In the New York tennis stadium where the U.S. Open is played every summer, Fortnite players — many not old enough for a driver's licence — competed this weekend for a $40 million prize pool in a first-of-its-kind tournament.
Like many professional sports, video game competition is dubbed the World Cup. Like many professional athletes, the competitors warm up, train and scrutinize their strengths and weaknesses for hours a day.
"In football and basketball, they'll go over film of their game," said Canadian contestant Hayden Krueger, 17. "So every night, we'll do like an hour of film. And we'll watch over our films to see what we did good, what we did bad and then just apply it the next day."
Krueger is better known in the gaming world and to his 20,000-plus Twitter followers as Elevate. He beat 40 million hopefuls to become one of a handful of contestants in the lucrative three-day finals.
He finished third on Saturday, scoring a cool $2.4 million for the ranking, which he'll split with his competition partner, who goes by the name Ceice.
The winner of Sunday's solo category will take home $3.8 million, the same amount tennis champions Novak Djokovic and Simona Halep each scored at Wimbledon this month.
Practising eight to 12 hours a day, Calgary-born Krueger, who now lives in the U.S., says he stands to make about $150,000 US in earnings this year from other tournaments. That doesn't include sponsorship deals or streaming revenues.
"A traditional job gave me anxiety," he told CBC News in a Skype interview from his hotel room in New York after his win. "I didn't want to show up to my cubicle every single day and take my pay cheque. I wanted to do something different with my life."
The teenager has a rigid, albeit unconventional, routine.
"I wake up at like 1 p.m. or 3 p.m. and then I'll play until 3 a.m. into the night," said Krueger. "It's like the same hours if not more [than a 9-to-5-job], like eight to 12 hours of this game. It's pretty scheduled for me."
The commitment — and its payoff — is enviable enough that players have fans turning up in droves to watch them perform. Competitors, who range in age between 13 and 24, are often stopped between rounds to sign autographs or pose for selfies.
The award-winning battle royale game, which has become a cultural phenomenon since it was released in 2017, involves 100 players being dropped onto an island to compete for survival. It's free to play, but part of Fortnite's internal currency allows participants to make upgrades and purchase add-ons for their avatars, such as "skins" (costumes) and "emotes" (signature dance moves).
Eyes on the prize
It's left some parents torn between trying to indulge their child's interests and wondering whether their kids are spending too much time and money on the product. Kim Jeffords, who made the eight-hour drive from from Niagara Falls, N.Y., for her son, Nick, to attend the event, said she's spent at least $25 a week on game-related purchases for him.
"I really don't want to add it up because it will probably scare me," she laughed.
Nick, blond and sporting a Nike T-shirt and polarized Wayfarer sunglasses, said he plays the game "at least 12 hours a day."
"I don't take breaks," he said with a smile.
At 11, his skills qualified him for the week-to-week round robin action. He was just too young to enter the finals.
"It is easy to get lost [in the game] because you want to become the best," said esports journalist Victoria Rose. There are a lot of games with that issue."
Among them, she says, are Grand Theft Auto, Dota and Starcraft. Rose says serious players will often switch to home schooling or take classes online to leave more time for the game.
"It's mostly these very well trained, very educated players who know how to play efficiently, who know how to balance their work life to become the top players," she said. "Just being here is a $50,000 guarantee. It gives you eyes to have sponsorships, to have a future."
While Fortnite is still enjoying widespread popularity and massive revenue, some data suggests the game might be experiencing a slight decline in interest compared to when it burst onto the video game scene two years ago.
'Astronomical' prize money
The World Cup, launched for the first time this year, could be another way to keep the game top-of-mind. Epic Games, which created Fortnite, has pumped more than $100 million in prizes over the last season of tournaments which is "astronomical in terms of esports," according to ESPN sports host, Arda Ocal.
"This [event] is a massive deal, if not only for the giant prize pool itself, but also the amount of viewers that this entire season in competitive esports has had," said the Canadian-born broadcaster. "For Fortnite, this is a great way for people to continue to know and learn about their game but also get engaged and be motivated to play the game after watching it."
Krueger says it's natural for parents to be reluctant to let their kids get too involved with the game, and his were no different. But they came around, he says, after seeing his detailed plan of how he intended to achieve his goals. His mother has also recently decided to shift careers and return to school to study law.
When asked if Krueger might be able to help with her tuition, he laughed: "Maybe."
Next month, the Dota 2 esports tournament will surpass Fortnite's prize pool, offering over $40 million — the largest pot for this kind of competition.