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USTA hosts Fortnite World Cup finals to introduce new audiences to refurbished US Open venue

(Credit: Getty Images)

  • Arthur Ashe Stadium will stage three-day finale of competition based on popular video game
  • Surrounding area at Billie Jean King National Tennis Center to be transformed into fan festival
  • Hosts hope tournament will lead to further non-tennis events at facility, as well as new visitors

The United States Tennis Association’s successful bid to host the inaugural Fortnite World Cup finals at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York, is part of a wider strategy to introduce the refurbished facility to a new and younger audience.

From July 26-28, the 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, the showpiece venue of the US Open tennis grand slam, will stage the finale of Epic Games’ new tournament based on its transformative online video game Fortnite, which has approximately 250 million registered players worldwide.

The three-day event will feature the top 100 solo players and top 50 duo teams, who have qualified from 10 weekly online tournaments which began in April, as well as a pro-am event. The solo champion winner will earn $3m (€2.7m) out of a $30m purse, with each participant guaranteed at least $50,000 in prize money. Approximately 60,000 fans are expected to attend.

Publisher Epic Games had explored hosting the Fortnite World Cup finals in New York, London, Los Angeles and other undisclosed cities. After contacting Epic and entertainment conglomerate Endeavor – which is overseeing the logistics and operations of the event – and then showing organizers around the National Tennis Center, the USTA won the right to stage the event. The hosts will receive a rental fee, though terms of the deal have not been made public.

Last year, the USTA completed a five-year, $600m redevelopment of the National Tennis Center, which includes a retractable roof over Arthur Ashe, a new Grandstand Stadium, and a rebuilt Louis Armstrong Stadium.

The organization is now looking to showcase – and further monetize – the facility to a wider audience by hosting non-tennis events. It is hoped that the Fortnite World Cup finals will lead to further hosting opportunities.

“We’ve always felt that when we finished our transformation of the site that it would not only primarily benefit the US Open experience, but that it would afford us the opportunity to…introduce a new group of folks to our campus,” Danny Zausner, the National Tennis Center chief operating officer, tells SportBusiness.

“So if we have the opportunity to host other events outside the US Open period that doesn’t interfere with our [youth] tennis programs, we are keen to attract them. With two retractable roofs now, while we can’t do things over the wintertime because we’re not a climate-controlled facility, there are windows in the spring and fall [autumn] where we think we are the perfect facility for certain types of events,” Zausner said.

The USTA venue strategy differs from typical indoor arena operations.

“We are not Madison Square Garden. We are not going bring in 25 concerts in that time frame,” Zausner said. “But we think we are the perfect festival grounds for someone who is looking to host an event in multiple venues at the same time. All of that is built in here. I see us being able to do a series of events each year but there is a tremendous amount of work that goes on with gearing up and gearing down from the US Open [in late August-early September] and nothing can interfere with that.”

Demographic appeal

The particular interest from the USTA in hosting the esports competition lay not only in Fortnite’s extensive global reach, but also its young demographic.

According to Forbes, the average age of fans attending the 2017 US Open was 42, with 65 per cent aged between 25 and 54. Only four per cent were under 18. By contrast, a 2018 survey conducted by market research firm Newzoo, based on gamers in 16 countries across the Americas and Europe, found that 53 per cent of Fortnite players were aged between 10 and 25.

“We know that Fortnite has an enormous worldwide appeal to youth, and while not every kid in the United States has a tennis racket in their hands, most have a controller in their hands playing Fortnite,” Zausner adds.

“If there are 20,000 people here on site in each of the three days and they come to the home of the US Open and see this incredibly cool complex and it invigorates them, like people who come to the US Open who don’t usually pick up tennis rackets but play for the first time afterwards…we just look at this as an opportunity to introduce tens of thousands of new folks to the site and hopefully to the sport of tennis,” he said.

While the USTA is the host of the event, Endeavor is organizing and producing the tournament finale on behalf of Epic, after successfully managing the Fortnite E3 Pro-Am in Los Angeles last June. As such, the USTA’s US Open sponsors have no rights to activate during the Fortnite World Cup finals.

The entire footprint of the Arthur Ashe court will be transformed into a multi-layered stage. Large screens will be added to the stage to enable fans to see the action but the four screens in the upper deck of the arena will not be in use.

The venue will not be at its full 23,771 capacity due to the need to take out seating to install lighting and special effects equipment throughout the arena, while courtside seats will have restricted views.

Fans at the Fortnite World Cup finals will get the opportunity to meet 20 Fortnite characters like Tomatohead and Brite Bomber (Credit: Getty Images)

“If you think of the traditional tennis court there are no obstructions on the court outside of the net and the umpire chair,” Zausner said. “In this case you have this massive stage that is rising x-number of feet out of the ground so some of the courtside seats, which for tennis are the best, you won’t be able to see from them. There is also a tremendous amount of lighting and special effects so they will end up killing seats in the stadium to house [this equipment].”

Outside of Arthur Ashe, the area from the East Gate where most fans enter the complex up until the entrance to Arthur Ashe near the South Plaza will be transformed into a Fortnite experience.

Activations at the Fortnite Fan Festival include the opportunity to meet 20 Fortnite characters like Tomatohead and Brite Bomber; in-game attractions like the Pirate Ship and Fortnite Mini Golf; the chance to dine at in-game eateries such as Durrr Burger and Sofdeez Ice Cream Shop; and swag bags containing exclusive, limited-edition collectible items. There will also be the opportunity for fans to mingle with professional players.

“It will be like you are in the Fortnite game. It will be like a 3D version of the game, like you are walking through the game and participating in it,” Zausner said.

To cope with the tech requirements of the event, the USTA has brought forward its annual plans to upgrade the National Tennis Center’s Wi-Fi capacity.

The USTA will promote the event on its social media channels but will not live-stream the competition. “We are very fortunate to host the event, but we are not the co-promoter that allows us to really dive as deep as one would like to, if we were trying to be greedy about it,” Zausner said.

On the possibility that more large-scale events will follow the Fortnite World Cup finals at the National Tennis Center, Zausner said: “That would be a lovely thing to come out of this.”

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