Los Angeles/New York: In an industry known for high levels of testosterone, Fortnite has become the hottest game going partly because of its appeal to an unlikely cohort: women.
Like Survivor meets The Most Dangerous Game, Fortnite pits 100 stranded players against one another in a violent battle to the death. Many of its 45 million players participate on mobile devices, and among them, almost half are women, according to research firm Apptopia Inc. For rival games, like the latest versions of Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, it’s more like one in three or fewer.
Its popularity among women is part of the broader Fortnite phenomenon. It is social, free and popular on mobile—the fastest growing segment of gaming. Celebrities, including rapper Drake and Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward, are avid players, sometimes live-streaming their matches on Amazon.com Inc.’s gaming network Twitch.
In April, the game made by Epic Games Inc. generated an estimated $296 million in revenue, according to industry analyst SuperData Research—an eye-popping number in any medium, let alone for a game that is free to play. (It makes money by charging players for in-game enhancements like character features, tools and other accessories.) At that rate, the game is on target to sail past the $1.5 billion in annual revenue generated by Call of Duty, the industry’s top-selling game.
Its popularity among women “definitely helps," said Matthew Kanterman, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “Gaming has always struggled with diversity and inclusiveness, so targeting beyond that teen and young male audience is always going to grow the pie."
The shares of other game makers have wobbled in the meanwhile. Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. is down 12% from its January high; Activision Blizzard Inc. has also failed to fully recover from declines earlier this spring.
“It’s hard to know exactly the impact," said Take-Two chief executive officer Strauss Zelnick. “It’s a big hit and whenever you have 45 million players, you’re bringing in people who are new to video games."
Epic is owned by its founder, Tim Sweeney, its employees and by Chinese internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. It doesn’t make its financial performance public, and Epic Games spokesman Nick Chester declined to comment for this story.
Fortnite has made an effort to appeal to women in a very obvious way: It’s one of very few shooter games to feature female characters in its ads—a controversial move in the industry. Earlier this week, some gamers lashed out at Electronic Arts Inc. for featuring female characters in its World War II-themed Battlefield V, a reminder that video gaming can still be a hostile environment for women.
Fortnite is also subtly different from existing shooter games, in ways that may specifically appeal to women more than other titles do. It’s relatively easy for first-time players, and it looks more cartoonish and less gory than its rivals.
Women and men both play mobile games, according to research firm Newzoo, but women’s preference is stronger, relative to PCs and console games. Fortnite also has a social quality, with many players using headsets to chat with their friends while they play. Those social connections are important, Newzoo’s data suggests: Women are more likely to discover games through family and friends, whereas men are more likely to learn about new games through reviews and websites.
Fortnite also takes a more egalitarian approach to the gender of players’ avatars. About 39 of the 111 Fortnite characters listed on the website Orcz.com are discernibly female. Call of Duty’s latest mobile title, by comparison, offers two female characters among the 13 that are recognizably human. (There are a lot of robot options.)
Playing as a female character can have advantages that go beyond representation, according to Sara Mostajabi, a 33-year-old gamer who lives in Los Angeles.
In her experience, she said, “when you play as a girl character, guys will help you."
Unlike most games, Fortnite players don’t get to choose their avatars when they start, which means some male players are assigned a female character and vice versa. If players want to change their avatar, they have to pay, and even then not all characters are available in male and female versions.
“I would love to see an option to change the gender," a player identified as Kurt543 wrote in an online Epic Games forum, adding that he plays as a character called “cuddle team leader," a fuzzy pink bear head on top of a pink-clad female body. “Although it is rather feminine, I would still like to be able to play as a male pink bear."