A year in the life of Bugha, the Fortnite World Cup champ

Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

On the final day of the Fortnite World Cup, Kyle "Bugha" Giersdorf was the first solo participant introduced at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, New York.

The then-16-year-old smiled sheepishly, a small gesture in comparison to some of the antics of his competitors, nodding as a burst of pyrotechnics sounded behind him.

Bugha had played in online tournaments before, but the Fortnite World Cup was his first offline event.

It was a whirlwind of a day. Bugha, the first player to qualify for the World Cup out of North America, racked up eliminations in each game and played aggressively. He jumped out to an early lead in points, and Brandon Phan, the digital marketing manager for Sentinels, looked on in excitement.

He'd been there from the time Bugha signed on with Sentinels as a pro player and helped guide him through interviews, the buildup to the World Cup and managing the sudden interest in a kid from suburban Pennsylvania. His fists clenched as he watched Bugha make his way through the final round. Just stay alive. Just stay alive.

Is this going to happen? Phan thought.

One player stood in the way of Bugha bringing home a $3 million prize: Harrison "Psalm" Chang, the only competitor close enough in points to have a chance of winning. But just as the nature of Fortnite dictates, there was no climactic showdown between the two. Williams "Zayt" Aubin eliminated Psalm, and Phan screamed in delight.

It was all but over.

It would be another five minutes until Bugha was eliminated. He finished fifth overall in that match, more than enough in placement and eliminations to claim the World Cup prize. As the final participants were eliminated, Bugha smiled, removing his headphones and leaning back in his chair. A camera crew was already waiting behind him.

Confetti showered over his PC setup. Bugha threw his arms up in the air and shook his head, laughing in what looked like disbelief.

The morning of July 28, 2019, Kyle "Bugha" Giersdorf was an average 16-year-old kid who was really good at Fortnite. By the time the sun set, he was a multimillionaire.

It's a dreary February day, the sky spitting half-rain, half-snow, when Bugha and his father, Glenn Giersdorf, visit the ESPN campus in Connecticut. They're led through a maze of hallways that connect each building and meet me at the end of another long hallway leading into the cafeteria.

Bugha, about seven months removed from winning $3 million at the Fortnite World Cup, is an unassuming teenager. Dressed comfortably in a sweatshirt and jeans, he holds a bottle of chocolate milk that he fidgets with more than he drinks from while talking. He wears a half-smile that almost never leaves his face, and he is not overly quiet, but certainly not loud. Frequently, Bugha defaults to his father, asking him questions when he doesn't remember specific events in his childhood, but also pushes back against his dad when he disagrees with the result.

No one gives Bugha a second look. Although he ran through the late-night talk show circuit after winning the Fortnite World Cup and appeared in a Super Bowl commercial that aired just a few nights before his visit, no one seems to notice that this specific teenager is the Fortnite World Cup champion. Bugha, now 17, is the less-known face behind a story just about everyone knows.

Video games themselves have been mainstream for a while. Professional video game players and tournaments have existed for decades. Yet the latter has never been more in the U.S. public consciousness than today, and Bugha's Fortnite World Cup prize pool has a lot to do with this.

Bugha on the different upgrades he's done to his setup

Kyle "Bugha" Giersdorf stuns Arda Ocal when he tells him that he hasn't upgraded his setup yet since winning the World Cup.

Like most battle royale-style games, competitive Fortnite has a lull before everything explodes in a burst of activity. In an instant, Bugha went from a good Fortnite player whom other Fortnite players knew to the default ambassador for professional esports athletes in the United States. This sudden popularity has led to everything from starring in Super Bowl commercials to having SWAT team members lined up outside his bedroom door due to a fake police call.

"He used to be a lot more social with his friends," Giersdorf adds, shooting a pointed look across the table at his son. "They'd go out to restaurants, go to high school football games, stuff like that, and some of that stuff has taken a hit because he's now streaming more."

Giersdorf admits he wishes Bugha would go out with his friends a bit more rather than spending nearly all of his time with friends online.

"Just go out and do something stupid," his father suggests. "Be a teenager."

