It’s mid-May, just a few weeks after Baker Mayfield had been drafted No. 1 overall by the Cleveland Browns, and the former Oklahoma quarterback is in California being run through a gamut of promotional appearances. There’s a rookie class photo shoot, signing of trading cards, and a stop at a Fanatics booth, where Mayfield, replete in his full Browns uniform, busts out a couple of dance moves that will result in a clip that spreads around the internet like wildfire. That’s because it’s an almost perfect rendition of a dance from Fortnite, the astronomically popular video game which counts Mayfield as one of its many, many fans.
But ask Mayfield’s teammate, second-year tight end David Njoku, about Mayfield’s dance, and he doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.
“The dance was very comical, but that’s all I saw it as. I didn’t see it as a Fortnite dance,” Njoku says, deadly serious. “I enjoyed watching it for a good five seconds, but I did not put Fortnite and that dance together in any way, shape or form.”
If that sounds harsh, it’s because Njoku’s loyalties lie elsewhere. He’s among the millions of players that fell in love with PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, better known as PUBG, a game that dropped months before Fortnite. Released for PC in March 2017, then XBOX, iOS, and Android soon after, PUBG quickly became the titan of the battle royale genre, a style of gameplay where 100 players parachute down onto a single map and fight each other until there’s only one of them left standing. Or it was the titan, until Fortnite showed up.
PUBG was created by Brendan Greene, a former web designer hailing from Ireland who took inspiration from the harrowing and absurdly violent 2002 Japanese film Battle Royale (now on Netflix!). Thanks in part to PUBG’s simplistic graphics and realistic, war-like gameplay, the game’s popularity exploded shortly after its initial release. The game reached 10 million daily users on mobile in May, and hit a peak of 3,236,027 concurrent users playing in January 2018, per Steam Charts.
Njoku’s foray into PUBG began when DeShone Kizer, a Browns second-round draft pick in 2017, first introduced the game to the locker room. It quickly spread to Njoku, who in turn put teammates like Jabrill Peppers, Bryce Treggs, and B.J. Bello onto it. With Kizer gone now, having been traded to Green Bay over the summer, Njoku is the new face of PUBG on the Browns. And he might have what you’d call an unhealthy obsession with it, despite being unimpressed the first time he played it.
“The graphics weren’t all that good, so I was talking down on it at first,” Njoku says. “But after a couple games in, I fell in love with it. I can’t stop playing it now. Jabrill and I play almost every day, for a good amount of time.”
Njoku, who points out he and Peppers are “superb” at PUBG, says he was drawn to the game’s emphasis on “extreme communication” when playing duos or linking up with a four-person squad. Whether it’s calling out the position of an opposing team or letting a teammate know where he can grab his gun of choice, Njoku relates the kind information sharing needed to thrive at PUBG to the communication required for a successful relationship between him and his quarterback. It’s a match made in video game heaven.
“Everyone is talking, telling each other where things are, whether it’s items or guns, other people, we’re all communicating,” Njoku says. “Being able to communicate with your whole party and how we should strategically go about our ways of doing things is really fun for me.”
But just as PUBG was starting to thrive, another game took it out with a clean shot.
In September 2017, Epic Games released Fortnite, and its disruption of the battle royale space was swift. Though similar in gameplay, Fortnite’s aesthetics are vastly different than PUBG’s. Fortnite resembles a Saturday morning cartoon and has an air of goofiness around it. Players can outfit their characters in dinosaur and superhero skins, while PUBG’s characters essentially resemble soldiers. Fortnite lets its players ride around in shopping carts; in PUBG, you can set your vehicle on fire and drive it into opposing players. Fortnite includes a side quest to collect 10 rubber ducks and lets you build forts to evade gunfire. PUBG has, well, a lot of blood.
Fortnite’s growth has been meteoric. As of June 13, the game boasted a total of 125 million players, with over 40 million users logging on to its servers each month. Equally as important to Fortnite’s rise, though, has been its ability to breach the cultural zeitgeist, especially in the sports arena, in ways PUBG never could.
One of Fortnite’s most attractive features is the ability to equip your character with dance moves, like the ones Mayfield mimicked, commonly used to dance on your opponent’s digital grave after you’ve eliminated them. Those jigs have been used as a vessel for players to celebrate victories in real life, too.
