What marketers can learn about Gen Z from Fortnite's success

Steinberg on how Fortnight's strategy can benefit marketers in reaching young audiences.

Epic’s Fortnite is the marketer’s holy grail: a global phenomenon attracting Gen Z players at huge scale in addition to millennials is an online video game, somehow both geeky and cool, underground and mass market. There are important takeaways from the game’s tremendous success for marketers aiming to reach the same audiences.

Fortnite is free to play in when users select the "battle royale" format, and it’s exactly this feature that first oxygenated its popularity when released earlier this year. The game’s success has been amplified by social media acknowledgement from star athletes, celebrities and influencers alike, creating impact that will be typified by top soccer stars leading up to this summer’s World Cup.

Inevitably, marketers are looking to capitalize on its extraordinary and sudden success by working out how to put advertising messages in and around the game – or as the players would say: ruin it. But when examples of how dedicated players are to the game, like soccer star David Price allegedly contracting carpal tunnel syndrome from playing on "too much Fortnite", there’s little question marketers will try to capitalize while it’s hot.

In the week that Facebook officially ceded its place to Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube as a millennial favorite, it’s worth understanding exactly why it is so popular before marketers try to sanitize and data-mine it to death.

One of its principle attractions to Gen Z is exactly how parent-unfriendly it is. Sure, parents can try to play, but it’s a very fast-paced game subject to random interventions, suited to dexterous reflexes and instincts honed on Call of Duty and Minecraft (the game is essentially a combination of the two).

It also depends hugely on the latter’s virtual community appeal, and the Fortnite community is a strong one. Large group play is a key attraction – it’s a new form of social media with its own communication mores and formulas.

The Hunger Games ethos is at its core. Players are dropped in groups of 100 into an alien landscape of their choice on a map after an apocalyptic storm that has wiped out 96% of the population; they have to acquire stuff with which to survive – both to chop down trees to build forts and shelters and weaponry to kill off the many and varied threats to their life. Like Hunger Games, it is last person or group (you can play in teams of up to four) standing.

The major part of its appeal appears to be that players can get out of it what they want. It is easy to play at entry level, but really tough to master perfectly – a bit like the English language. Unlike COD or similar games you can survive and thrive for quite some time simply by hiding in the virtual bushes. There are even accolades for longest survival without killing. That is, until the game unleashes another random storm and flushes the hiders out because they are losing physical power.

However, what is really different is the lack of dog-eat-dog element in a last person standing game. Fortniters genuinely love helping other Fortniters play better. The streaming site Twitch is filled with Fortnite masters like "Ninja" giving tips and encouraging others to watch them play. Some 100k plus viewers do so regularly, and he is making a monthly killing on YouTube. When Ninja took on Drake, over 600k tuned in to watch.

Fortnite is not a gory game, despite the killings. It is anti-realist compared with COD or GTA. A Fortnite master can lose out to a novice on picking up new tools or weapons simply by luck, not skill.  You can’t really get better at the game by simply "buying stuff". In-game purchases are mostly about fun: "skins" or characters and football-like victory dances – which at up to $8. a pop can soon add up! The humour, dancing, shared tips and the fact that you can dip in and out of most games in ten minutes mean that there is less of the absolutely obsessive need to be the "winner".

Of course, marketers have already tried to cash in, and clumsily so. One of the more bizarre elements to the Roseanne’s show’s recent, short-lived revival was Roseanne Barr’s entirely random tweet claiming to have at least "20 Battle Royale wins". Currently there are no in-game ads beyond notifications of stuff you can buy for the game from Epic the manufacturer. They are easily dismissed. It is harder to avoid sitting through a 30-second ad before watching a Twitch demonstration video though. Players love it precisely because there is no pre-roll or in-game advertising.

That’s not to say serious money is not being made already: Twitch, YouTube, "Ninja" and others, Epic (via in-game purchases and tie-ins with the likes of Marvel’s Avengers), the Turtle Beach fancy headsets - all will continue to boom as students come home for summer. The huge question is: will it last? Or will Fortnite go the way of Flappy Birds, Pokemon Go and even PUBG, the rival, original "battle royale" game (the two may be embroiled in a high-profile legal dispute this summer too).

The answer is yes, for at least a year. It is genuinely tapping in to Generation Z’s Hunger Games meets altruism preferences, (which to marketers look contradictory); it hasn’t yet had a full summer of exposure; it will get a huge boost from the World Cup and other new celebrity players; headsets are not yet ubiquitous; its social media amplification tools (like Twitch) are only really getting started; it is low maintenance and – most important of all - parents and marketers really haven’t figured out how to ruin it. Yet.

Jason Steinberg is VP of strategic initiatives at AvatarLabs.