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Fortnite: How a video game became baseball's most addictive pastime, from MLB to Little League

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Along with running, throwing, fielding, hitting and hitting for power, there’s another skill invaluable to baseball players beyond the five holy tools: Killing time.

From the days of train travel to the dawn of smart phones, the methods for managing downtime have evolved. And now, perhaps, the ultimate force has emerged to connect ballplayers of all stripes – more mobile than a card game, more inclusive than a golf foursome, more weatherproof than an afternoon on the fishing boat or in the deer stand.

Fortnite – the open-world, co-op survival video game – may eventually be a footnote within baseball’s zeitgeist. Right now, however, it has a hold on the game that stretches from college dorms to the basements of minor league host families, to the clubhouses and private jets and luxury hotel rooms of the major leagues.

“I’ve never seen anything catch the public eye like this has,” says Tampa Bay Rays first baseman C.J. Cron.

Certainly, the marriage of ballplayer and video game is nothing new. There isn’t a major leaguer left who didn’t have exposure to at least the Atari 2600 as a youth. Over the past two decades, online multiplayer gaming has turned series like FIFA, Madden and MLB The Show into competitions waged with friends across town or around the world.

In Fortnite, there exists an irresistible concoction of action and evolution, teamwork and competition, and a connection and camaraderie that no game seems to match.

“Just when I think I’m getting bored with it and I’m going to stop playing, I find that it keeps me going,” says Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Nick Williams. “There are times I’m like, ‘OK, this is my last game of the night.’ And then I get second place and I’m like, ‘No, no, I need to try again.’

“And then 12 games later, I’m like, ‘Alright, this has got to be my last game.’”

For the uninitiated: Fortnite can be played as a “solo,” as a duo or in teams of four. Each game begins with 100 competitors in a “lobby,” each on a quest to acquire supplies and weapons to enhance their chances of survival.

Teammates communicate via headsets, launch missions to scavenge for supplies amid a post-apocalyptic landscape, build traps and ultimately ward off and destroy a legion of zombies, all the while shoring up a fort against the encroaching mob.

Scavenge. Build. Shoot. Fairly standard gaming stuff, right?

Yet interviews with more than a dozen professional ballplayers reveals what keeps them coming back: Developers at Epic Games keep Fortnite fresh with updates, retiring certain features and then reviving them, creating consistency with the game’s map but subtly tweaking features within it.

Another factor that can’t be underestimated in a sport where minor leaguers don’t earn a living wage, and major leaguers never tire of getting comped: The game is free.

“Oh, that’s just a bonus,” says Phillies right-hander Jerad Eickhoff. “It’s unbelievable that it is a free game.”

That’s particularly true at baseball’s lower levels.

Minor leagues, major boon

Hagerstown, Md. is just a 75-mile drive from Nationals Park. For members of the Hagerstown Suns, however, the leap from the low Class A South Atlantic League to the Washington Nationals is far more circuitous.

Many are thousands of miles from home, some in a foreign country, bonded only by the fact their big league dreams remain four daunting levels away.

For them, Fortnite serves as more than a distraction from interminable bus rides, ever-present rain delays and budget motel rooms.

“If you let baseball consume you too long, it can get overwhelming,” says Nick Banks, a 23-year-old outfielder for the Suns and a fourth-round Nationals draft pick in 2016. “The first thing I do after every game is go to my host family’s house, in the basement, and start playing.

“My roommates will watch TV and be like, ‘Dude, that’s all you do.’ But it takes your mind off baseball.”

When a clubhouse attendant brought a PlayStation4 to the Suns’ clubhouse, the dynamic shifted – and helped turn some 70% of the team into Fortniters.

When a gamer scores a win, the shouts of excitement often lures trainers and coaches out to watch. And on a team where a half-dozen players are 20 or younger and not far removed from the insecurities of adolescence, a sense of belonging can emerge.

