‘Fortnite’ Is Entering Schools With the Same Playbook as ‘Oregon Trail’
Earlier this month, L.A.-based startup PlayVS secured a partnership with Epic Games to bring competitive Fortnite games to high schools and college campuses. PlayVS charges $64 per player per season for its platform (the games it currently supports are all free to play) and offers schools tools to organize matches, track players’ performance, and connect students with potential college scholarship opportunities. As part of the partnership deal, and to encourage schools to start their own Fortnite teams, Epic Games is covering the schools’ fees for the platform during the Spring 2020 season. Students will be able to play Fortnite, for school, for free.
It’s easy to see why Epic Games would make a deal like this one: When PlayVS introduces kids to Fortnite in school, it helps turn those kids into lifelong customers. Apple, the most valuable company in the world, owes at least some of its success to a similar strategy and a very different game: The Oregon Trail.
The Oregon Trail was, in terms of its popularity, the Fortnite of its time. It was such a staple that people born in the late ’70s to early ’80s have been described as the “Oregon Trail Generation.” In the four and a half decades since its release, it has gone through 10 iterations and sold more than 65 million copies.
The game was created by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-funded program founded to promote computer education in primary schools. The first version of the video game ran on a teletype machine — a device similar to a typewriter — that was remotely connected to a mainframe. It ran on a single machine that students had to take turns using. To get the game (and educational curriculum) into more schools, the MECC would need something else for the game to run on. In 1978, Apple — then a small, relatively unknown personal computer company — put in an 11th-hour bid to supply Apple IIs to schools all across the state, narrowly beating out competitor Radio Shack.
As a result, by 1982, the MECC was the largest seller of Apple computers, buying the machines and reselling to schools all across the country. The Oregon Trail and MECC’s other software exploded in popularity, reaching a third of school districts in the U.S. According to one of the founders of the MECC, Dale LaFrenz, “Apple II computers were the school market.” Schools bought Apple IIs for education, and when they needed software, they went to the MECC and its library of educational games. The two companies formed a symbiotic relationship that allowed both to grow.
Thanks to these deals, the Apple II was the first computer many people at the time ever used. It shaped how they understood personal computers, years before the first version of Windows even came to the market.
Apple’s strategy of targeting education has been copied since, often successfully. Adobe offers discounted education licenses both to students and schools to get young creatives hooked on its products, Google made inroads with its inexpensive Chromebooks for schools, and even Apple itself has returned to the well with iPads for students.
Which brings us back to Epic Games and its education partnership. If esports follow the model of traditional high school sports, students will be able to leverage the extracurricular activity to get scholarships for college (170 colleges collectively offer more $16 million in esports scholarships and financial aid, funded by a nonprofit esports organization), learn teamwork and organizational skills they’ll be able to apply to jobs, and make connections with people they’ll continue to work with over the course of their lives — all while playing an online shooter.
While Fortnite is a free game, the company makes money by selling cosmetics, in-game currency, and XP boosts individually or via a monthly subscription. This means active players spend more money than those who only play occasionally. And what better way to get young people playing — and with the full support of their parents, no less — than by tying their games to their education and hopes for a college scholarship?
Parents already expect to spend some amount of money on their children’s extracurricular activities, something PlayVS explicitly calls out on its site with a comparison to the cost of traditional athletics. Even low-income families spend hundreds every year on sports. PlayVS only charges schools $64 per player per season, and the games themselves are free. Parents may still have to provide computers for kids to practice on if they don’t have a computer already, but that can still leave plenty of room in the budget for the occasional microtransaction.
Also important for Epic Games, high school Fortnite competitions will feed the college and professional esports circuit, competitions which the industry typically runs. Epic Games, for example, ran the first Fortnite World Cup in 2019, where players competed for a total prize pool of over $30 million. Following its success, Epic now organizes its own competitive league with corresponding prize pools. Maintaining professional leagues allow game publishers to keep the hype cycles for their games high, essentially turning competitive games into monthslong advertisements for viewers who might also want to hop in and play a game (and spend some money) after watching their favorite teams compete.
Other publishers have partnered with PlayVS to bring games like League of Legends, Rocket League, and Smite to high school teams. But thanks to Fortnite’s cultural significance, profitability, and brand power, a partnership with Epic Games has the leverage to legitimize high school esports in a way the publishers of those other games might not be able to. Fortnite is, without hyperbole, the biggest video game of all time. In 2019, it raked in $1.8 billion which, despite being a year-over-year drop of 25%, still made it the highest-grossing video game of the year. Recruiting kids in high school and encouraging their esports ambition is a powerful way to keep the number of streamers playing Fortnite on Twitch high.
For now, it’s early days in the world of high school esports. Schools and publishers are still building the infrastructure to make video games as integrated into the education industry as traditional sports are. However, by partnering with high school esports programs early on, Epic Games is positioning itself to benefit from dedicated players who will spend years investing in its games not just for fun, but as an experience as crucial to their development as high school football was to generations past.