Olamide Zaccheaus had to quit. Things had gotten out of hand — he was addicted.
In a way, the addiction wasn’t unexpected. Zaccheaus, a senior wide receiver at Virginia, admitted to “an addictive nature.” And “anything I do,” he added, “I want to be the best at it.” Even this?
He wasn’t going to bed at a reasonable hour. It was consuming his time. And worst of all: Zaccheaus found his new craving was affecting his development as a football player.
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“I was kind of slacking on the things I was supposed to do,” he said.
He had to quit, and quit he did — cold turkey. Last September, after the start of the Cavaliers’ season, Zaccheaus made the decision to readjust his priorities. Schoolwork and football first; this addiction last, if at all.
So Zaccheaus turned on his television, logged into his profile and deleted Fortnite from his Xbox.
“I had to” do it, he said.
It’s the game in player lounges, in apartments, in hot tubs and in cold tubs, on buses, on cellphones, on PlayStation and on Xbox: Fortnite, the cooperative video game that just celebrated its one-year anniversary, is wildly popular across the Football Bowl Subdivision, adding another layer of intense competition to those hours before and after team activities.
“Every single time I go in the locker room I see that game on the TV, every second of the day,” said Virginia linebacker Chris Peace. “It’s an intense game, even if you’re not playing. One guy can be playing and the whole locker room will be watching.”
It’s “big time, big time” at Florida, said junior linebacker David Reese, where “everyone but a few people play,” said his teammate, offensive tackle Martez Ivey. It’s “crazy how many people” are into the game at Georgia Tech, senior linebacker Brant Mitchell said. Fortnite is “huge in my locker room,” Rutgers offensive lineman Tariq Cole confirmed, as teammates will “curse each other out in the middle of the locker room because somebody died.”
“I wouldn’t even say it’s taken over college football, it’s taken over the world,” said Maryland offensive lineman Derwin Gray. “Whoever made that game, I take my hat off to them.”
More than 125 million people have downloaded Fortnite since its debut, most drawn to the free-for-all form that pits up to 100 players in a last-man-standing fight to the finish. That mode, known as Fortnite Battle Royale, has divided locker rooms, formed hierarchies completely unrelated to depth charts, created friendships between would-be rivals and led even potential All-America contenders to make the game part of their daily offseason routine.
Ivey had it down to a science: Florida’s senior offensive tackle would lift in the morning and then go to class, finishing around noon. Ten minutes later, he’d sit down with his Xbox until around three in the afternoon. Then another team activity, followed by a trip back into the world of Fortnite.
Two Wisconsin stars, offensive lineman Michael Dieter and linebacker T.J. Edwards, are so into Fortnite they brought their gaming systems to Big Ten Conference media days — though Deiter forgot his HDMI cord at home.
“If I have time with nothing going on, I’m going to get on Fortnite,” Deiter said. “But there are definitely guys on the team that are worse. It’s almost like they have to get their Fortnite in.”
Gray and Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich will meet on Oct. 6, when the Terrapins and Wolverines clash in a matchup of teams from the Big Ten East. Until then, however — and very likely after — Gray and Winovich match wits on Fortnite, two “big 6-foot-5 dudes out here playing Xbox,” Gray said, competing online before they compete in person.
“On the weekends, it’s fair game,” said Georgia Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall. “I will personally stay up until two or three morning playing with teammates and my boys from other schools.”
There’s a financial crunch to deal with: Ivy said he’s spent a “good amount” of money, about $300, buying new characters, models and weapons in the past 200 days. There’s a time crunch, as student-athletes try to cram games into increasingly small windows of time.
The game upends a locker room’s power structure. The hierarchy on the practice field is simple: the quarterback, the stars and the seniors lead the way. However, responses to the question of which teammate is the best at Fortnite sent reporters scrambling for rosters and depth charts, searching for the names of previously unknown backups, walk-ons, kickers and punters.
“These guys are so good,” Reese said. “If they streamed, they’d be able to make money on it. But there’s an NCAA policy, so they can’t do it. I feel bad for them.”
But the magnetic draw Fortnite has on FBS student-athletes fits into a broader theme. Teams compete all day, in everything, on the field and off. It only makes sense the competition would continue, whether first in the morning, before the start of team meetings and workouts, or deep into the night.
“We’re competitors,” said Penn State cornerback Amani Oruwariye. “We just like to compete.”
It can also be a way to decompress, particularly during the months of player-driven workouts and practices. That’s “work,” said Pittsburgh offensive lineman Alex Bookser. On the other hand, Fortnite provides “a different kind of juice.”
“Fornite is when you can yell at people for messing up and not feel bad about it,” Bookser said. “If you blow it in Fortnite, you can get ripped by everybody and no one feels bad about it.”
There’s a generational gap, of course. Fortnite may be the go-to outlet for student-athletes. Coaches, meanwhile, are less enthused.
“I call a high school kid and ask, ‘You play that Fort Hill?’ I don’t even know the name of it,” said Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi. “It bothers me that people are that into it. But that’s the generation we’re in. They’d rather do that than work.”
Coaches may not mention Fortnite by name, if they know it, nor even single out video games as a habit to necessarily avoid — even if those who spoke to USA TODAY were unable to wrap their head around the game’s mushrooming popularity.
“Video games are taking over the world,” said Maryland coach D.J. Durkin. “What happened to being outside? You should just go outside and just play. Those days are gone. I’m trying to bring them back with my own guys.”
Then again, coaches are pragmatic: It could beat the alternative.
“I’d rather they’re playing video games than doing other things,” Durkin said.