“The quiet guys who don’t say much – if they do well in the video game, they get a little louder, their personality starts to come out,” says Suns reliever A.J. Bogucki. “They’re not sure how to act, but when they get excited, they might tell us a little bit more.”

That includes a quartet of foreign-born players. Venezuelans Tomas Alastre – a 19-year-old in his first year of full-season ball – Aldrem Corredor and Jeyner Baez, along with Dominican Republic native Carlos Acevedo all have engaged in Fortnite.

"They want to know what it’s all about. It’s good bonding time as well," says Bogucki. "We can help them with our broken Spanish."

In the hours after minor league games finish across the country, Fortnite becomes a virtual space for alumni reunions.

Banks will often game with his old Texas A&M roommate, Reds minor leaguer Ryan Hendrix. Bogucki will join up every other night, he estimates, with fellow North Carolina Tar Heels J.B. Bukauskas (Astros), Zach Rice (Braves) and Zac Gallen (Marlins). Outfielder Kameron Esthay plays with former Baylor teammates now in the minors along with those still in Waco.

While it might be hard for anyone older than 30 to believe, they make a compelling case that chatting via Fortnite creates greater connection than a phone call or text.

“When you’re on the phone, you lose your train of thought of what else you might talk about, and then the conversation is over,” says Bogucki. “(Fortnite) stretches across a few hours, and then you might remember to ask them something you forgot earlier.

“It’s the extended period you play that allows you to have a better conversation than 10 minutes on the phone.”

Big night in

Major leaguers agree. In fact, there are burgeoning friendships throughout the big leagues among players who have only “met” in Fortnite’s lobby.

“I’ve never met Brett Phillips in person,” Rays infielder Matt Duffy says of the Brewers outfielder who recently played a game of Fortnite on the Miller Park big screen, “but I’d consider him a little bit of a buddy.”

Old-timers might chafe at the notion of ballplayers retreating to virtual solitude after games. And to be sure, plenty still find time to have a pop or two in public. Yet, there’s upside in isolation, says Duffy.

“If your team’s playing poorly and you’re out at a bar, whether it’s just to relax and have a drink, people have opinions about it,” he says, “like you should be sleeping at 8 o’clock at night. It’s not that you don’t want to go out, it’s just that sometimes it’s not the best thing.”

Says Phillies outfielder Aaron Altherr: “That’s literally all I do in the hotel. I’m not one of the guys who goes and walks around much. I’m a big room service and video games guy. That’s the way I do it.”

Altherr estimates his longest Fortnite session was around 10 hours, during spring training, when the long days and quiet nights of Clearwater, Fla. truly seem interminable.

“You play,” he says. “Get some food. Play again.”

Eickhoff said spring training was a key moment for the Phillies and Fortnite, as players emerged from winter to realize that, yes, everybody was playing it – or at least half the roster, he estimates.

© Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts drove home baseball's connection with Fornite by performing a dance from the game after reaching base in the season's opening series at Tampa Bay.

It was inevitable game and profession would intersect. In the season’s opening series, Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts performed Fortnite's “take the L” celebratory dance after reaching base. A few weeks later, teammate David Price deflected concerns that carpal tunnel in his throwing wrist came from excessive gaming, mostly Fortnite (doctors agreed).

The game may truly arrive once an on-field incident arises from Fortnite – perhaps an unsettled online score, maybe if the trolling that makes the game so compelling hits too close to home on the field.

“As far as bringing in the taunting of the game into baseball - I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that,” says Royals reliever Kevin McCarthy. “But it’s funny in Fortnite.

“There’s a space for each, you know what I’m saying?”

As McCarthy’s Royals launch a painful rebuild, he realizes there are few constants in baseball. He’s grateful one of them goes wherever any of his friends may land.

“Everyone’s from everywhere,” he says. “Relationships come and go. Since being with the Royals, I can’t even count how many guys have been traded or are no longer playing.

“But we still have Xbox and PlayStation.”

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