Competitive Esports and Anticompetitive Practices: Fortnite Takes On Big Tech

In mid August, would-be players of the popular video game Fortnite found themselves unable to locate the app on Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store. Soon after, it was revealed the tech giants announced they had removed the game from their digital marketplaces over a violation of their fee policies, and with it, the future of the internet’s most popular esport was suspended in uncertainty.

These changes came  after Fortnite developer Epic Games began allowing players to purchase virtual currency through its own payment system, bypassing the 30 percent cut Apple and Google receive on in-app purchases. Epic recently filed suit against Apple, asserting the tech firm’s role as a “monopolist middleman.” 

According to the filing, Epic claims that Apple “goes as far as to gag app developers, preventing them from even mentioning to users the option of buying the same content outside of the app — for example, by purchasing content directly from the app developer, or using a web browser.” This contest highlights regulatory concerns in both the U.S. and Europe, where lawmakers have been re-examining anticompetitive practices by so-called “big tech.” 

Though Fortnite has been removed from Apple’s  App Store, the game maintains a large number of users on other platforms, namely consoles and computers. Still, prior to the app’s removal, 116 million Fortnite players accessed the game through an iOS-enabled device, representing nearly a third of registered users.

The impact on Fortnite’s Esports scene is another crucial consideration in this high-profile clash. Though most competitive players use computers, Fortnite’s removal from the app store and the inability of iOS device users to receive new game updates threatens its already-small mobile Esports community. 

Last year, Fortnite made headlines over its World Cup, in which 16-year-old Kyle Giersdorf won $3 million for his first place finish. The event attracted 2.3 million viewers online and another 19 thousand in attendance. Despite the popularity of this event and others, Fortnite’s mobile community has remained out of the spotlight as Epic has hosted very few mobile-exclusive tournaments. 

Content creators are facing similar challenges as well; they are stuck playing against other mobile users in an outdated version of the game. Concerns about a decline in YouTube viewership — where many Fortnite players broadcast their games — among creators are widespread.

Epic is not alone in its feud with Apple. As The Verge reported in late August, Matt Mullenweg, founder of publishing platform WordPress, accused Apple of “cutting off the ability to update [the] app — until or unless he [added] in-app purchases.” Prior to the mandate, Mullenweg said, he had no plans on selling premium content to the app’s users. He has since announced in-app purchases for WordPress.

On Aug. 22, Epic Games Chief Executive Tim Sweeney took to Twitter to criticize Apple’s supposed lack of innovation: “[A] big part of Apple’s growth comes not from creating things, but from building paywalls in front of the work of others.” 

Sweeney is not new to testing the boundaries of app store policies. In 2018, Epic released an Android version of Fortnite in an effort to avoid listing on the Google Play Store. There exists no similar workaround for Apple’s App Store, which some say explains why Epic has taken particular aim at Apple.

Apple, for its part, has claimed that the 30 percent fee supports its efforts to uphold user privacy and security. The company also argues that its fees are in line with other platforms.

While many in the Fortnite community have promoted the hashtag #FreeFortnite at Sweeney’s encouragement, some competitive players have expressed doubt about the executive’s portrayal as a Robin Hood-like figure. “Epic games would’ve done the same thing if they were apple [sic],” said professional player Williams Aubin on Twitter.

Going forward, all eyes will be on the tech giants as they attempt to navigate the increasingly hostile regulatory landscape in both Washington and Brussels. In a statement to NPR, Sweeney summarized: “It’s not that Epic looked at articles about investigations of these companies and decided that now’s the time to act. It’s the same bad behavior by Apple and Google that’s driving everybody to the common conclusion that these monopolies need to be stopped.”