Fortnite’s Super Bowl LV event is a sobering reminder of gaming’s social limits

Super Bowl LV takes place this weekend, and it’s a weird one. While last year’s game narrowly avoided the COVID-19 pandemic, February’s big game lands smack dab in the middle of the isolation age. That’s left the NFL and other brands scrambling for creative ways to bring the event’s social components to life.

Enter Fortnite. This year, players can visit an ambitious football fan experience in the battle royale game’s creative mode. The collaboration between Epic Games and Verizon adds a whole arena, inspired by the Raymond James Stadium, to the game. Players can log in and explore the massive installation, completing small quests and playing football-inspired minigames.

The stunt is a noble attempt to replicate some of the joys of Super Bowl weekend, but there’s a somewhat depressing downside to it. After spending some time in the digital arena, it quickly became a sobering reminder of the social gaps video games aren’t able to fill during this health crisis.

Super Bowl blues

I initially had some high hopes for the mode when hearing about it. Fortnite has done an excellent job throughout the pandemic at providing creative social experiences. Last spring’s in-game Travis Scott concert was a genius alternative to live shows that had the internet buzzing. It felt like strangers were all together in the same collective crowd in a musical moment that felt both familiar and forward-thinking.

Fortnite Super Bowl

The Super Bowl installation is a far lonelier affair. I logged into the game on Monday shortly after the update launched and dropped into the mode expecting a huge party with a server full of players bustling around. Instead, I plopped right in front of a giant stadium with no one in sight. Rather than finding human players, I was greeted by a repetitive beat perpetually playing over the loudspeakers. I eventually crossed paths with a handful of players in some minigames, but not enough to make the space feel as bustling as I had hoped for.

As I explored every detail of the intricately designed space, I couldn’t help but feel like I was the protagonist of a zombie movie. The eerily empty stands and silent VIP areas didn’t feel too far off from Dawn of the Dead’s abandoned mall. I was exploring a ghost town.

To its credit, the in-game stadium itself is an amazing feat. Built by Beyond Creative, the installation is a perfect football stadium replica. I spent lots of time just running through the rows of seats, taking in the scale of the field itself. It immediately brought me back to places like New York City’s Jacob Javits Center, making me feel like I was exploring the New York Comic Con floor, minus the cosplayers. That feeling ended up morphing into a double-edged sword.

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— Verizon (@Verizon) February 1, 2021

Up to this point in lockdown, I haven’t thought much about stadium events (it’s crazy to think I was at a WWE show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center days before the pandemic broke out in NYC). I’ve certainly missed events themselves, but I’d forgotten about the small joys of walking around a convention floor for something like E3 alongside other fans.

Fortnite’s vacant stadium immediately made me remember that those spaces still exist, but are now just suspended in ominous silence.

Gaming’s social challenge

In general, video games have done a tremendous job at filling social gaps during the pandemic. Beyond Fortnite, games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Among Us provided players with some much-needed ways to connect. Hell, I attended a mock wedding in Animal Crossing last year, and it was perfectly sweet.

The Super Bowl gala shows that it’s harder to provide those same experiences at scale. Replicating a fun hangout with a few close friends is easy with a Zoom link and your Jackbox Party Pack of choice, but filling the void left by big events is much harder. Even on a basic level, most games aren’t capable of bringing thousands of people together in one place for a collective experience. At best, players will be split into different servers with a handful of other players. Technology just can’t fill a stadium.

Fortnite Super Bowl

There aren’t a lot of easy solutions to that challenge, but there have been some creative ones. Indie baseball simulator Blaseball herds its fans to a Discord where players can comment on digital games live with thousands of other players. The server even held a “live concert” in a voice channel to cap off a championship game. That’s similar to the appeal of platforms like Twitch, where thousands of viewers can come together to spam emotes in chat while collectively watching someone else game.

Some modders have even taken matters into their own hands, creating a 100-player version of Among Us that accurately depicts the chaos of being in a collective mosh pit. That’s about the closest thing players can get to being in a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd right now.

Video games were better suited to handle the sudden loss of social interaction than any other industry, but it was impossible for anyone to fully prepare for it. The more time goes on, the more these novel digital experiences start to feel like a limited stopgap. I’m not even someone who attends the kind of all-access fan events that Fortnite is simulating, but I somehow found myself missing them all the same.

It’s going to take a lot of innovation to get us through the rest of the pandemic without feeling an irreversible typhoon of FOMO. Epic Games is making a valiant effort as it leads the charge for gaming, but there’s still a ways to go until players are really able to immerse themselves in simulated events at scale. Until then, we’re all united at one digital whiteboard, brainstorming solutions in real time.

That’s perhaps the most collective experience of the pandemic so far.

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