Since its launch three years ago, the multiplayer video game Fortnite has become a competitive gaming destination for more than 350 million registered players worldwide. But it has also proven its potential as a social space, and a powerful virtual stage for music performances — from Travis Scott’s thrilling “Astronomical” in-game performance in April, which drew 27.7 million unique participants, to sets from artists like Diplo and Steve Aoki inside Party Royale, the game’s new weapons-free mode unveiled in May. And there’s more to come.
On Tuesday (Sept. 8), Fortnite announced a new, three-week concert series called Spotlight, which will be broadcast within Party Royale and feature a different artist performer each week. It kicks off Sept. 12 with a live set from emerging Florida rapper Dominic Fike, who will play songs from his July debut album, What Could Possibly Go Wrong, for the first time, followed by two re-runs the same weekend for audiences in global time zones. More artists will be announced at a later date.
“Fortnite is more than a game,” Nate Nanzer, head of global partnerships at publisher Epic Games, tells Billboard. “[Spotlight] is really about developing Fortnite as a platform, and a place where I can jump in and play with my friends, but I can also check out a concert. We want to have a living, breathing world where there’s lots of different things to do.”
To reach that goal, Fortnite is stepping up its production game. While past Party Royale performers like Diplo livestreamed casual sets from home using a green-screen, Fike and other Spotlight artists will perform from Epic Games’ brand-new studio space in Los Angeles.
Fortnite is free to play, but the game sells virtual merchandise to players for real money — and Fike is taking full advantage, with two skins (avatar outfits) available for purchase. Those are the new Shimmer skin (for 800 “V-bucks,” the equivalent of about $8) and Tender Defender (about $15), a 2018 release which Epic Games is bringing back to its Item Shop tied to Fike’s hit “Chicken Tenders.” We’ve seen Epic Games use this strategy to build hype and boost demand for items before: For Diplo’s June performance to celebrate the release of his Thomas Wesley country album, Fortnite brought back a set of Western-themed skins which had previously been out of the Item Shop rotation.
Those lucrative in-app purchases are at the center of a legal battle between Epic Games and Apple, which erupted last month after Epic Games attempted to skirt the 30% commission that Apple takes on all in-app transactions by adding a new direct payment feature. Apple responded by removing Fortnite from the App Store (and Google did the same on Google Play), prompting Epic to launch lawsuits accusing both companies of anti-competitive practices. Epic declined to comment on the situation.
Fortnite may be leading the way for in-game music performances, but it’s not the only game the music industry is eyeing. Over the weekend, Logic performed during the kickoff of the professional esports League of Legends finals, and over the past few months, virtual event production company Open Pit held several music festivals inside Minecraft with artists like Doja Cat and Charli XCX. And whether through performances or not, artists are increasingly engaging with games: Just last week, Sylvan Esso released a music video for their song “Ferris Wheel” created within Animal Crossing, and in late August, Disclosure launched a musical activation within Minecraft to mark the release of their album ENERGY.
Below, Nanzer discusses why Fortnite wants to become a “tour stop” for artists, how the game’s artist partnerships come together and more.
How does the Spotlight series reflect and build upon Fortnite’s demonstrated commitment to music?
One of the things that we’re most excited about is it opens up a creative space for us around different genres of music. The idea that we can now have a full band play live in Fortnite is really cool. Even if it’s video on a screen, we think it’s significantly more of a lean-forward experience than just watching a livestream of a show on another platform. I’m jumping in there with my friends, we’re loading into Fortnite together, we’re in a squad. [My avatar is] dressed up as Deadpool. You’re dressed up as Batman. It’s this shared social space we’re actively participating in, versus just watching something and doing text chat. We have the social platform — we want to be able to create more experiences for people to have together with their friends.
What have you learned from Fortnite’s past slate of performances about what makes these in-game events work, and how are you applying those lessons to Spotlight?
We learned a lot from the events we’ve done in Party Royale. If you look at the three Diplo shows we did, one of the things that really stood out was this is not something where we have a bunch of people coming in, and they check it out for two minutes, and they leave. What really surprised us was that the vast majority of people coming to the show were there for the entire thing.
What you’ll start to see us do with the Spotlight series is push the envelope a little bit more, in terms of the length of the show. If we’re gonna have this awesome studio and we’re going to get Dominic Fike to show up with his band, we want a set. It should feel like when you went to a club and it was a tour stop and you got to see a full show. We also had some really great learnings out of the collaboration we did a few weeks ago with Kenshi Yonezu, a Japanese pop star. That was a cool test of, “What if we do something that’s very locally targeted at a key market for us?” It went really, really well. You’ll see us experiment with different genres of music, but also more regional flavor as well.
In-game events are difficult to scale, especially when it comes to something as high-production as “Astronomical.” But it seems like you’ve sped up the process, at least for the Party Royale events. Do you still see scalability as a challenge? How are you getting around it?
