Sunlight and a slight breeze washed over Spaulding Field as UCLA football finished another week of spring practice.
The players huddled in the middle of the field for a weekend send-off, the usual cheers such as “D-line, showtime!” filling the air. But one rang louder than the others.
Epic Games’ survival-based game “Fortnite” exploded in popularity immediately after its release date less than a year ago, with more than one million players on its launch date and over 10 million within two weeks. In the original, paid-for version, players team up to collect resources and weapons in order to complete missions and save the world from a monster apocalypse.
The more common game mode is “Fortnite Battle Royale,” in which either single players or teams of up to four people gather building materials, weapons and traps in hopes of being the last person or team alive. The third-person shooting game is free to play on PC/Mac, PlayStation, Xbox and iOS, with an Android version in development.
“It’s fun to just let go and escape from the real world – you know, with class, football and stress,” said rising junior linebacker Lokeni Toailoa. “You just go play ‘Fortnite’ and crack some laughs and get some wins.”
It didn’t start off so popular.
Rising redshirt sophomore quarterback Devon Modster said he didn’t want to join the “Fortnite” train and only downloaded it after he became fed up with NBA 2K, a video game series that simulates NBA players and teams. In the first two weeks, he hated “Fortnite.”
Toailoa was in the same boat.
“My first time seeing people play ‘Fortnite,’ I was like, ‘What the heck are you guys playing? It doesn’t look fun,’” he said.
But “Fortnite” videos started popping onto his social media feeds like popcorn kernels, and the players began talking about the game en masse.
Working out during the winter offseason was the team’s introduction to the new coaching staff, and playing “Fortnite” together was conducive to the coaches’ message of brotherhood and togetherness.
That’s when the game really took off in the Bruins’ locker room.
Everyday mundane objects such as planes transformed into “Fortnite”-related objects such as the Battle Bus, a flying bus that characters skydive off at the beginning of matches.
“We’re right by LAX,” Toailoa said. “We’re seeing airplanes fly by, we’re out here at workouts yelling, ‘Oh, there goes the Battle Bus!’”
But the competition and banter don’t stop once the final whistle blows to end practice.
Rising sophomore defensive back Mo Osling III recently told reporters that Modster, the front-runner for the starting quarterback job, wasn’t a great team player in “Fortnite” because he would only go out and get kills himself.
Of course, there’s the other side of the story.
“There was nothing I could do,” Modster said. “He got mad because he was dying first and I had no control over that. I came to help him, but I’m killing like four or five people and he just gets shot by one person.”
Osling isn’t the worst “Fortnite” player on the team, though.
Toailoa and Modster said that unfortunate distinction goes to rising junior wide receiver Theo Howard. And for what it’s worth, when asked about his skill level, Howard laughed and didn’t offer much resistance.
“I talk a big game, but I’m not the best ‘Fortnite’ player,” Howard conceded. “(Toailoa and Modster) are for sure probably the top dogs of ‘Fortnite’ on the team.”
But don’t think any player could climb the ladder or become a top dog without cold, hard proof.
“Every time we get a win, we kind of have to document it, you know, post it on (Snapchat) or Instagram,” Toailoa said. “Because you can’t just get a win and come here and say ‘Oh, I had a win with eight kills.’ … It’s like: Where’s the proof? So that’s why I have a nice little album of photos on my phone that’s just full of my ‘Fortnite’ wins.”
The weekend beckons a different kind of intersquad competition for UCLA – instead of offense versus defense, it’s PlayStation 4 versus Xbox One.
Both sides, roughly equally split among the players, proclaim they are superior to the other.
What they can agree on is that for many of them, the game’s appeal is more than winning or letting off steam. It’s a call to the past.
“It brings back the camaraderie you had being in middle school playing ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2′ – up all night with your friends, being able to just play and talk,” Toailoa said. “But the only thing is, we’re not in sixth or seventh grade anymore. We’re all grown and in college.”
What also remains the same between playing football and “Fortnite” is teamwork, communication and the exhilaration of winning.
The night before Saturday’s practice, Modster, Toailoa and the other two members of their usual team were the last four standing against a single opponent.
As luck would have it, Toailoa’s teammates started dropping like flies.
“He knocks them all out like one, two, three, bam, and it was just me and the dude jumping around,” Toailoa said. “The blue (assault rifle) wasn’t getting it done for me, so I switched over to my blue (submachine gun) and I put 35 in him. Then the ‘#1 Victory Royale!’ came up on the screen.”
His performance was so clutch that Modster was still whooping and laughing about that “crazy moment” the next day.
The win became another entry in their trophy case and another rung up the UCLA football “Fortnite” ladder.
And as long as the Battle Bus soars over Westwood, the phone albums will keep getting larger and larger.
“Whenever I’m not in football or school, I play it,” Modster said. “It’s ‘Fortnite’ every day, really.”