MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. -- Christopher "gr0mtv" Wilmot took his biggest shot of the World Showdown of Esports 3 by stepping away from its massive LED-enshrouded stage.
After a brief preamble with reporter Lisa "Lucy Mae" Malambri, gr0mtv strode into the audience, got down on one knee, and proposed to Sara Martinez, his girlfriend of seven years. She said yes.
"[Sara] started mentioning that she wanted to get married, so I started looking a rings maybe a month ago," gr0mtv said. "She's honestly the most amazing girl I've ever met in my life. I've got a little extra money, this is the perfect time to buy a ring. But then I was like, where am I going to do it? I was waiting for the right moment."
The right moment materialized at halftime of the biggest third-party Fortnite tournament ever held. ESP Gaming's third WSOE event pitted established professionals against aspiring amateurs as they vied for a piece of $100,000 inside Manhattan Beach's new OGN Super Arena. A fitting capstone to Fortnite's tumultuous year, WSOE 3 reminded the 330 in-person audience members -- plus tens of thousands more online -- exactly why they fell in love with 2018's signature phenomenon game, and how far there remains to go.
WSOE 3's format was straightforward: 50 duos battled each other across six matches, accumulating points based off placement and eliminations. Half of the duos were invited directly to the final by ESP Gaming based on a mix of factors (skill, popularity, availability), while the other half qualified via an open play-in tournament conducted four days before the final and five days after the WSOE 3 was formally announced.
If the timeline sounds compressed, that's because it was. Negotiations between ESP Gaming and Epic Games had been ongoing for months, until finally a window opened after Epic's own Skirmishes and Royales had concluded. ESP preferred a three-month buildup from initial announcement to grand finals, but got only eight days. In that narrow span, 200 registered duos from across the country hastily rejiggered their holiday plans to attend the offline open qualifiers in Southern California, many braving the season's high travel prices to make the journey.
One of the open participants was gr0mtv, but he didn't trek far. Living just minutes away in Long Beach, gr0mtv linked up with high school friend and fellow local Jae "motor" Oh to try their hand against some of Fortnite's best. Both men had been playing since Season 1, but like many of their fellow open participants, WSOE was their first competitive experience.
Open qualifiers proved to be more difficult than any party anticipated, frustrating tournament organizers and players alike. As a player-focused host, ESP allowed each competitor to use their personal mouse, keyboard and settings throughout the event, something that wasn't allowed by Epic at TwitchCon. The decision resulted in hour-long delays as technical issues arose, pushing heat start times well into the night. A day that began at 11 a.m. PT ended nearly 11 hours later, with hundreds of players waiting their turn in a parking structure outside the venue.
Confusion about the format compounded the technical headaches. Though the open qualifier format was clearly stated on the tournament rules, an official email sent to the players mistakenly outlined the finals format, which was different. Some players were led to believe that each of the four heats would consist of multiple games to determine final placement, which seemed fair considering the inherent randomness of Fortnite. Instead, each heat was only one game, followed by a two-game series (after a tiebreaker) for the top 12 duos out of each heat. The top 25 duos from that two-game series advanced to Sunday's final with the 25 direct invitees. Unfortunately, some players saw their run end minutes after landing due to a bad spawn or unlucky engagement -- all that travel and expense for a few minutes on the island.
ESP president Jeff Liboon was aware of the open-qualification issues, and promised change going forward. A longer runway for the event would permit a deeper, fairer qualification process to find the Fortnite stars of tomorrow.
"I think if we're going to do Fortnite again, we're going to expand our qualifying," Liboon said. "I think the coolest part of this whole thing was that we found some really great talent, some really passionate guys, all they need is opportunity to get on stage. We're adding more to the community that wasn't there before. That's definitely the piece we would refine and go bigger with."
For their part, gr0mtv and motor withstood the delays and easily qualified out of Wave 3 before advancing to the main event through a tight two-game series. But playing on stage next to big names like Ali "Myth" Kabbani, Aydan "Aydan" Conrad and Trevor "FunkBomb" Siegler was a different proposition.
