When he entered Fatal Fields, Turner “Tfue” Tenney was in trouble.
It was on Saturday night, well into the third North American qualifying session for Fortnite’s Winter Royale, that Tfue was forced to hide among the POI’s trademark cornstalks. He had just been lasered by an unseen competitor, draining 100 shield and a smidge of health. As he swallowed half shields inside a hastily constructed wooden structure, Tfue reflected on the most recent exchange.
Something wasn’t right. The corn completely obscures the players’ vision (and vice versa), but Tfue was hit as if he had carelessly run across an open plain. How could that guy have seen it?
“Dude, is this guy cheating?” Tfue asked, more to himself than to his 90,000+ viewers. In an open online qualifier like this, anything was possible.
An answer came moments later, heralded by the steady tap-tap-tap of a SCAR assault rifle on Tfue’s wooden wall. The shots came from the corn, hitting the exact spot on the wall that Tfue was behind. Tfue edited a window to return fire and was eliminated in seconds, never seeing his opponent before ending the match in eighth place.
As it turned out, his opponent never saw him either. Later, a replay confirmed what Tfue already knew: he had been hacked by an aimbot, allowing the offender to pull off a perfect series of shots despite zero visibility in the cornfield.
“This guy is cheating bro! I knew this guy was cheating,” Tfue said as he took off his headphones and walked away from the computer in frustration. “F— this game… That’s why I don’t play online tournaments. It’s so dumb.”
The experience further soured an already bitter qualification process for Epic Games’ latest esports experiment. A $1 million event held entirely online and open to the public was sure to draw exploitation, and if the talk of a weekend of open sessions in North America and Europe was any indication, the public did not disappoint. Accusations of hacking and stream hacking ran rampant in the community, and Epic took little action to deter cheaters.
The outcry caused by such players nearly drowned out any positivity the event was intended to promote by spotlighting talented unknowns.
The hackers were a predictable consequence of Epic’s first massive open tournament, a 180-degree change from the closed nature of the previous Fall and Summer Skirmishes. Fans who couldn’t afford a trip to PAX West or didn’t get an invite to TwitchCon yearned for a truly open event, and Epic finally agreed. For Winter Royale, anyone could log into the client during session hours and try to secure one of the 200 seats (per region) for the upcoming finals. The game tracked the player’s progress in a special Winter Royale mode, which automatically recorded points and announced them in-game, an attractive feature.
Points were awarded based on the usual criteria (placement and eliminations), with the best of six three-hour sessions used to determine advancement.
Although technically a competitive esports event offering significant prize money, the Winter Royale is also a test. Shares a set of rules with the current Scavenger popup cup. Material limits are halved, farming speed is increased, and players receive health when they secure an elimination. This is Epic’s way of evaluating how a particular format or set of games change fare in a truly competitive environment as they prepare for next year’s Fortnite World Cup.
However, staging a serious tournament within a mode that is, by definition, lopsided seems like a dangerous game, prone to infuriating participants who are already stressed about the stakes. Announcing qualifiers for such a gamestate two days before Thanksgiving and four days before the event didn’t help matters.
The Fortnite meta was already controversial before Winter Royale started. Patch 6.30 introduced overwhelmingly overpowered mounted turrets and removed the glider redeploy mechanic that players relied on for mobility. Adding Scavenger rules to the mix compounded the influence of randomness on a player’s Victory Royale chances. Solo skill became secondary to finding the right weapons before the enemy or having a lucky storm for easier rotation to conserve materials. Creating the circumstances for a high set attempt seemed to be left to chance, and when that perfect run did occur, it could always be finished by an aimbot.
Which brings us back to Tfue, who won’t be one of the 200 players fighting for a share of $500,000 in the North American finals on December 11-12. The winningest competitive Fortnite player alive, with over $465,000 in prize money and three first-place Fall Skirmish finishes (including TwitchCon), he failed to qualify, with 27 points just under the 28 limit.
Despite peaking at over 100,000 viewers on Saturday, Tfue refused to air his Sunday games. It was unclear if he did it because of the snipers or a desire to focus. Regardless, fans were forced to track his games through a third-party site, unable to watch him play live. Some gathered in the Twitch chat alongside Tfue’s offline stream, estimating their current points and praying their hero could grab a few more.
At the end of his broadcast on Saturday, Tfue and his viewers shared what would be their last moment together in Winter Royale. After thanking several subscribers for their continued support of him, Tfue stared at his monitors in silence, defeated.
“I’ve never hated playing this game so much,” Tfue said, seconds before turning off the broadcast. “I think that’s why I have so many viewers today, bro. People like to see me fucking miserable.”