Watching Rocket League in Fortnite was an awesome, dystopian commercial for the metaverse

As I’m writing this, I’m listening to the play-by-play of the lower quarterfinals bracket match between The General NRG and Renegades in the 2022 Rocket League World Championship. I’m listening to the game through the headphones that are plugged into my Xbox controller, because I’m technically playing a game at the same time. I—as my childhood hero, Indiana Jones—crouch next to an action-figure avatar of my best friend. My friend lives in Chicago, and I live in Los Angeles. I am surrounded by screens, screens within screens. Our characters stare at the jumbo screen in front of them. I hear gunfire in the distance.

Fortnite has hosted many previous events, including an in-game screening of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a movie about dreams within dreams within dreams. Watching that particular movie from inside a video game was almost too on the nose, diabolical in its brazen symbolism. Next to Roblox and VR Chat, Fortnite has shown the most promise for how a metaverse could not only work, but how it could appeal to people enough to get them to even try it. Despite all the money that Mark Zuckerberg spends on the promise of the metaverse, and how much monotone proselytizing he might do, his vision of the metaverse being virtual grocery stores and business meetings does not deliver the utopia that will attract human beings enough to forego their physical realities in favor of digital ones.

Fortnite, on the other hand, delivers, and Epic knows it. Its in-game concerts are interactive, psychedelic, multisensory art installations, and its live events change the game’s world, sometimes in irreparable ways. There’s a living, breathing feel to Fortnite’s vision of the metaverse that a Zuckerberg-led company might be incapable of ever delivering. Combine that with ubiquitous cultural commodities like superheroes and Star Wars characters and a game that is willing and able to ape and improve gameplay mechanics from other series, and you have a digital world that gives a certain type of player everything they might want.

Despite knowing all this, I was not totally prepared for watching the Rocket League World Championship inside Fortnite. I’ve made my love for Rocket League esports known, and I still watch it whenever I can. As good as last season was, with its extended schedule and seasonal majors, the 2022 season has been even better, with teams like Moist Esports, Falcons, and Furia rising in the ranks and perennial favorites Team BDS and The General NRG struggling as the season progressed. Now the season has almost reached its climax, with the World Championship tournament taking place through Sunday, and you can watch it all while shooting at other players in Fortnite.

Built with Fortnite’s creative mode, the Rocket League event resembles a Dave & Busters. There are televisions everywhere, all playing whatever current matchup is happening on the Rocket League World Championship stream. You pick which team you favor to win and walk through their portal. You can either watch the match on a big screen in the lobby, or you can enter what is essentially a never-ending team deathmatch while you watch and listen to the Rocket League match that’s currently taking place at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas. When a team scores, fireworks for their corresponding team color light up the in-game sky.

Part of me cannot get over the sheer awesomeness of the event. Given that it’s taking place in the middle of August, right before school is about to start back up, I remarked to my friend that, if we had this kind of thing during our summer vacations as kids, we would never go outside. Being able to watch our favorite game while playing one of our other favorite games during summer vacation is not something we could have even imagined when we were younger. Something like this would have blown our middle-schooler minds.

Yet, as a contemporary adult, this kind of event seems almost mundane at this point. Sure, no other company is really doing anything like this, at least not as effectively as Epic, but Fortnite has already proven capable of hosting anything it wants, even a digital museum hosting recreation of an historic march for civil rights.

Now, I’m no technological reactionary, but the mundanity is almost shocking. As much as I resist the lingo-filled PR emails and sales pitches for blockchain and Web3 from venture capitalist vultures that I get every single day, it’s not hard to see why those people see a future where the digital world replaces the physical one. Being able to share the experience of watching pro Rocket League matches with my friend while living in completely different cities was a joyful, communal experience, something that’s all too rare in my life these days.

Of course, the corporatocrats of Silicon Valley can only view the metaverse as another free market where every little thing can be commodified, and fair enough. After all, I paid however much money to get the season pass so I could pretend to be Indiana Jones. Epic’s artists leaned on my nostalgia and I instantly caved. And that’s what’s so scary to me. It’s just so easy to get me hooked if I let my guard down, and it’s so mundane that I’m shooting other people while taking part in this communal event.

I spent hours watching Rocket League in Fortnite. Those were hours spent staring at a screen that was showing me a video game, inside which was another screen that was showing other people staring at their own screens, playing their own games, all the while shooting at other players who were doing the same thing.
Digital dreams within digital dreams. Talk about Inception.

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