Battle Royale: Why Fortnite Conquered NFL Locker Rooms

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  • By Nick Toney
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Jordan Poyer's offseason routine is best broken down into three pillars. Remove one and his whole day crumbles.

First, the third-year Bills safety gets a morning lift in. Next, he returns to his South Florida estate for some light afternoon fishing. Then, Poyer races to his man-cave--a framed jersey and game ball-adorned room of any sport fan's dreams--and boots up a video game that has taken professional football by storm.

"(Every day I) get a workout, come home, either go fishing or just come up here and play some Fortnite," Poyer explained in a video from the Bills. "Because I'm the best."

***

According to IGN, "Fortnite: Battle Royale" was well on its way to becoming the most popular video game ever in Mid-March. Its developers, Epic Games, reported that over 3.4 million gamers were logged on at any given time. And some of those users, like Poyer, couldn't keep away from the cartoonish, colorful realms that house 100-player survival fights.

Then the NFL collided head-on with Fortnite and pushed the game into another stratosphere. You know the story if you play: Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster teamed up with rapper Drake, producer Travis Scott, and professional gamer Tyler "Ninja" Blevins for a game they broadcasted on game-streaming site Twitch. At its peak, over 630,000 people watched that foursome play. That's not a typo; that's a bigger audience than the one that watch SportsCenter's 6 p.m. ET show last month, according to The Athletic's Richard Deitch.

Watch Squads with Drake, Travis and JuJu you heard me. | @Ninja on Twitter and Instagram from Ninja on www.twitch.tv

What could possibly make a video game more exciting than scoring a real-life touchdown? On the edge of the NFL's "Fortnite Season" - where players will spend road trips logged on and end zone trips dancing like in-game characters—we asked five current players and gamers to break down the league's newest obsession.

***

Player One: Raiders quarterback Derek Carr

Derek Carr's pick-up basketball games are legendary. He once played a full season at Fresno State with a hernia. And he's the extremely proud owner of a Guinness World record in pinata-breaking.

He wasn't about to back down when his Raiders teammates and hometown friends challenged him in Fortnite.

"My teammates know me more as a PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds player," Carr said. "(But) think the thing that makes Fortnite so addicting is how competitive it is."

Once the Raiders' franchise QB got started, it was hard to stop. He rained down friendly fire on his brothers, Darren and NFL Network's David. He played pick-up games with safety Erik Harris, guard Jon Feliciano, and receiver Rod Streater.

He even reached out to a guy who'd later share the Bay Area spotlight with him.

Carr's lesson: Competitive Fortnite playing is a little like competitive football playing. There are high stakes - "100 people and you have to be the last one left" - that sound like the tail end of a motivational Jon Gruden speech.

Said Carr of the Raiders' gaming culture: "I think our locker room is split for sure."

Player Two: Bears running back Tarik Cohen

On the Friday before Super Bowl LII, Tarik Cohen couldn't fall asleep.

It wasn't football-related FOMO that kept him up. It was his new Fortnite obsession that reversed his rest cycle—and drove him to skip Justin Timberlake's halftime show in its entirety.

Think about that. Cohen tuned out the first Super Bowl of his professional career to play Fortnite. The game is always on his mind.

So it's no surprise, then, that he viewed Chicago's new head coach hire in terms of the game that he just can't put down.

"(If Coach Matt Nagy played Fortnite), he'd definitely be the leader of our squad," Cohen said. "Always putting the marker down on where to land."

But could Nagy beat his running back? Just ask fellow NFLers like Buccaneers tackle Donovan Smith, Colts tight end Eric Ebron, and Jets return specialist Andre Roberts. They've all faced off against Cohen and lost.

It's not just a video game thing. It's about toughness, testosterone, and bragging rights too.

Said Cohen: "I'm the best NFL Fortnite player. Easily."

Player Three: Bengals center Billy Price

Billy Price was thinking about Fortnite on the night of April 26th. His friend from Youngstown was ready to hop online and drop into Lucky Landing with him.

That's when his phone blew up. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis was on the other end.

"My original play was to play during the draft," Price, the Bengals 2018 first-round pick, said, "To avoid the stress and anxiety of draft night."

To Price, Fortnite is a far more useful tool than just a de-stressor.

Consider the average Fortnite Battle. All 100 players skydive down to the island below and immediate enter problem-solving mode; they seek out firepower and gather fortification-building materials while relegated to an ever-moving game map.

All those skills sound like the job description of your average offensive lineman. Price, who'll protect Andy Dalton this season, draws some easy parallels.

"It's a game of strategy where you have to decide when to attack other players," he said. "I have my days where I'm killing it and days where it's like I'm a first-time player. Organization is huge because in order to win, you have to be patient."

Player Four: Chiefs receiver Chris Conley

Chris Conley has no problems showcasing his inner geek.

The Chiefs receiver once directed and acted in his own 26-minute Star Wars fan fiction film at the University of Georgia. And when it comes to his latest fixation - Fortnite - he uses the streaming website Twitch to bring everyone together as nerds.

"I do stream sometimes," Conley said. "It's good to let my fans know that we're normal people who lead somewhat normal lives.

That includes dropping into Tilted Towers (a Fortnite battle area that's notoriously difficult) with the boys every now and then."

The same goes for his new quarterback, Pat Mahomes. Playing a little Fortnite goes a long way in a locker room packed with game-lovers like Tyreek Hill, Demarcus Robinson, Demetrius Harris, and Conley.

"(By playing together), it just really shows how (Pat) is a young guy just like the rest of us," Conley said. "We get along really well. That's why we spend time with each other outside of the facility and on this game."

Player Five: Colts running back Nyheim Hines

Top overall pick Baker Mayfield has his emote-a wacky dance used in Fortnite to poke fun of other players—end-zone ready. Fellow rookie running backs Saquon Barkley and Derrius Guice love the game, too.

But Colts rookie running back Nyheim Hines is in a class of his own when it comes to the business of video games. The North Carolina State product is the first U.S. athlete to receive a gaming-based endorsement before going pro, according to SportTechie.com.

The company giving that endorsement: NZXT, a PC manufacturer who also works with professional gamer Tyler "Ninja" Blevins—one of JuJu Smith-Schuster's companions who first brought the game into wide public view.

The NFL's next generation doesn't run away from their Fortnite obsession. They embrace it like Hines, incorporating its best parts into their football-playing careers.

"Gaming is a great way to relax outside of football, and I really believe games like Fortnite, where we can all get in and play together, help a team stay connected," said Hines in a press release.

"Whether it's the football field... or playing a PC game, I love the competition."

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