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Predictions for the media in 2021: A real-world 'Fortnite'

In the last of our three-part series on media in the 2020s we look at media’s 'experience economy' post-Covid-19. Will it add exponential growth in demand to revolutionary Artificial Intelligence and connectivity?

We know the epic costs of lockdown, human and financial.  But the new lived experience has created winners too.  Epic Games’ Fortnite broke all records - like 12.3m concurrent players watching a performance by US rapper Travis Scott, a true waypoint in the reinvention of music marketing. 

Everywhere it could in 2020, interaction grew.  Live streamer Twitch trebled its active channels in 2020, taking it to 5.1bn hours watched in the second quarter of the year, and making the billion dollars Amazon paid for it in 2014 a media asset bargain.  Activision’s blitzkrieg shooter product Call of Duty was downloaded almost a million times per day in 2020 – just on mobile.  Its interactive livestream became a thirtysomething's social safety valve, like the weekly ‘Zoom drinks’.  Games distributor Steam, even without the algorithmic recommendation layer powering 2020s e-commerce, added 2.6m first-time buyers each month of 2020, to go to 120.4m active monthly users.  And now it’s about to launch in China.

Hardware grew too.  Sony and Xbox face vertical demand curves for new console generations.  UK-listed Games Workshop can’t produce its role-play toys fast enough, maxing out its factories and more than trebling its market capitalisation across a year, to £3.5bn.   Even also-ran technology Virtual Reality finally took off, with 71% more game sales than 2019, a breakthrough game (Half Life: Alyx) and new kit that’s actually fun for interactive gaming, the Oculus Quest 2.

On top of the interaction theme, we can layer truly live, in-person experience for 2021-2.  With lockdown now time-limited, expect an in-person entertainment boom, a kind of roaring 1920s, but with a one-century-later, Artificial Intelligence-powered personalisation layer.  Here’s how that might affect some different sectors of the media:

Events bigger than ever – powered by virtual studios and 5G

​​​​If a tidal wave of pent-up demand is a critical sociological facet of the post-covid era, shows and festivals should benefit.  The brave investor would be buying event and conference-related equities, some all but bankrupt, at this low point.

Since we’ve been gone, technology has moved forward in the events business.  This is not the poor facsimile of events on video conference - January 2021’s Consumer Electronics Show achieved a tiny fraction of it’s usual PR buzz, proving that the physical locale of Las Vegas is still critical to its event DNA.  This is actual live events equipment that will affect everything from product launches to trade events from late 2021 onwards.

The Unreal Engine, the 3D creation tool behind the new generation of games, creates immersive worlds in the 2D space (ie without you needing VR glasses) and that has huge event applications.  Expect a wow factor on big screens at even the most trade-focussed of B2B shows.  Combine that with the real-time, no-latency, two-way bandwidth of 5G networks (set to finally hit meaningful speeds in Europe and the US), and the virtual studio screen technologies seen in the new generation of TV studios will drive new must-see-in-person experiences that actually have a participative element at events. Via your phone, you’ll be on the big screen, as well as watching it. 

Festival

An entire epoch of music artists on stage

When Lady Gaga sings the National Anthem at the Biden-Harris inauguration, she will kick off not only a new Presidency, but also an on-mic test for live music after a year of global hibernation and major economic hardship for an entire industry of freelance support workers, from roadies to vegan wrap vans.

Even Summer 2021 events, not far away given the continuing lockdowns, are currently dusting off the Marshall amps.  Schedules for a full Billboard chart of tours include The Who, Foo Fighters, Justin Bieber, Celine Dion, Guns’N’Roses, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Lady Gaga, Childish Gambino, Ariana Grande, Aerosmith and many more.  Artists’ enforced hiatus of 2020 will put more in a natural cycle to tour too.

...The rescheduled Glastonbury 2022 ... arguably now the hottest ticket in the history of festivals since Woodstock.

Festivals too are edging back into the planning: from the modest, UK-focussed Creamfields, Reading and Leeds all currently on in August 2021, to the globally significant Coachella and Lollapalooza and of course then the rescheduled Glastonbury 2022, arguably now the hottest ticket in the history of festivals since Woodstock.  Some other artists, like Beyonce, are holding fire with world tours until 2022 – making that the year that a complete roster of global artists could seek to hit venues simultaneously. 

And again, as 5G arrives, expect much more crowd interaction on the big screens, including rendered 3D concert imagery streamed from thousands of phones using localised 5G transmitters.  By mid-decade, you should be able to watch a concert from any angle of your choice, by virtue of thousands of synthesised 5G livestreams from user phones. 

Live Sport actually live again

​​​​On one form of TV, viewers can’t fast forward through the adverts: live TV, and specifically live sports. 

That’s one reason for its consistent, long-term success as a media asset.  The major leagues left hiatus early and have muddled through on-screen.  Football’s Premier League navigated lockdown with a product of reduced drama (fake crowd sound FX, strange digital crowd renderings in the stands).  Viewership for the big games was marginally up, but average viewing per game down, through oversaturated live coverage and dissipated distribution (in the UK: Sky, BT, Amazon.) 

Once people can finally return to the matches, expect record attendances.  But also expect sports networks which serve the live product to thrive - even those like MSG Network which has NBA rights, on an old-school 1980s cable TV model.  On top of that expect the growth of the live interaction economy that has grown up around sport, in gambling (with even the US market opening up), live commentary and other spinoffs. 

Necessity catapults e-sports into the mainstream.

And finally - e-sports.  In Asia, it’s already huge, with 10 million regular viewers in South Korea, for instance, a national entertainment economy which is 67% video gaming by revenue.  One star, Lee Sang-hyeok earns $4.6m a year, which is more than the average NBA player in the US. 

In the West, e-sports has been a long time coming, but the early 2020s are starting to look like the breakthrough moment. 

As a PWC report put it: 'Necessity catapults e-sports into the mainstream', with projected US revenues at $1.8bn by 2023 now looking conservative, and more than two thirds of under 35s playing or watching some form of gaming content. 

Of course, major e-sports events like Fortnite World Cup and tournaments in Rocket League and FIFA 20 were all off.  But long term, the biggest verification of all: even the mainstream sports providers were gravitating to the genre.  NASCAR’s virtual races in March 2020 averaged 1.3m viewers. 

Alex Connock is Fellow in Management Practice (Marketing) at the Said Business School.

This article is part of a three-part series looking at media in the 2020’s:

  1. Predictions for the media in 2021: How to train your algorithm
  2. Predictions for the media in 2021: An Unreal Engine
  3. Predictions for the media in 2021: A real-world ‘Fortnite’