After Consecutive Misses, The Ariana Grande Rift Tour Reinvigorated Fortnite

How Ariana Grande saved Fortnite's summer.

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As a whole, Fortnite Chapter 2 has thus far been defined by its massive crossovers and frequent in-game events, but the more recent trajectory for the game was pointing downward. Sure, engagement remained high and the game is reliably at or near the top of all platforms' most-played games lists week in and week out, but consecutive swings-and-misses from Epic Games dating back to a few months ago had left me and some other fans wishing things were different.

Now, two-thirds of the way through a season that has done well to earn back some of that wavering fan trust, it was Ariana Grande who played the part of unlikely hero in rescuing Fortnite from its slow but noticeable decline.

In my mind, Fortnite's losing streak started with Season 5. Following the immensely popular and Marvel-heavy Season 4, perhaps expectations were always going to be unfairly high, but Season 5 is widely considered a bad season even without the shadow of Iron Man and friends looming over it. While the inclusion of The Mandolorian as the Tier 1 battle pass skin made waves, the bright spots of the season really start and end there.

The center of the map was strangely barren, with the too-large Colossal Coliseum surrounded by hundreds of meters of sand and little else. It was surprisingly boring for a game that has for so long dazzled players time and time again with new, inventive locations each season. Making it worse, a new traversal system that sought to have players burrowing through the sand like a sandworm was broken a few times during the season for extended periods of time, leaving players vulnerable in this central wasteland of the Season 5 map. If you're not one to build efficiently, this flaw in map design was unkind to you for days or weeks at a time.

The long-absent Butter Barn is missed by fans.
The long-absent Butter Barn is missed by fans.

The season was light on exciting events and was the first in many months to end without the bang of an in-game event, though players did get their cinematic fix with the start of Season 6 and the Zero Point Finale, but the game felt like it was at its lowest point of Chapter 2.

Season 6 didn't do a lot to course-correct either. The hunting-focused season brought some interesting new crafting and survival elements to the game, which exist in a limited form even today in Season 7, but map changes were once again lackluster, mostly removing places like Hunter's Haven and the fan-favorite Butter Barn, but not replacing them with anything.

To its credit, Season 6 did remove the dry desert taking up much of the center portion of the map, but once more, the season as a whole felt like Fortnite was spinning its wheels. The most exciting parts of Seasons 5 and 6 were their numerous crossovers with characters like Kratos, Master Chief, and Lara Croft, but Fortnite's best moments are when the community can come together and enjoy the game, not just its Item Shop. Personally, I didn't miss a single weekly challenge or even most dailies during either season, but they became rote parts of my day. Looking back, I was completing challenges for the same reason I brush my teeth: because I was compelled to do so, not because I was excited

The slump continued with the springtime NBA crossover event, which saw fans team up to take on in-game challenges and represent their favorite NBA squads. But predictably, the event was won easily by the Lakers contingent, blowing out the competition with a final in-game score greater than the sum of the next four best-ranked teams. The event was flawed from the start and marked the first time I consciously dwelled on the slump the game was in.

Epic then followed that with the Cosmic Summer event, which doled out free cosmetics to players who participated in fan-made limited-time modes (LTMs). Frustratingly, these LTMs were all extremely tedious, in such a way that I was genuinely stunned to see the developer highlight them so prominently. Before Cosmic Summer, there wasn't a Fortnite event I ever ignored, no matter how much I didn't like its content, simply because I love completing challenges and earning free cosmetics.

But after dragging my feet through two of the game's four LTMs during Cosmic Summer, I threw in the towel. I couldn't bear to engage with the modes anymore--ice cream truck emote be damned. It seems silly to accuse Fortnite of a "slump" given its perpetually high engagement, but it's all relative. Compared to where the game was a year ago, it felt like Fortnite was cooling off and ever so slowly losing its place in the zeitgeist.

The Cosmic Summer event locked cool, free cosmetics behind frustratingly bad LTMs.
The Cosmic Summer event locked cool, free cosmetics behind frustratingly bad LTMs.

The first half of Fortnite in 2021 left a hole in the hearts of players like me who adored Seasons 2-4 and today consider them the strongest run the game has ever seen, introducing adored characters like Meowscles, delivering incredible finales like the fight with Galactus, and displaying some of the biggest map overhauls to date like the Season 3 flood.

It was the longest drought of awesome new content the game had ever seen since its rise to dominance over three years ago. Then the Rift Tour happened.

Following weeks of rumors, Epic confirmed that popstar Ariana Grande would headline an in-game concert similar to last summer's Travis Scott show. To be honest, I'd never heard an Ariana Grande song before, but knowing what Fortnite's past in-game concerts looked like, I was hopeful that the Rift Tour would revitalize the game's community-at-large, as well as my own love for everything Fortnite. I was not disappointed.

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The visual spectacle on display was unique, exciting, and above all, enchanting. I shared the moment with my wife and son and all three of us were blown away. We ended up playing it multiple times across the weekend's five showings. It stylishly transitioned from competitive surfing to floating among Seussian pink trees to an aerial battle with the Storm King himself, all before the headliner took the stage and impressed with a digital showcase featuring several of her songs. On some level, I became an Ariana Grande fan that day, just as the year prior gave me a newfound appreciation for Travis Scott.

Epic's chief creative officer Donald Mustard often talks about the "blue ocean," the limitless potential of a metaverse where people convene in real-time, digital spaces and live extensions of their lives in fantastical worlds. He says these concerts are just the start of the future of entertainment. I tend to believe we'll get to such a place, but even if you think the metaverse is just the latest Silicon Valley pipe-dream, the Rift Tour itself can't be overlooked as a marvel at the center of contemporary audiovisual pageantry.

It's not like anything else you could see this year, not in-person or online, and most absurd of all: it was totally free. You didn't need to own the battle pass to gain access, you didn't need to buy the Ariana Grande skin to reserve a seat. You just had to download the game for free and join millions of others while the show unfolded live for the whole world. It's these communal events that lift Fortnite to new heights, and the game was lacking in them for the whole year to date--and not for lack of trying.

While the bigwigs at virtually any other brand, perhaps even Netflix, would trade places with the Fortnite braintrust in a heartbeat, the game itself had suffered subtle but cascading whiffs for the majority of the year to date. But Ariana Grande smashed that narrative to pieces with the same diamond-encrusted mallet she used to warp players to new realities a half-dozen times during the Rift Tour.

Season 7, to its own credit, has been widely regarded as the fans' most enjoyed season since Season 4--some would say even longer--and though we still have another month before Season 8 kicks off, the Rift Tour feels like the perfect way for Epic to regain its foothold on the live-service landscape and once again find itself as the topic of every lunch table when schools reconvene in a few weeks.

Epic makes headlines with each new season, but sometimes the excitement is proven to be more of a honeymoon period for fans, as it did in Seasons 5 and 6. If we're to make way for the metaverse, its promise has to be one of more than just compulsory boxes being checked, logging on for in-game challenges, then moving on with our day. Season 7 and especially the Rift Tour are, in my opinion, the game's proper return to form and set one of my favorite games back on course to keep players not just engaged, but excited.

Mark Delaney on Google+

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