"I watch these guys every day on Twitch, YouTube videos, study film every time and add it to my game," motor said. "I just want to compete with these guys at the highest level."
His teammate concurred. "We've never done customs before," gr0mtv said. "Having 100 players that know what they're doing in a lobby was kind of overwhelming. The competition was really stiff."
Given the difficulties presented by Thursday's open qualifiers, Sunday's final ran smoothly by comparison. Six games were divided by 10-15 minute breaks plus a 30-minute halftime after Game 3, giving players ample time to reset (and production a chance to calculate point totals). Unlike previous LANs run by Epic, every player was visible on stage rather than sequestered in a separate room, with various face cams projected above on the LED curve alongside the game feed. Most of Fortnite's cartoony aesthetic was eschewed in favor of WSOE's sleek reds and blacks, an inflatable Battle Bus the lone reminder. Talent from across the esports landscape kept the production rolling, with Overwatch League's Chris Puckett stepping away from the hosting chair to act as a reporter in the crowd.
But it wouldn't be Fortnite esports without a last-minute item inclusion that dramatically affected the meta. Epic patched in the Boom Box hours before the finals began, sending players scrambling to identify its competitive use. Though the Boom Box ultimately proved less impactful than Winter Royale's Infinity Blade, the item's ability to destroy newly built structures helped decide some fights (and games) that might otherwise have ended differently.
In fairness, including the Boom Box added a pinch of much-needed spice to the gameplay. WSOE 3 was played on live servers with standard rules, a change from the unusual Pop Up rulesets featured in Winter Royale. Material caps were back at 999, encouraging long farm stages followed by careful rotations. Shrewd use of the Boom Box ignited exciting fights in place of potential heal-offs, its pulsating bass line felt both in-game and underneath the audience's feet.
By the end of six matches, the directly invited duo of Hayden "Elevate" Krueger and Davis "Ceice" McClellan claimed victory with 610 points, earning them each $20,000, a nifty letterman's jacket and a sparkling gold chain with the WSOE logo.
"I'm like the whitest kid ever, I've never really worn a chain," the baby-faced Elevate said as he stood amid confetti and well-wishers. "It's kinda heavy. It's dope."
While a crisp production package helped temper both the saltiness of a new item and a sloppy qualification process, it was the infectious enthusiasm of the fans in attendance that made WSOE 3 a net success. Nearly half the crowd were teenagers or younger, with scores of local families and friends filling the OGN Super Arena's comfortable black seats as they watched professionals play the game they love. They cheered wildly when Rocco "Saf" Morales secured a handful of eliminations in quick succession, the younger fans animatedly illustrating the proceedings to their parents. When Puckett called for a dance-off during halftime, they all knew the moves.
In this new year, it's time we stopped forcing Fornite into the esports molds of old. Accept that the game is destined to be different, an exception hewn from its unparalleled impact on a generation of gamers. No one, not even Epic, knows what Fortnite will be. Better then to enjoy the ride and examine what it means to different people, from the professionals all the way down to Liboon's 6-year-old son, who is just happy to hang out as he fills in Squads.
"He just likes being a part of something when he plays," Liboon said of his son, who had the time of his life at WSOE 3. "He likes talking to people on the headset, likes feeling that he's involved. Sometimes he ends up with a squad that's really good and they end up winning; he feels so good about that. That's the one thing games in general do. They sometimes get a bad rap, but I see it with my son every day, that makes him feel good, gives him some confidence, makes him feel like he's a part of something."
Though gr0mtv and motor were a part of the WSOE 3 finals, they left in a four-way tie for 44th place, well outside the money. Motor plans to continue his side hustle selling shoes, while at 27, gr0mtv has a new fiancée and a 3-year-old to keep him busy as he builds a streaming audience. Despite a poor showing this time around, gr0mtv and motor returned to Long Beach eager for another shot on the big stage.
"[ESP] really came in strong and nailed it," gr0mtv said. "It was really good for us to get in and play this. Hopefully some more companies get into it, too. I'd love to play more LANs, travel the world and do other stuff other places. I like the idea."