Super Bowl LV takes place this weekend, and it’s a weird one. While last year’s game narrowly avoided the COVID-19 pandemic, February’s big game lands smack dab in the middle of the isolation age. That’s left the NFL and other brands scrambling for creative ways to bring the event’s social components to life.
Enter Fortnite. This year, players can visit an ambitious football fan experience in the battle royale game’s creative mode. The collaboration between Epic Games and Verizon adds a whole arena, inspired by the Raymond James Stadium, to the game. Players can log in and explore the massive installation, completing small quests and playing football-inspired minigames.
The stunt is a noble attempt to replicate some of the joys of Super Bowl weekend, but there’s a somewhat depressing downside to it. After spending some time in the digital arena, it quickly became a sobering reminder of the social gaps video games aren’t able to fill during this health crisis.
Super Bowl blues
I initially had some high hopes for the mode when hearing about it. Fortnite has done an excellent job throughout the pandemic at providing creative social experiences. Last spring’s in-game Travis Scott concert was a genius alternative to live shows that had the internet buzzing. It felt like strangers were all together in the same collective crowd in a musical moment that felt both familiar and forward-thinking.
The Super Bowl installation is a far lonelier affair. I logged into the game on Monday shortly after the update launched and dropped into the mode expecting a huge party with a server full of players bustling around. Instead, I plopped right in front of a giant stadium with no one in sight. Rather than finding human players, I was greeted by a repetitive beat perpetually playing over the loudspeakers. I eventually crossed paths with a handful of players in some minigames, but not enough to make the space feel as bustling as I had hoped for.
As I explored every detail of the intricately designed space, I couldn’t help but feel like I was the protagonist of a zombie movie. The eerily empty stands and silent VIP areas didn’t feel too far off from Dawn of the Dead’s abandoned mall. I was exploring a ghost town.
To its credit, the in-game stadium itself is an amazing feat. Built by Beyond Creative, the installation is a perfect football stadium replica. I spent lots of time just running through the rows of seats, taking in the scale of the field itself. It immediately brought me back to places like New York City’s Jacob Javits Center, making me feel like I was exploring the New York Comic Con floor, minus the cosplayers. That feeling ended up morphing into a double-edged sword.
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