An addiction is spreading throughout the Oregon football program.
For hours most nights, dozens of players shut themselves away in their rooms, ignoring calls and texts from family, friends and significant others.
Everyone affected says the same: Once introduced, it’s a tough habit to kick.
“Started getting into it around Christmas time,” linebacker Lamar Winston said. “Ever since then, I haven’t stopped.”
Winston is talking about the popular video game “Fortnite,” a third-person shooter sandbox survival game (think of a cartoon version of “The Hunger Games” mixed with “Minecraft”) that has taken the gaming world by storm since its free multiplayer version was released in September 2017. By February 2018, more than 40 million people worldwide had downloaded the game, a number which includes a majority of Oregon’s football team.
For the Ducks, the game has become a weekly, if not daily, ritual. Players log hours online, almost always playing with teammates in four-person squad or two-player duo matches, racking up kills, building forts (hence the game’s name) and sometimes letting days pass by.
“I’d have to say 14 hours,” said defensive lineman Popo Aumavae when asked what his longest session was.
The Ducks admit that they mainly use the game as a way to unwind from long spring days filled with practices, tutoring and classes, but they also insist that there are skills that translate onto the field. Players specifically pointed to the communication aspect of the video game, a necessity for success when trying to outlast up to 98 other competitors or navigate complex college football offenses.
“In ‘Fortnite,’ you have to give exact coordinates as to where targets are or where you want to go, and that’s what I need to let my teammates know,” Winston said. “Especially when a Y-off is coming across to block my other outside linebacker or something, then pre-snap reads and communicating, that kind of stuff.”
Always looking for a leg up in the recruiting world, Oregon’s athletic department even recently entered the “Fortnite” realm. Last month, five-star football recruit Chris Steele tweeted out a photo of himself depicted in a “Fortnite” Oregon-themed edit that the program made for him. The post garnered over 200 retweets and over 1,200 likes on Twitter.
“The best edit I’ve ever had made for me,” Steele told The Oregonian.
Similar to many popular games before it, “Fortnite” has become a rallying point for players up and down Oregon’s roster. Winston said he finds himself playing with guys from every position group, including quarterback Justin Herbert, whose presence online surprised many of his teammates.
“He plays that,” Winston said. “I don’t see him playing anything else but that.”
Jalen Jelks added about his quarterback: “When I see him on, I’m like, ‘I have to play with Herb’ because he’s good.”
Herbert claims that former wide receiver Charles Nelson first introduced the game to the Ducks during last fall camp. Others remember their teammates showing them the game months ago, but many recall how they met those recommendations with skepticism.
The game was, after all, designed for younger teenagers and its cartoonish graphics are a stark contrast with the hyper-realistic designs of more marquee titles like “Call of Duty” or “FIFA.” Still, the attraction to the game is very real and the pull to play is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore, even at the risk of shirking more important responsibilities.
“At first I was so critical about the game. I didn’t like it. It’s a cartoon,” Winston said. “Then I started playing it, and I couldn’t stop playing it. My girlfriend would agree with that.”
Follow Gus Morris on Twitter @JustGusMorris