That is 100% right. One of the goals of the Spotlight series is to have more regular heartbeats of music events that we can do in the game. We want to take it to the next level, and the stages that we’re going to be using open up a ton of possibilities. So not just having a full band and having professional production quality, [but] we’re [also] working with a production team [Far Right Productions] that has done tons of tours for big artists around the world. That’s an XR [extended reality] stage — that basically means it’s a giant LED wall. There’s a whole bunch of cool things that we can do from, “Hey artist, your tour got canceled. All the video assets you made for your tour, bring it into our stage.” It’s relatively plug-and-play. As we start to go into the future, and we think about Spotlight as a platform, I think we’ll really be able to leverage [Epic Games’] Unreal Engine [game development] technology to layer in XR and AR [augmented reality] effects. So even if it’s still a video on a screen, what you’ll get when you experience it in Fortnite is something much more immersive than you would get streaming elsewhere.
By now, you’ve experimented with a range of setups, from high production events like “Astronomical” to casual sets inside Party Royale, streamed from artists’ homes. Spotlight is a little more in the middle. What’s the end goal here — do you want to create more performances like “Astronomical,” more performances like those in Spotlight or both?
We’d love to see artists start to view [Spotlight] similar to, “I have a new album out and maybe I stop in to play Fallon or SNL to get in front of a big audience with my new music.” We have a really big audience that’s really engaged and is the consumer on the streaming platforms, consuming all of this music every day. We hope that Spotlight over time becomes a tour stop for the biggest artists in the world to up-and-comers and everything in between. “Astronomical” and experiences like that are obviously incredible, but you can’t do them every week, and it probably wouldn’t be as special if you do them every week. We think there’s a ton of value in having these regular moments where we can work with more artists and expose our audience to cool stuff.
How did Fike come on board, and what do you look for in artists to feature?
We think Dominic is an amazing artist to launch this with. He has a brand-new album, and no one’s seen him perform it yet, which is a really cool opportunity. We’re seeing a ton of engagement as well from both the management and the label side to help promote this. Obviously, artists right now are looking for innovative ways to engage with their fans, and we think this Spotlight program presents a huge opportunity. We’re in regular conversations with folks across the entire spectrum of the music industry all the time. We have Fortnite radio in the game, where we have a bunch of tracks that we’ve licensed. We have emotes [essentially, dance moves which avatars can perform in games] that we launched using music. We’re constantly engaging at the label level and at the management level. Sometimes these things come about like, we have artists that we really want to work with, or we look at what our fans are into and chase that down. We also have a lot of [artists] who come to us and are like, “Hey, I’m a huge Fortnite fan. I’d love to figure out something to do together.” It’s a little bit of both.
How are performers compensated?
We do this like a tour stop, so artists are obviously compensated for playing the show. It’s pretty straight-forward, honestly. Obviously, that varies based on who it is, but it’s not an insignificant time commitment, right? We have rehearsals, we have all those sorts of things and then the show day. So artists are compensated like they would be for playing any tour stop.
Does Epic front the cost of production? And what precautionary measures are you taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19?
For the Spotlight series, yeah, we’re controlling the entire production. We have the studio space that we’re renting. It’s all COVID-19 safe. We have separate entrances for the production team and the talent team. There are robo-cams in the actual stage and camera operators behind a partition; the audio guys in a different room. We’ve thought through all the things to make sure that both the production team and the talent feel comfortable. Again, we think we have an opportunity to bring some joy to the world and have some awesome music and events when people can’t go to concerts in a physical space. From a creative standpoint, we look to the artist. We’re not telling them what the set list should be. It’s very collaborative around the overall creative vision, but we’re really looking for the artists to bring their own personal flair to the show.
Last year, Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney said that he’d like Fortnite to become an open platform where artists can host their own performances without the company’s involvement. Is that still the goal, and how close are we to getting there?
It’s definitely still a goal. The vision is that Fortnite is more than a game, and that doesn’t just include experiences that we make. If you look at the Creative Mode that exists in the game today, those are game modes that are made by members of the community and folks that sit outside of the walls of Epic Games. You can sort of look at what’s happening today in Creative Mode and see where that goes over time. But absolutely, we could envision that in the future.
Riot Games recently partnered with Spotify. Have you considered going down a similar path?
Yeah, for sure. Obviously, gaming and music go together really well. A lot of people listen to music when they play games. So I think it’s only natural that you’re seeing the streaming platforms collaborate with game developers. It’s definitely something we’ve looked into. Nothing I can share at this point, but I’d say streaming platforms have been great partners for us, even on the events we’ve done. Even if it’s not an official deal, we get tremendous support from Spotify and Amazon Music and others around these events that they help us to promote. Back when we did “Astronomical,” we had audio ads on Spotify and stuff like that. So we work very closely with those platforms to help get the word out when we do these events.
Dominic Fike Premiere: Saturday, Sept. 12 at 5 p.m. ET
Encore 1: Saturday, Sept. 12 at 11 p.m. ET
Encore 2: Sunday, Sept. 13 at 1 p.m. ET