Said Bugha: "I know, but some of them are weird now. When you go somewhere and everyone is just staring at you -- it's different when it's your friends, you know? People are different from when you're in school and afterward. I just want to have the close friends, your two or three friends who have always been there."

"You played Battlefield 1942 in your diaper," Giersdorf says. "I have video. I have got to get that; it's on VCR."

Bugha makes a slight "tsk" noise and ducks his head.

"That stuff I don't even remember."

According to his dad, Bugha's video game career began with an auspicious accidental kill in Battlefield 1942 when he had just wanted to hit the buttons aimlessly as a baby.

Bugha grew up playing video games with his father. MarioKart Balloon Battles turned into Call of Duty and later the pre-battle royale iteration of Fortnite: Save the World. But even though a good bit of their relationship was built on gaming, there were some doubts as Fortnite's battle royale mode turned into a career path.

"He was still like, he wanted me to go outside and hang out and do stuff with my friends," Bugha says.

"I wanted a balance," Giersdorf interjects.

"After I made some money off of the game, he was kind of more accepting about it," Bugha says. "But before that he was like, 'I want you to do other things rather than put all your time into this.' I didn't really listen."

They both laugh.

Giersdorf says that his initial reaction to Bugha wanting to become a pro player was one of concern. He knew his son was good at video games but didn't realize the true extent of it until he saw Bugha in scrimmages and entering small tournaments with his online friends.

Nick "Aspect" McGuire, one of Bugha's squadmates in Fortnite, vouched for the teenager to the Sentinels organization, and Bugha was picked up by Sentinels shortly afterward as a pro player.

"We had seen some gameplay from him and wanted to get him before the World Cup was even announced," Phan says. "Wow, this kid is amazingly good at the game.

"Kyle, in essence, is the truest form of a competitor that I can imagine. Whatever he does, he just wants to dominate in."

Bugha breaks down his Fortnite World Cup victory

Kyle 'Bugha' Giersdorf details his Fortnite World Cup victory and what he plans to do with his winnings.

Giersdorf told Bugha that he could pursue it, but only if it didn't interfere with any of his classes. Bugha continued attending public school and led the life of the average suburban teenager in Pennsylvania, the only major difference being that the Fortnite World Cup qualifiers had begun. Rather than participating in any extracurricular activity, all of Bugha's time went toward playing Fortnite and making the field of 100 finalists.

"Around 3 o'clock I was home, and from there on out I might have done my homework, or I might have done it in class or after school," Bugha says. "But I put six hours into every single night playing, even when I had school. That was my No. 1 concern at the time because I really wanted to play and qualify."

Bugha qualified at the top of the North American region in the first week of Fortnite World Cup Qualifiers for solos competitors. He eased off of solo play but still put in hour after hour of practice for the duos competition, which he did not qualify for. Bugha still seems like he's mentally kicking himself a bit for not being a part of the duos competition, but he shrugs this regret away the next moment, smiling while thinking about his solos win.

After the Fortnite World Cup, average suburban life wasn't an option anymore.

The first two weeks of life as the world cup champion were packed with media appearances, including a day-after appearance on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon."

"He understood the value of letting the community know," Phan says. "You could tell he switched gears in terms of what had to get done. It was definitely a lot all at once."

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Bugha went from around 50,000 Twitter followers to hundreds of thousands overnight -- and then his social media channels were hacked. A couple weeks after his win, he was the victim of a swatting, a criminal activity in which a caller attempts to send police officers to someone's home under false pretenses via fraudulent accusations like a hostage situation. This dangerous and illegal prank has resulted in deaths.

"It was scary for sure," Bugha says. "We were scrimming at that time, and I get someone busting in my door and they're like, 'You gotta come with us,' and I'm like, 'Can I finish this game real quick?' Because I didn't know what they wanted."

The police officer that had responded to the call had also been a security guard at Bugha's junior high school. Him recognizing Bugha and his family ensured the call didn't escalate any further.

"I got up, we walk out, there's gunmen standing around the steps watching me as I walk down," he says. "We get into the living room and started talking to them, and they figured out that everything was OK."

