By the time he entered Fatal Fields, Turner "Tfue" Tenney was in trouble.
It was late Saturday night, well into the third session of North American qualification for Fortnite's Winter Royale, when Tfue was forced into hiding among the POI's signature cornstalks. He'd just been lasered by an unseen competitor, draining 100 shield and a sliver of health. As he chugged half-shields inside a hastily built wood structure, Tfue reflected on the most recent exchange.
Something wasn't right. The corn fully obscures players from vision (and vice versa), but Tfue got hit as if he'd run nonchalantly across an open plain. How could that guy have seen him?
"Dude, is this guy cheating?" Tfue asked, more to himself than his 90,000-plus stream viewers. In an open online qualifier like this, anything was possible.
An answer arrived moments later, announced by the steady tap-tap-tap of a SCAR assault rifle on Tfue's wooden wall. The shots were coming from the corn, hitting the exact point on the wall behind which Tfue stood. Tfue edited a window to return fire and was eliminated in seconds, never seeing his opponent before ending the match in eighth place.
As it turned out, his opponent never saw him, either. A replay later confirmed what Tfue already knew: He'd been hacked by an aimbot, enabling the offender to land a perfect spray of shots despite zero visibility in the cornfield.
"This guy's cheating, bro! I knew this guy was f---ing cheating," Tfue said as he peeled off his headset, stepping away from the computer in frustration. "F--- this game. ... This is why I don't play online tournaments. It's so dumb."
The experience further soured an already bitter qualification process for Epic Games' latest esports experiment. A $1 million event held entirely online and open to the public was bound to attract exploitation, and if the chatter around a weekend of open sessions across North America and Europe was any indication, the public did not disappoint. Accusations of stream-sniping and hacking ran rampant through the community, with little action taken by Epic to dissuade cheaters.
The outcry triggered by such players nearly drowned out whatever positivity the event was meant to promote by shining a spotlight on talented unknowns.
Hackers were a predictable consequence of Epic's first massive open tournament, a 180-degree shift from the closed nature of the previous Fall and Summer Skirmishes. Fans who couldn't afford the trip to PAX West or didn't receive an invite to TwitchCon pined for a truly open event, and Epic finally obliged. For Winter Royale, anyone could log into the client during session times and attempt to secure one of 200 slots (per region) for the upcoming finals. The game tracked player progress in a special Winter Royale mode, which automatically recorded points and announced them in-game, an appealing feature.
Points were awarded based on the usual criteria -- placement and eliminations -- with the best of six three-hour sessions used to determine advancement.
Though technically a competitive esports event offering serious prize money, Winter Royale is also a test. It shares a rule set with the current Scavenger Pop-Up Cup. Material caps are halved, farming speed is increased and players receive health when they secure an elimination. This is Epic's way of assessing how a particular format or set of gameplay changes fare in a truly competitive environment as they gear up for next year's Fortnite World Cup.
Yet organizing a serious tournament inside a mode that is by definition unbalanced seems like a dangerous game, one prone to infuriate participants already stressed by the stakes. Announcing qualifiers for such a gamestate two days before Thanksgiving and four days before the event didn't help matters.
The Fortnite meta was already contentious before Winter Royale began. Patch 6.30 introduced annoyingly overpowered Mounted Turrets and removed the Glider redeploy mechanic players relied on for mobility. Adding Scavenger rules into the mix compounded the influence of randomness on a player's Victory Royale chances. Individual skill became secondary to finding the right weapons before the enemy did or getting a lucky storm for an easier rotation to conserve materials. Creating the circumstances for a high placement attempt felt left to chance, and when that perfect run did come along, it could always be ended by an aimbot.
Which brings us back to Tfue, who won't be one of the 200 players battling for a share of $500,000 in the North American finals Dec. 11-12. The winningest competitive Fortnite player alive, with over $465,000 in prize money and three first-place Fall Skirmish finishes (including TwitchCon), failed to qualify, his 27 points just below the cutoff at 28.
Despite peaking at over 100,000 viewers Saturday, Tfue refused to stream his Sunday games. Whether he did so because of stream snipers or a desire to focus was unclear. Regardless, fans were forced to track his games through a third-party site, unable to watch him play live. Some gathered in Twitch chat next to Tfue's offline stream, estimating his current points and praying their hero could clutch out a few more.
At the end of his Saturday stream, Tfue and his viewers shared what would be their final Winter Royale moment together. After thanking several subscribers for their continued support, Tfue stared at his monitors in silence, defeated.
"I've never hated playing this game so much," Tfue said, seconds before he switched off the stream. "I think that's why I have so many viewers today, bro. People like to see me f---ing miserable."