SAN JOSE, California -- As thousands wrapped around three downtown blocks in front of the San Jose Convention Center, struggling to get into TwitchCon 2018, attendees couldn't help but notice large banners advertising the biggest trend in competitive gaming: battle royale.
Arguably the most-viewed game genre on Twitch in recent months, battle royale games have made developers excited about the opportunity to capitalize on a major gaming trend. Activision, Epic Games and Bluehole set up not only a showdown online for users, but one that was visible across a three-block radius in downtown San Jose.
All three differed. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 Blackout, released less than two weeks prior, sat center stage in a four-heat, 16-streamer showdown in the main hall of the convention center. To the south of the convention center's main walls, the Fortnite Hall occupied the majority of a 38,000-square-foot tent, featuring themed mini golf, food and drinks, photo opportunities and the conclusion of the Fall Skirmish series. In the City National Civic across the street, HP Omen hosted a streamer showdown in PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds with military-style banners and equipment decorating the exterior.
Fortnite, the frontrunner of the three, which has made a significant cultural impact outside of gaming across traditional sports and entertainment, brought a multimillion-dollar budget to the table. Epic created a mini Fortnite amusement park experience, filled with blue walls and faux green turf and littered with children and teenagers -- a younger demographic than Blackout or PUBG. For the main competitive event, Fortnite pitted 100 players against one another. Players were separate from the audience, held in a secure area that was viewable to the audience through a large window.
Over the course of the three days, Fortnite averaged around 65,000 concurrent viewers per day across Twitch, YouTube and Facebook, according to streaming analytics platform Arsenal.gg. Blackout and its Doritos Bowl -- which included a main stream and 16 simul-streams from those competing in the event -- averaged 133,933 concurrent viewers on Saturday. Meanwhile, PUBG's Broadcaster Royale averaged 11,814 concurrent viewers per day from Friday to Saturday.
Many of the competitions' participants overlapped. Tyler "Ninja" Blevins, the most popular streamer on Twitch, and Jack "CouRage" Dunlop competed in both the Doritos Bowl and participated in Fortnite festivities over the weekend. Former Counter-Strike pro Michael "Shroud" Grzesiek took part in the PUBG Broadcaster Royale, and also led his team to win the Doritos Bowl.
"A lot of [deciding what to participate in] comes down to just that, scheduling," CouRage told ESPN. "I have certain priorities. For example, I didn't cast the Skirmish on [Saturday] because I had the [Doritos Bowl]. When companies reach out, if I had a blank slate or not. It's a showdown between my two favorite games: Blackout (Call of Duty) and Fortnite."
Unlike its peers, Blackout's competition format for the weekend varied significantly. In a four-stage "heats" format, Activision put all 16 streamers in the same lobby on a private server, and then unlocked that server to the public, which filled the remaining 84 spots from those queuing in squads at home. When a team was eliminated -- either by their streaming peers, or by random players within the game -- that team would queue up into other random matchmaking games, without the other stream teams. This created about 20 minutes of serious competition between the well-known players, followed by another 40 of pubstomping, or matchmaking players of higher skill against random, often of lesser skill queues.
Fortnite and PUBG actively queued their 100 players with one another in-person, requiring a heavier technical lift and more from the observers who operated the event. Fortnite had a significant space behind the stage, as well as three trailers outside, with producers with both esports and traditional television production backgrounds. PUBG featured a smaller setup behind the curtains on the Civic's stage and a few television-style production trucks outside.
It's a far cry from TwitchCon in Long Beach, California, last year. There, H1Z1 -- a battle royale game that has since seen a significant decline in viewership -- hosted a competition at the event. Fortnite, which released its battle royale mode about a month prior, featured 10 kiosks for fans and two streamer pods. A lot has changed.
In the battle royale of battle royales, it's clear that Blackout and Fortnite, with hundreds of fans and not enough space to hold them (fire marshalls began capping the number of attendees allowed in the Fortnite Hall, and viewers for the Doritos Bowl spread out far more than the provided 220 seats) seemed to gather the most attention. In the Civic, fans sat and watched the PUBG competition but the vibe was that of an activation for Omen, with merchandising and product testing opportunities front and center.
Overall, however, Fortnite appealed to a younger demographic and came off as an interactive experience, rather than a spectator one. Blackout clearly made itself a spectating experience, comparable to that of a sports broadcast, filled with high-quality advertisements and then a sea of people watching from the crowd.
"H1Z1 is probably the loser," Shroud told ESPN following his Doritos Bowl win on Saturday. "For me, the winner would probably be Blackout. It's so good for my playstyle, I love it. It's all action. It's not Fortnite, where it's build first and shoot later."