France’s Antoine Griezmann commonly busts out the game’s “Take the L” jig to celebrate goals as a member of Atletico Madrid, and even did so when he scored France’s second goal in the World Cup final. Boston Red Sox outfielder Xander Bogaerts did the same after doubling on opening day, and the move has become a favorite of his teammates. Los Angeles Lakers guard Josh Hart, one of the biggest Fortnite fanatics in all of pro sports, mimicked the motion a player in Fornite engages in when healing themselves after knocking down a three-point shot. He’s also worn a pair of custom Fortnite-themed kicks.
In essence, Fortnite plucked aspects of PUBG’s indie charm and took it mainstream, much like the Hunger Games franchise did to Battle Royale. And that’s the type of thing that fosters resentment in those who consider themselves the OGs of PUBG, like Njoku, who started playing PUBG almost immediately after it debuted.
Njoku tried Fortnite once, then never played it again, referencing his disdain for the game’s “cartoonish graphics.” Now the game’s title itself has become something he won’t utter, a Voldemort of mobile gaming.
“I don’t associate with Fornite players. I don’t associate with that word or gameplay,” Njoku says. “There is no argument [over which game is better] because I refuse to be around that type of lifestyle.”
A quick perusal of Njoku’s Twitter account proves his anti-Fortnite sentiment isn’t just lip service. “PUBG OR NOTHING. I AM NOT PLAYING FORTNITE,” reads a tweet from March of 2018, seemingly unprompted. “Don’t speak to me unless it’s about PUBG,” he once wrote in an Instagram story.
Njoku clings to PUBG’s dying star in the same way many of us hang on to things that remain underground, especially when they’re eclipsed by a much more popular carbon copy. We all have that friend who refuses to listen to any Kings of Leon album after Because of the Times, or the buddy who won’t play anything but Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball for N64.
Staying loyal to an original shows up in other areas of Njoku’s life, too. Despite the rapper Future putting out new music seemingly every sixth months, Njoku still bumps “Codeine Crazy,” a song that dropped in 2014, almost daily. And though the NFL has relaxed its touchdown celebration rules, inspiring wild dances all over the league, Njoku stayed true to the single move he created in training camp last summer (what he calls the Chief Slam), performing it after each of his four touchdowns. When Njoku finds something he likes, he sticks to it.
The fissure between fanbases extends to the general gaming community, too. Jake Throop, a popular streamer who goes by the gamertag ChocoTaco, gained prominence playing PUBG, where he secured the no. 1 kill rating in North America a month into playing the game. Throop was drawn to Fortnite when it came out, and is pretty good at it to boot, but says he’s played less than 100 hours of it because his audience gets up in arms whenever he streams it.
“There’s definitely a big divide between PUBG and Fortnite players. When I stream (Fortnite), my chat constantly has viewers saying things like ‘Fortnite sucks! Play PUBG,’” Throop says. “I feel like people feel threatened by Fortnite because it has taken over the battle royale scene.”
Indeed, Fortnite’s explosion has cut into PUBG’s base. The game saw a 44.7 percent decrease in its average monthly users since the calendar flipped to 2018, from a peak of 1,584,886 in January to just 876,180 in May. Then, in June, the virtual beef between PUBG and Fortnite got real, with PUBG Corporation filing a lawsuit in Korea against Epic Games, posturing that Fortnite infringes on its copyrighted content. While most experts believe the case will ultimately be thrown out, as it will be next to impossible for PUBG to claim ownership of the battle royale concept, it provides a glimpse into the very real threat Fortnite poses to PUBG’s share of the space.
Even Njoku has watched as former diehard PUBG-ers like Kizer have succumbed to Fortnite’s gravitational pull, switching sides like so many others before him. Sometimes it can feel like the walls around PUBG are closing in faster than an elite Fortnite player can build a one-by-one box. But Njoku is a true ride-or-die, and if PUBG is going down, he’s going down with it.
“With Kizer, I’ve seen him change sides and play Fortnite on Xbox. I wasn’t too fond of that,” Njoku says. “But Jabrill Peppers and I, we are very serious about our decision to not play Fortnite. Not even looking that way. We are very strong believers in PUBG, and I believe we will continue this stand for as long as possible.”
With training camp in full swing, and the Browns featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks, Njoku says he hopes to continue to preach the gospel of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds to anyone on the team who’s willing to listen. As long as they don’t mention Fortnite.