2. 1991 and is now worth an estimated $5.3bn, 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,” Mr 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 133m times and spent
$1.2bn 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 [Mr Sweeney’s]
Mr 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, Mr 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.
Fortnite’s 350m 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 best seller 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 Mr
Sweeney’s decision to take on Apple just as rival Unity is launching an initial public
3. “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. Mr Sweeney “is
able to see the long game in a way that many CEOs do not”.
Mr 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 Mr Sweeney has “never stopped programming” despite
running a company of 2,200 staff that is now valued at $17bn. “I didn’t create
Fortnite,” Mr 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: Mr 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
Mr 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 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 $250m stake in
4. Epic last month, and Microsoft, with whom Mr 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,” Mr Sweeney
told games executives at an industry event in February, “in order to achieve the