Epic fail: Africa’s Fortnite battle

Fortnite by Epic Games is the globe’s biggest battle royale game, with about 350-million players worldwide. Players drop from the air onto an island and loot houses and buildings (for weapons and to gather materials) with the aim to be the last person standing. 

The genius of this mode is a storm that swallows the map, forcing players into an ever-smaller circle in the middle, and compelling them to fight to the death.

Fortnite hosts a number of servers in regions such as Europe, North America, Brazil, Asia, Oceania and the Middle East. There are none on this continent.

This puts African gamers at a disadvantage as soon as they enter into a Fortnite lobby, because their reachability, which is known as “ping”, is affected by the fact that the servers are thousands of miles away, which automatically compromises the quality of their game.

Ping is measured in milliseconds (ms) and African players playing on European servers usually experience 160ms to 200ms ping, whereas players from Europe get to enjoy 0ms to 20ms ping, at most. This means a European player will be able to see the African player first — and shoot them first. Even if African players are disadvantaged by only a fraction of a second, it’s still enough when the margins are so tight.  

That’s a real problem in competitive games. Epic Games, for example, is currently running a crossover with Marvel and hosted a competition last week with a $1-million prize pool.

Tristan van der Walt, one of South Africa’s finest Fortnite players, who represents multi-gaming organisation ATK, finished 19th on the Fortnite Champions Series back in August while playing on the Middle Eastern Server.

Doing that required the use of special software and setting up a virtual private network to lower their ping to the server. Their ping still sat at between 120ms and 170ms. Without their tweaks, they would have been facing an unplayable 300ms. 

High ping also gets rid of one of the fundamental strategies of Fortnite: building a wall or fort. The game’s huge maps mean you can shoot people from really far away. Inside a fort, you can regenerate health. Those forts can, however, be taken over, if your ping allows for swift movement. 

Van der Walt says: “In competitive Fortnite, you have to play very aggressively. The ping affects us in a way here because we are not able to close out fights quickly enough.

“For example, you can shoot at someone from a distance and get their health very low, but then you can’t finish the fight quickly, because the main way and safe way to finish a fight is to take a person’s wall.” 

Van der Walt says the opposite also holds true: when he is being pushed by an opponent, it becomes very difficult to hold his wall and, more often than not, that makes it easier for his opponent to finish him off.

Van der Walt and teammate Luke Vrdoljak have added a gamer from the Middle East to their team to balance the odds. This means they can lower their opponents’ health while their partner can run in on his low ping and close fights out. He can also help them to hold walls when their health has been compromised.

Although Van der Walt and Vrdoljak have found an alternative approach to the high-ping situation, Van der Walt understands that this issue is holding back many amazing Fortnite players in South Africa.

“We have definitely got some hidden talent; not just in Fortnite, but in a lot of games. However, a lot of us still compete on other servers and place high and win money.” 

Crucially, unlike in years past, gamers cannot create a local server, so they have to play overseas. This stops the creation of a local competition, or even for people to play each other in South Africa, at a low ping.  

Van der Walt says: “If we host private tournaments within our own South African communities, that would still be amazing, because then the streams we make would be more watchable, because honestly nobody wants to watch a guy play Fortnite on 180ms ping.”

Since its 2017 release globally, African players have been asking Epic Games to create local servers. They have been ignored. 

#AfricanFortniteServers was trending on Twitter in August for the umpteenth time, after Amazon had announced its first web services in Africa. This means that the infrastructure is available for African servers to be created and there is a platform to host them from, but still, there has been no comment from Epic Games.

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Eyaaz Matwadia
Eyaaz Matwadia
Eyaaz Matwadia is a member of the Mail & Guardian's online team.

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