Fortnite Celebrity Pro-Am, in which Brown competed, looked down on him. A purple Fortnite towel rested folded next to his keyboard.
Pro athletes are some of the most recognizable consumers in Fortnite’s worldwide popularity. Sports have featured Fortnite-themed celebrations, from France’s Antoine Griezmann performing a dance from the game after scoring in the World Cup final to Houston Astros outfielders putting on their own in-game displays. The Twins will even host a “Fortday” on Sept. 9 when pitcher Trevor May will play popular YouTube gamer BasicallyIDoWrk on the Target Field video board.
All five professional men’s teams in the Twin Cities, plus the Gophers football team, have at least one avid Fortnite player. The Lynx have at least one team member who plays video games but not Fortnite. They play for relaxation, team bonding, connecting with fans or just the familiar pursuit of being No. 1.
“The big addiction of it is 100 people on a map, and it’s just the last man standing,” Vikings linebacker Kentrell Brothers said. “Just an addicting game. I love it.”
Last year, developer Epic Games initially released a different version of Fortnite called Save the World. Popularity ramped up when Battle Royale came out in September. Twin Cities athletes caught the craze as friends started playing, and it began trending on social media.
May said he’s logged 1,000 hours in the game, while Brown said he plays about four times a week for a couple of hours each time. Some teammates, coaches or significant others might call that excessive. But playing the game isn’t necessarily the distraction it sounds like.
“Especially with athletes, on our off time, we can’t go out and be active doing a lot of things because we want to get off our feet and get some rest,” Vikings safety Harrison Smith said. “It’s just a way for guys to relax.”
The kick-back time also has some side benefits. Many Vikings players will play together in squads of four. It’s the same for soccer team Minnesota United, which has two TVs on opposite walls of its players’ lounge so teammates can play in duos. Several players also take their Nintendo Switch handheld devices on road trips to play at the airport or in the team hotel.
“Otherwise, I’d probably just be sitting by myself watching Netflix in my hotel room,” United defender Michael Boxall said. “The more time you’re spending with your teammates, the more you want to work for them on the training pitch and on the field on a game day.”
Fortnite has already made more than $1 billion, according to SuperData Research. It’s similar to the popular book and movie franchise “The Hunger Games,” with 100 players dropped onto a map to duke it out and be the final one alive. A storm circle pushes players toward a certain area of the map as the game progresses to encourage conflict.
Fortnite also combines a bit of Minecraft, as players collect materials and build defensive shelters or higher ground. Players also search for objects such as weapons and healing potions to aid them during battle. And instead of just shooting opponents, they can also set traps to kill in sneakier ways.
“It’s never going to be the same game,” Brown said, adding his previous favorite game, Call of Duty, became tedious because he would run the same route every time. “In this game, the circle dictates where you go. What kind of loot do you get randomly dictates what you’re going to do next. So even if you drop in the same location every single game, the game is going to be different for you each time.”
For some like Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie, the “corny stuff” keeps him entertained.
Unlike more gritty, realistic video games, Fortnite is cartoony. Players can choose avatars like a mustachioed tomato-headed man and accessorize with stop sign pickaxes or old-school boomboxes. A flying school “Battle Bus” drops players into the environment, and they float to the ground in funkily decorated gliders. Avatars can even do popular dance moves like the dab or flossing. Players can force opponents to dance for their lives with the Boogie Bomb that killed Brown.
New items update every few weeks. While the game is free to download, some of those fun extras, which don’t actually improve chances of winning, will cost a couple hundred V-Bucks, which cost a couple of real dollars.
“I’m not proud of how much money I spend on it,” Okogie said. “To get an outfit, you’ve got to get the 5,000 V-Buck package, and nobody wants to pay $24.99. So you get the $5.99, but you realize how many times you do it, you’re like, ‘I should have just gotten the $24.99.’ It’s just, it’s crazy. But they definitely got me.”
David Whittinghill, a professor and director of the game studies concentration at Purdue Polytechnic Institute, said Fortnite captured the three aspects of a great video game: beautiful art, solid programming and a fun design. And culturally, he said. the game came at the right time.
“This is very light, very colorful,” Whittinghill said. “The tone is not very serious, and I think that makes it just a pleasant place to spend time.’’
Brown, a 28-year-old Burnsville native, fits the majority demographic of video game players. A Pew Research Center study from last year found that 72 percent of American men under the age of 30 play. The hockey player is so into it, he had a specialty Xbox made for travel during the NHL season, though he’ll now just bring his laptop since he’s switched to playing on a PC.
“I mean, you could be at the bar, you could be [anywhere],” Brown said of travel shenanigans. “But me, I’m sitting in my hotel room playing video games. There’s no trouble involved there.”
Fortnite and video games in general have also become a way for pro athletes to stay in touch with long-distance friends. Smith said he’s unlikely to call his pals for a chat, but he’d squad-up with them in Fortnite for 30 minutes and catch up during the game.
“There’s guys that are still my buddies, but who I haven’t really talked to or I talk to every couple of months,” Vikings tight end David Morgan said. “Now I literally will play with them a couple times a week and just talk to them and hang out.”
For some athletes, the connection goes beyond teammates and friends. Both Brown and May livestream their games on Twitch.tv for charity and have developed friendships with pro gamers, celebrities and random fans.
“It turns into a community. Like, we have regulars that will show up every day, every stream. It doesn’t really matter what time I start or what time I finish, they’ll be there,” Brown said. “You kind of build that relationship even though you may only know them as their screen name. … It was just another cool way to get fans to be able to see what you’re like beyond your social media account or after a game if you’re out signing autographs.”
And no matter the player’s celeb status, Fortnite is the great equalizer, since any normal person could end up in a 100-person game with a star.
“To think that we’re just playing against some, like, little 8-year-olds, it just makes me laugh,” Morgan said. “These guys have no idea they’re playing against Harrison and Anthony [Barr], All-Pro guys.”
While being an elite athlete doesn’t necessarily correlate to being an elite gamer, there are some similarities emotionally. Brown said he’ll replay a bad Fortnite loss in his head before bed just like for hockey. May said his first solo victory felt the same as putting away a crucial out on the mound.
That might be the underlying reason Fortnite has so entranced some athletes: The competition is reminiscent of what they do for a living.
“Maybe we professional athletes have a little bit more kid in them,” United midfielder Collen Warner said, “because we’re playing a game.”