By his own admission, Tim Sweeney is not a great Fortnite player.
When the founder and chief of Epic Games, which created the blockbuster online shooting game, played in a recent tournament, he took out just three other players in 12 matches. One person who has played alongside Sweeney describes his combat style as “timid”.
Yet the legal battle the 49-year-old gaming veteran has picked against Silicon Valley gatekeepers Apple and Google is anything but cautious. His fight to end Apple’s 30 per cent commission on all digital sales has already cost Fortnite its place in the App Store.
It also threatens to disrupt thousands of other developers who rely on Epic’s tools to make their own games.
The Fortnite app has been removed from the App Store due to a legal fight with Apple. Photograph: Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich/EPA
A judge last week rejected Epic’s bid to force Apple to reinstate Fortnite on its devices. But Sweeney, who started the company in his parents’ basement in 1991 and is now worth an estimated $5.3 billion (4.4bn), is refusing to back down.
His efforts to bulldoze Apple and Google’s “walled gardens” that control what users can do on their phones have made him a standard bearer for wider antitrust concerns about Big Tech. “The maker of a smartphone does not have the right to dictate the terms of our lives and our businesses,” Sweeney said, in one of his Twitter tirades.
Before Epic attempted to add its own payment system in breach of the App Store’s standardised rules, iPhone owners had downloaded Fortnite 133 million times and spent $1.2 billion to date, according to analytics provider Sensor Tower.
“My guess is no investor is joyous over a lawsuit with two of the largest tech companies in the world,” said Bruce Stein, chief executive of aXiomatic, an esports company that invested in Epic in 2018. “But you can’t argue with [Sweeney’s] executional results.”
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Sweeney grew up in Potomac, Maryland, close to where his father worked for the US government making maps using satellite imagery. His first computer was an Apple II, which he told gaming site Gamasutra was good to learn on because “you had to do absolutely everything yourself … You learnt things the hard way.”
After getting a taste of Pac-Man at the arcades, Sweeney wrote his first “serious” game at the age of 11. He started his company while studying mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland, in between a summer job mowing lawns. He mailed out his first hit game, ZZT, from his parents’ home under the label “Epic MegaGames” to make his dorm-room project look like a bigger company.
Before this dispute, iPhone owners had downloaded Fortnite 133 million times and spent $1.2 billion to date, according to analytics provider Sensor Tower. Photograph: CJ Gunther/EPA
Fortnite’s 350 million players, who spend billions of dollars on outfits, have made him powerful. But the game is not his first success.
The 1999 game Unreal Tournament for personal computers was a breakthrough in the emerging genre of 3D multiplayer shooting games. Its sci-fi franchise Gears of War became a bestseller for Microsoft’s Xbox consoles.
Epic also turned the technology behind its games into Unreal Engine, one of the most popular tool kits to create increasingly realistic 3D graphics. Its use by millions of other developers, film-makers and industrial designers is being put at risk by Sweeney’s decision to take on Apple just as rival Unity is launching an initial public offering.
“It’s incredible they’ve gone through so many evolutions,” said Alice Lloyd George, managing partner of Rogue Capital, an investor in early-stage tech. Sweeney “is able to see the long game in a way that many CEOs do not”.
Sweeney has resolutely stayed outside the Silicon Valley bubble. After working with a distributed team for several years, he settled his company in Raleigh, North Carolina, enticed by its affordability and – important to him – good hiking country. Epic is now headquartered in neighbouring Cary, part of the region’s “Research Triangle” that is home to three big universities.
Even as many of San Francisco’s skinny geeks transformed into beefy bros and mindfulness gurus, he remains a hoodie-wearing “nerd’s nerd”, says one former Epic engineer. He adds that Sweeney has “never stopped programming” despite running a company of 2,200 staff that is now valued at $17 billion. “I didn’t create Fortnite,” Sweeney said in an interview last year. “But I did create and nurture the company that built Fortnite.”
Still, he has a flashier and more combative side: Sweeney bought a Ferrari and a Lamborghini by age 30 and still gets into online rows with trolls on Reddit and Twitter. He has also purchased tens of thousands of acres of forests to protect it from development.
Sweeney’s control of privately held Epic as its largest shareholder leaves him well positioned to mount a years-long legal fight. As he takes on Silicon Valley, he also has the backing of China’s Tencent, the world’s largest gaming company by revenues, which took a minority stake in Epic in 2012.
His ultimate goal is a world of freewheeling digital entertainment that he dubs the “metaverse” – a place where groups of friends can hop from one game to another, regardless of the device they play on.
The Epic chief executive has a record of turning opponents into allies. In 2018, after months of “tough and painful” negotiations with executives, he succeeded in getting Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo to allow Fortnite players to compete between all three console platforms –a first for the industry. Sony ended up taking a $250 million stake in Epic last month, and Microsoft, with whom Sweeney tussled over app distribution terms in 2016, has also now lent its support to Epic’s legal fight.
“We all need to be prepared to have those unpleasant conversations,” Sweeney told games executives at an industry event in February, “in order to achieve the future”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020