SAN ANTONIO (AP) — In the nervous hours before Kansas’ bus ride to the Alamodome for its NCAA Tournament semifinal, most of the Jayhawks will be crammed together in their hotel rooms while they fight 99 opponents to be the last one standing in the post-apocalyptic world of Fortnite.
The planet’s hottest video game — or, to be specific, its Fortnite: Battle Royale spinoff — is consuming the free time of college students everywhere, and the Final Four is no exception.
“It’s the best game out right now,” Kansas guard Marcus Garrett said. “Everybody is doing it, and once you start, it’s hard to stop. Once you turn it on and you’re sitting in front of your bed, you’ll probably be there for five hours, just sitting there.”
But it’s more than a game: With its addictive gameplay and visceral excitement, Fortnite has become a unifying force for the teams that have reached the final weekend of the college basketball season. The players who spend months building on-court chemistry believe they’re helped by hours spent working together in virtual teams to wipe out their Fortnite opponents.
“It’s definitely a team bonding experience,” said guard K.J. Lawson, who introduced the game to the Jayhawks last fall. “You’re in the room together, and you’ve got to have a lot of chemistry and much strategy. You just can’t go out and kill. You’ve got to be able to strategize and get the win out of 100 people.
“Only the strong survive. Kind of like the Final Four.”
Fortnite was released last summer, and its Battle Royale version followed in September, but it has taken hold of a large portion of the nation’s college basketball players — along with celebrities such as Drake, Travis Scott and Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, whose combined Twitch stream of the game obliterated a viewing record for the platform two weeks ago.
That’s also when Fortnite’s ubiquity was highlighted by UMBC’s Nolan Gerrity, Max Portmann and Sam Schwietz, who memorably compared the 16th-seeded Retrievers’ unprecedented upset of No. 1-seeded Virginia to their first victory in a 100-player Battle Royale.
References to the game have popped up across the country during the tournament, largely because so many players are spending hours immersed in the game on their consoles or phones.
“Whenever we’ve got the free time, we’re definitely on it,” Villanova forward Jermaine Samuels said. “I like the competition, and just trying to outlast people. That exciting feeling of paranoia, not knowing where the next kill is coming from, not knowing when someone else is coming. It’s just a constant grind, and if you die, you can come right back into it. That’s what we love about the game.”
Although Player of the Year Jalen Brunson prefers FIFA, every player on the Villanova roster plays Fortnite except forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, who prefers anime-based games but still spends countless hours watching his teammates play Fortnite.
Everybody on Kansas’ roster plays Fortnite, and Garrett believes the hours spent in the insulated virtual world actually prevented the Jayhawks from absorbing too much outside criticism about their season.
“We’re just all on the game, just having fun all the time, so we never really had the distractions,” Garrett said.
Even when some teammates aren’t in the same room — or when they’re unable to play together due to the PlayStation-Xbox divide — they’ll often enter a Discord or Twitch chat room just to talk to each other.
Garrett is averaging 4.2 points as a key reserve for the Jayhawks, but he won 10 games while he spent 12 straight hours playing Fortnite on a recent day off. He considers himself Kansas’ best Fortnite player, and while that title would never compare to a national championship, there are similarities.
“You just try to get to the end,” Garrett said. “It’s hard, so once you do win, you feel like you accomplished something.”
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