My couch is egging me on as I sprint through a city I’m only passingly familiar with. As we run, we pause occasionally to hack down trees. Our destruction isn’t noticed. We’re all alone here. In front of a looming clock tower, my coach asks me to build a ramp with the materials we’ve just collected. I fumble through the process. I’m way too slow! Not to mention, my ramp is particularly susceptible to gunfire, which my coach demonstrates by squeezing a dozen rounds into the structure with a machine gun. I’ll never win a Fortnite Battle Royale this way. But that’s why I’ve hired this coach, named GS Pixul, courtesy of a new from video-game coaching start-up called Gamer Sensei. Yes, we now live in a world where parents are hiring video game coaches not only for their kids but for themselves, too.
The competitive, pan-platform, shooting and building melee of Epic Games’ Fortnite has become a global sensation in just one year. 40 million players a month log on to Fortnite servers to chase one another around a cartoonish virtual island, gunning each other down with a series of increasingly outlandish weapons until only one player remains triumphant. Or at least, that’s the game in a nutshell. Technically, the narrative structure of Fortnite is more complicated, and the most competitive players employ complex marshal strategies and practice tirelessly to master the game’s crucial tactic of building shelters for cover and height advantage.
I, like many players who enjoy Fortnite, am not a competitive player. There is a steep learning curve built into the game. There is no tutorial to walk gamers through the basics. Players are literally dropped into battle and expected to just figure it out. One could argue, this is as it should be. But this approach also means your first hundred battles are painfully short and unsatisfying. This has prompted many gamers to want to play better, faster. To do that, according to a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, gamers — or more pointedly, the parents of gamers — have taken to hiring Fortnite coaches like GS PIxul, who is no slouch. In fact, he’s a pro gamer who is in the top 50 in the US for the most Solo Fortnite wins. I do not feel worthy as he works behind a generic brunette avatar, trying, against all odds, to help me play better.
Video game coaching became codified as competitive multiplayer PC and console gaming erupted in the early 2000s. These games, like World of Warcraft, were marked by the fact that players could compete against each other despite being in far-flung corners of the world or form teams with friends. It all led to the modern eSports movement. In 2016, the Boston-based startup Gamer Sensei was one of the first U.S. companies to offer a learning structure and coaches for a variety of competitive games. But these days, with the rise of Fortnite popularity, Fortnite coaching is becoming big business. And with coaching sessions going for about $18 an hour, business is good.
And Pixul (real name: Cesar Sainz) tells me the demand for coaching comes from a variety of players. “The people that I coach are from all levels, “ he says. “There are people who have just picked up the game and just don’t get the concept. There are also people who are trying to get better for social status and others who are trying to get competitive and noticed.”
Me? I’m just trying not to get killed by some teen with Dorito crusted fingers the second I touch down on the map.
And that’s why Pixul and I are on Fortnite island building ramps in the weird cityscape of Tilted Towers. We can do this without harm because Fortnite has made coaching easier with the release of what it calls Playground mode. Playground provides players an opportunity to drop into the world of Fortnite alone, or with a small crew, in order to practice building or scrimmage.
During a break in the lesson, Pixul asks me about my style of play. I shamefully explain that in the months I’ve been battling in Fortnite, my strategy has been to drop onto the fringes of the map and sneak around until most of the players have been killed off. But the second I engage with another player, I panic and am usually taken out quickly. In fact, I’m not certain I’ve ever even registered a kill in the many many matches I’ve already played.
“That’s alright. I like that strategy,” Pixul chuckles in that esteem-boosting way that must be universal to coaches everywhere. After the ramp building fiasco it’s we establish that I need to work on my building skills. This is crucial to the later stages of a Fortnite match where building cover and getting a height advantage is key.
Immediately, Pixul ferrets out a problem. I have my controller configured all wrong: It’s not optimized for building. A quick change to the settings and I’m immediately faster. Next, Pixul shows me how to build fortified ramps. It’s a simple strategy, but the technique takes patience to master. I fumble through the process a few times, but Pixul continues to drill me, as coaches do, until I get better.
“Okay, do it again,” he says. “Build the ramp and when you’re halfway up, look down and build a wall. Good. Now again.”
It all feels very much like any other kind of practice I’ve engaged in. It’s like running soccer drills, except I’m on my couch and I haven’t changed out of my pajamas. Pixul gives me tips on how to build a basic cover structure featuring four walls and an internal ramp. I drill. Pixul shows me how to edit structures on the fly. I drill.
“The goal for me is helping people get more comfortable building because that’s what separates Fortnite from any other game,” he says. “If you don’t build in Fortnite you will lose 100 percent of the time.”
We drill for a full 45 minutes before Pixul suggests we go into a competitive game to practice my skills. To do that we join a “Duos” match in which 50 teams of two compete against each other. I’m nervous. After all, I’m playing with a guy who occupies a high place on the leaderboard. It’s almost like having a pro-quarterback teach you how to toss a spiral and then taking you to a camp scrimmage to see how you fare.
Things don’t get much better as we hit the map. Pixel is good, and fast, and as I fumble along behind him he walks me through his process. “Break down all the one hit furniture,” he says. “It’s the fastest way to get building resources quickly and you can stay under cover while you do it.” I didn’t know this. I start breaking all the furniture.
Later he addresses another major component of Fortnite: the storm. It’s a virtual perimeter that shrinks as the game progresses. Get caught on the wrong side and you’re damaged by deadly weather. Pixul explains ways to beat the storm. He tells me how the perimeter shrinks faster or slower depending on where you are in relation to the circumference. He explains all of this while knocking out our opponents with brutal efficiency while I desperately try to catch up.
“Never run in a straight line,” he says. “Zig-zag. Run and jump.”
Next thing I know, we’re in the final circle. The last of four teams. I get hung up building. I get taken out. Pixul follows shortly after. Still, it’s one of my highest finishes ever, and it’s exhilarating.
Suddenly, our coaching time is over. I promise Pixul I’ll practice and I mean it. Because in the end practice makes Fortnite feel like an important part of my life. I may never get great at it, but I’ll certainly have slightly more competent fun. And in the end, isn’t that the point?