Some teenagers make extra cash by mowing lawns or babysitting. But 16-year-old Kyle Giersdorf of Pennsylvania put them all to shame by winning $3 million playing “Fortnite.”
Giersdorf, who plays Fortnite Battle Royale online as “Bugha,” beat out 99 other players Sunday to win the solo competition at the inaugural Fortnite World Cup, held at the U.S. Tennis Association Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York.
The status of that venue — best known for hosting the world’s top tennis players at the U.S. Open, which will begin next month — was testament to the incredible popularity of Fortnite, a game that allows as many as 100 players to meet on a virtual island and battle it out until one is left.
The game has nearly 250 million registered players, according to its publisher, Epic Games, and about 40 million of them participated in online qualifiers for the World Cup. Tickets to attend the weekend event cost $50 to $150.
The popularity of Fortnite, which was created in 2017, helped drive up revenue for the video game industry and other interactive media last year by 13%, to about $120 billion, according to a report by SuperData, a market research firm owned by Nielsen. Fortnite was the top-ranked free-to-play game in 2018, raking in $2.4 billion in revenue, according to the report, which described the game as “a global phenomenon.”
Giersdorf said in an interview Monday that his confidence had grown as the event had unfolded. “I definitely went into the competition aiming for at least top 20, but after that big first game, I definitely thought I could win,” he said. He played a total of six games, each lasting about 23 minutes, he said.
He said he had played “Fortnite” for two years and had been introduced to the game by his father, Glenn Giersdorf.
It’s the only game Giersdorf plays competitively.
He now plays six to eight hours a day, at least five days a week, in his room.
Giersdorf’s management company, Sentinel, said his $3 million payday was the largest individual prize in esports history. It was also not far from the amount of money awarded by more traditional sporting events: The men’s and women’s singles champions of the U.S. Open will each walk away with $3,850,000, for example.
Only a handful of other professional gamers have earned more than Giersdorf, according to Esports Earnings, a community-driven rankings website. The man who tops that list, according to ESPN, is Kuro Salehi Takhasomi, known as “KuroKy,” who has won $4.2 million since starting his career in 2010. (His game of choice is Dota 2, another multiplayer online battle arena game, from Bellevue-based Valve.)
“I definitely want to save the money and invest it toward my future,” Giersdorf said. “Make sure I’m safe with the money.”
He does plan to splurge on a new desk, he said.
Giersdorf finished the tournament with 59 points. Harrison Chang, 24, an Orange County, California, native who plays as “psalm,” came in second place with 33 points and won $1.8 million, according to Fortnite Intel. The message pinned to the top of his Twitter account reads, “There is no freaking way I just made 1.8 million …”
The tournament offered $30 million in cash prizes.
After the competition, he ran around excitedly for 10 minutes. “I went crazy,” Chang said Monday. He became a full-time gamer in 2016 when he dropped out of the University of California, Los Angeles. In total, he has 19 years of gaming experience.
Chang, who currently lives with family and plans to move out soon, isn’t sure what he’ll do with his winnings. “I’ve always lived kind of frugally, and I’m not really big into, like, spending big,” he said. “I’ll use it somehow to make more money, though.”
Third place went to 16-year-old Shane Cotton of Redondo Beach, California, who goes by “Epikwhale” and finished with 32 points. It was his first major competition, and he won $1.2 million. He brushed it off on Twitter as “a couple of $.”
Cotton practiced six to eight hours a day during the school year, and in the summer he stepped it up to around 10 hours a day, he said. “It’s a great relief for me,” he said about his performance at the World Cup. “I’ve been putting in hours every day. Just trying to get better and prepared for this tournament.” He plans to save most of his winnings but said he will spend some on clothes and shoes.
Giersdorf said his usual training process includes warming up his hands, calling friends to discuss techniques to improve, watching videos of the game and competing in scrimmages. He will try to balance that time-consuming schedule with his class work in high school, where he’ll be a junior this fall.