'Fortnite' Game Seeps into College Football World

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Olamide Zaccheaus had to quit. Things had gotten out of hand β€” he was addicted.

In a way, the addiction wasn't unexpected. Zaccheaus, a senior wide receiver at Virginia, admitted to "an addictive nature." And "anything I do," he added, "I want to be the best at it."

Even this?

He wasn't going to bed at a reasonable hour. It was consuming his time. And worst of all: Zaccheaus found his new craving was affecting his development as a football player.

"I was kind of slacking on the things I was supposed to do," he said.

He had to quit, and quit he did β€” cold turkey. In September, after the start of the Cavaliers' season, Zaccheaus made the decision to readjust his priorities. So he turned on his television, logged into his profile and deleted "Fortnite" from his Xbox.

"I had to," he said.

It's the game in player lounges, apartments, hot tubs and cold tubs, on buses, cellphones, PlayStation and Xbox: "Fortnite," the cooperative video game that just celebrated its one-year anniversary, is wildly popular across the Football Bowl Subdivision, adding another layer of intense competition to the hours before and after team activities.

"Every single time I go in the locker room, I see that game on the TV, every second of the day," Virginia linebacker Chris Peace said. "It's an intense game, even if you're not playing. One guy can be playing, and the whole locker room will be watching."

It's "big time, big time" at Florida, said junior linebacker David Reese, where "everyone but a few people play," said his teammate, offensive tackle Martez Ivey. It's "crazy how many people" are into the game at Georgia Tech, senior linebacker Brant Mitchell said. "Fortnite" is "huge in my locker room," Rutgers offensive lineman Tariq Cole confirmed, as teammates will "curse each other out in the middle of the locker room because somebody died."

"I wouldn't even say it's taken over college football, it's taken over the world," Maryland offensive lineman Derwin Gray said. "Whoever made that game, I take my hat off to them."

More than 125 million people have downloaded "Fortnite" since its debut, most drawn to the free-for-all form that pits up to 100 players in a last-man-standing fight to the finish. That mode, known as "Fortnite Battle Royale," has divided locker rooms, formed hierarchies completely unrelated to depth charts, created friendships between would-be rivals and led even potential All-American contenders to make the game part of their daily offseason routine.

Ivey had it down to a science: Florida's senior offensive tackle would lift in the morning and then go to class, finishing around noon. Ten minutes later, he'd sit down with his Xbox until about three in the afternoon. Then another team activity, followed by a trip back into the world of "Fortnite."

Two Wisconsin stars, offensive lineman Michael Dieter and linebacker T.J. Edwards, are so into "Fortnite" they brought their gaming systems to Big Ten Conference media days β€” though Deiter forgot his HDMI cord at home.

"If I have time with nothing going on, I'm going to get on 'Fortnite,'" Deiter said. "But there are definitely guys on the team that are worse. It's almost like they have to get their 'Fortnite' in."

Gray and Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich will meet on Oct. 6, when the Terrapins and Wolverines clash in a matchup of teams from the Big Ten East. Until then, however β€” and very likely after β€” Gray and Winovich match wits on "Fortnite," two "big 6-foot-5 dudes out here playing Xbox," Gray said, competing online before they compete in person.

"On the weekends, it's fair game," Georgia Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall said. "I will personally stay up until two or three (in the) morning playing with teammates and my boys from other schools."

There's a financial crunch to deal with: Ivy said he's spent a "good amount" of money, about $300, buying new characters, models and weapons in the past 200 days. There's a time crunch: Athletes try to cram games into increasingly small windows of time.

The game upends a locker room's power structure. The hierarchy on the practice field is simple: the quarterback, the stars and the seniors lead the way. However, responses to the question of which teammate is the best at "Fortnite" sent reporters scrambling for rosters and depth charts, searching for the names of previously unknown backups, walk-ons, kickers and punters.

"These guys are so good," Reese said. "If they streamed, they'd be able to make money on it. But there's an NCAA policy, so they can't do it. I feel bad for them."

But the magnetic draw "Fortnite" has on FBS players fits into a broader theme. Teams compete all day, in everything, on the field and off. It only makes sense the competition would continue, whether first in the morning, before the start of team meetings and workouts, or deep into the night.

"We're competitors," Penn State cornerback Amani Oruwariye said. "That's all we do."

It can also be a way to decompress, particularly during the months of player-driven workouts and practices. That's "work," Pittsburgh offensive lineman Alex Bookser said. On the other hand, "Fortnite" provides "a different kind of juice."

"'Fornite' is when you can yell at people for messing up and not feel bad about it," Bookser said.

There's a generational gap, of course. Fortnite might be the go-to outlet for student-athletes. Coaches, meanwhile, are less enthused.

"I call a high school kid and ask, 'You play that Fort Hill?' I don't even know the name of it," Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi said. "It bothers me that people are that into it. But that's the generation we're in. They'd rather do that than work."

Coaches might not mention "Fortnite" by name, if they know it, nor even single out video games as a habit to necessarily avoid β€” even if those who spoke to USA TODAY were unable to wrap their head around the game's mushrooming popularity.

"Video games are taking over the world," Maryland coach D.J. Durkin said. "What happened to being outside? You should just go outside and just play. Those days are gone. I'm trying to bring them back with my own guys."

Then again, coaches are pragmatic: It could beat the alternative.

Added Durkin, "I'd rather they're playing video games than doing other things."

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July 30, 2018


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