There were other changes, too. Bugha shifted to online school to help add some flexibility to his classwork. While he doesn't see much of a difference in his everyday schedule, he admits his life has changed a lot on a broader scale. He's traveled all around the country either for competitions or various media events. Now that he's not restricted by public school hours, he can make the most of his time with as much streaming as his new schedule will allow.

"He'll get up, shower, do whatever he has to do, eat, gets on his stream and he'll start streaming for four, five, six hours," Giersdorf says. "And then after that he takes a little decompression where he'll hang out with other friends on the internet where he'll do stupid plays or side games. He'll do two hours of schoolwork or whatever he needs to do, chills out, and then repeats that.

"There will be many mornings where my wife is just getting up from work and Kyle's just tiptoeing to bed."

"Goodnight, Mom," Bugha pantomimes with a smile and a small wave.

His life inside the game of Fortnite has changed as well. Bugha says sometimes people will try to target him and his landing spot as the 100 players initially spawn and drop into a game. It doesn't often affect his performance, but it's an additional part of his burgeoning popularity that he didn't have to think about before winning the World Cup.

For most esports professional players, regardless of the amount of money they've won, there comes a time when playing a game that they love suddenly becomes more of a job and less fun. It's often compounded by the fact that streaming requires a player to put themselves in front of a camera for several hours a day while playing.

The Fortnite World Cup win cemented this as a job, not a hobby, but Fortnite has yet to become at all tedious for Bugha, even after seven months of it being a required part of his life.

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"I've kind of always just streamed my practice or streamed me playing in general, so it's not really weird for me to do that," Bugha says. "Maybe some of my teammates I play with might be kind of weird about it because they're not used to being on stream or performing well every single time you play, but it kind of gives me a boost to do better because people are watching me. I'm like, 'Well, now I need to put all of my effort into this practice.' So it kind of helps me."

Fortnite champ Bugha discusses appeal to young gamers

Kyle "Bugha" Giersdorf, 16, joins Outside the Lines to talk about what he plans to do with his $3M winnings and why Fortnite attracts younger gamers.

A cynic could say the honeymoon phase just hasn't worn off yet. And in some ways, that's true: The 17-year-old hasn't thought much about what will come after Fortnite because, well, why does anything have to come after that? Bugha found his dream job at 16 and became the best person in the world at it within months. There's not much need for a Plan B right now.

Yet, Bugha has thought extensively of what he wants to do with the momentum he has now. His streams give him motivation while playing and support, but he also streams to grow his personal brand and image within the esports space. Moving forward, he wants to have more of his own merchandise and continue to showcase his personality as a public gaming figure.

The obvious choice as the face of Bugha merchandise? His pug Zoey, of course.

"I was thinking of something with my dog," Bugha says of potential merch. "My dog is a big part of my character, so maybe a plush thing of my dog and maybe get a logo on it or something."

I ask Bugha if he sees himself as a gaming ambassador. He shrugs and plays with his half-empty bottle of chocolate milk, tapping the bottom of it on the table, but doesn't deny his role in spreading the idea of being a professional video game player.

"I've heard my friends tell me, 'Yeah I was at the beach and my grandparents were talking about this kid that won three mil,'" Bugha tells me. He wrinkles his nose as he says it.

"I'm like, 'What? That's crazy. Why would they know anything about it?' I don't know, that's kind of what I'm striving to be, let everyone know who I am."

A week after talking to Bugha, and a day after covering the New York Excelsior Overwatch homestand in New York City, I take a taxi back to my apartment from LAX. The inevitable question of what I do at ESPN comes up.

I always introduce my job tentatively, assuming that people won't understand unless I preface it with, "You know traditional sports, right? Well I cover people who don't play sports, but play video games professionally." The response usually ranges from "Well do you write about any sports?" to a vague, "Oh yeah, I've heard that's a thing now."

This ride is different.

"Oh," my driver says, "like that 16-year-old kid that won millions of dollars?"

They don't know that his name is Kyle Giersdorf, or "Bugha," but they know who he is. They know that some kid won millions of dollars playing a game called Fortnite.

Their kids play it too.