Well, Billie Jean King was always about breaking barriers and it looks like the tennis center that bears her name will continue to do that. The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York (home of the US Open) will be the setting of the Fortnite World Cup Finals this July.
You read that right: the staid, traditional sport of tennis will open the doors of its most important American venue to esports. Note to venue owners: that ringing sound you hear is a wake-up call. Esports is nothing you can afford to ignore or hit the snooze button on.
And this is no small-potatoes event. Epic Games’ big announcement included the fact that the prize pool is $30 million, and the champion will walk away with $3 million. (Compare that to the 2018 prize money of the US Open of $3,800,000 and you have an even better apples-to-apples comparison.) And by the way, the top 100 solo players and the top 50 duo teams from around the world will duke it out on the U.S. Open grounds. Each one of those players will be guaranteed at least $50,000.
The USTA made sure it was out on the leading edge for bidding on this event, according to Danny Zausner, chief operating officer of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
“We learned of this potential opportunity just before the 2018 US Open,” noted Zausner. “Our understanding was that Epic Games was doing a search to find a great location for its first-ever Fortnite World Cup Championships. We immediately got in touch with Epic's agency Endeavor to express our desire to host the event. Ultimately we were selected.”
Additionally, he noted, “Fortnite has a fan base that numbers nearly 250 million players worldwide. We look forward to playing a role in this cultural sensation, with the chance to showcase the National Tennis Center in an entirely new way.”
The event will take place on the hallowed floor of the BJK NTC’s Arthur Ashe Stadium. In an article in VentureBeat, Epic has noted the game has more than 250 million players. Plans call for that stadium court to be transformed into a Fortnite environment for the crowds of global players who are expected to be in attendance.
“The teams at Epic and Endeavor are very creative,” said Zausner, “They will construct a first-of-its-kind interactive Fortnite envrionment and experience for fans and attendees. We expect this immersive experience will stretch from our East Gate entrance into our South Plaza that faces the main entrance to Arthur Ashe Stadium. The actual competition will take place inside Ashe Stadium.”
And ultimately, he adds, it will serve the venue’s primary sport as well. “All of the revenue generated by the NTC, either tennis or non-tennis related, goes to funding the USTA's mission of promoting and developing the sport of tennis in the U.S.”
According to FastCompany, the move to NYC comes on the heels of a highly successful Fortnite E3 Pro-Am that played out in Los Angeles last June, which was reportedly the highest-viewed Western esports tournament, with over 2 million concurrent viewers across seven online platforms and 30 different channels. It’s just another sign that esports is going to be a big player in the future of entertainment.
And the grounds traditionally used for the US Open offer tremendous flexibility for the event, with a press box, corporate suites, ample space for expo/trade show booths, concessions, rest rooms and accessibility to mass transit (spectators attending the U.S. Open each summer generally take either buses or the subway to get to the grounds).
But while the Fortnite event will be a standalone esports tournament, other aspects of the grounds will see traditional use as well, notes Zausner. “The event overlaps with the height of our tennis season at the NTC, so we will continue with regularly scheduled tennis programs that take place on the field courts in the remainder of the facility.”
USTA’s embrace of the growing esports industry can’t be all that surprising to those who follow the exponentially multiplying economic infrastructure of gaming. According to a study by NewZoo, “the global esports economy will grow to $905.6 million, a year-on-year growth of 38 percent. The majority of this (77 percent) will be generated directly (sponsorships and advertising) and indirectly (media rights and content licenses) through investments made by endemic and non-endemic brands that will spend $694 million, an impressive 48% percent increase over the previous year.”
But still. An esports event. Outside? In July? In New York? The US Open (played from the last week of August through the first week of September) is known for its hot, humid temperatures and an event scheduled for late July certainly isn’t going to be much cooler – but as we’ve seen from the Pro-Am, it’s a model that – unpredictably – works:
“The event was in an outdoor football stadium,” noted a blog in Hosting-DF, “which seems like a not-great plan in hindsight, given that it’s LA and burning hot outside, and also this is something that involves both the audience and the players staring at screens outdoors in the daylight….But how did tonight go? It was pretty fun. Probably too much downtime, but if you follow the YouTube and Twitch scenes, and recognize most of the celebrities, it was cool to see them all together battling it out.” It's not the first time esports have been hosted in an arena traditionally used for other sports, either; in November of 2018, the Smokies Stadium in Tennessee, an MiLB venue, hosted the Smokies Esports Challenge. Venue operators should prepare for similar challenges.
While there is no public projection of economic impact, Zausner says the USTA has been trying to enlarge the scope of the National Tennis Center for some time now.
“Since the completion of the $650 million transformation of the USTA BJK NTC, we have begun to contact other sports about hosting festival-type events on our grounds, but this is our first major "get." We believe the Fortnite World Cup Championships will allow us to showcase our venue in a way we have never before been able to.”
Event owners and venue operators interested in hosting esports should research carefully to find out what is needed in order to put on a successful event. This article provides an excellent case study – without a purpose-built esports facility.