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Sorry, Meta: Epic Games is already winning the metaverse race

The rumors were true: Facebook — or, Meta, rather — is going all-in on the metaverse. The social media giant announced that it is undergoing a massive rebrand as it chases a concept that seemed like total science-fiction just a few years ago.

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So, what is the metaverse? It depends on who you ask. The most basic explanation is that its series of shared digital spaces that goes a few steps beyond the current internet. It’s theoretically a place where you could live a whole digital life. That could mean that you have your own digital avatar who spends a form of virtual currency on digital goods. We’ve already seen bits and pieces of that emerging over the past few years especially, but Meta is looking to accelerate the process.

There’s only one problem: It’s already too late to the game. Sketches of the metaverse already exist in the video game world, with Epic Games leading the charge in particular. And frankly, Meta isn’t cool enough to compete.

The metaverse race

For those familiar with the gaming world, the metaverse isn’t a new concept, regardless of how much Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants you to think it is. Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney has been incredibly vocal about wanting to build a version of the metaverse for years. The company has already laid a lot of groundwork in a place you might not expect: Fortnite.

The mega-hit multiplayer game is essentially a proving ground for the metaverse concept. It’s a massively social space that’s grown well beyond its battle royale roots at this point. Take a deep look at what it is today. Players create their own avatars, choosing from a collection of skins that span countless IPs. They use a currency exclusive to the game, called V-Bucks, to buy items that only exist in digital space. Players have gathered to watch concerts, movies, and more in the game. It also features a whole creative mode that’s been used to create digital experiences like a Super Bowl all-access event.

A player stands outside of Fortnite's Super Bowl hub.

Fortnite isn’t the entire metaverse, though; it’s just one piece of it. Epic Games has also shown its commitment to the concept by investing in Core, a creation platform that lets players make games and digital worlds. We’ve already seen artists like deadmau5 experimenting with the platform to create his own little wing of the metaverse — almost like his own website in a larger world.

Epic Games’ approach to the metaverse has been slow, but smart. Rather than dropping a video full of tech jargon and ludicrously lofty promises on its audience, it steadily introduced concepts via video games. Fortnite lured players in with an addictive hook, but slowly widened its scope with each new update and event. It’s a completely different world in 2021 than it was in 2018, but one that long-time players are fully integrated into now.

It’s important to note that Epic Games isn’t the only company taking this approach. Mega-hit Roblox has evolved from a game that kids like to a full-on global platform that’s beyond most people’s grasp. I can’t begin to break down the kind of things happening in that space these days, but it’s already lightyears ahead of Meta.

There’s a key takeaway here, one that is going to be Meta’s Achilles heel: The path to the metaverse goes through younger generations. Let’s face it, the older we get, the harder it is to keep up with new technology like this. Do you have parents who still don’t know how to send an email? We laughed at them, but that’ll be us when the metaverse becomes more fully realized. I already feel like a cranky old man watching Mark Zuckerberg show off his hideous digital avatar. It’ll be today’s kids and teens who embrace the technology if they deem it cool enough.

Mark Zuckerberg introduces Facebook's new name, Meta.

And Facebook is not cool. The Verge reports that the social media platform has been bleeding teenagers for years. It is expected to lose 45% of its teenage audience over the next few years as its current users age without younger ones coming in. That’s a huge problem. Meta desperately needs that tech-savvy audience if its metaverse is going to grow. I can already tell you that my Italian father, who just decided it was time to make a Facebook account, isn’t going to create an avatar and spend digital money on a fake shirt anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Epic Games has already normalized that idea within its youngest players. And more importantly, it made the whole idea look cool by bringing popular IPs like Batman, Star Wars, and Halo into Fortnite — and let’s face it, Master Chief is cooler than Mark Zuckerberg. For those who have grown up on the game, there’s nothing weird about spending V-Bucks so they can make their character look like Kratos or LeBron James. In fact, they find it fun.

Meta is late to a marathon it is claiming just began. Epic Games, and others in the video game world, already have giant audiences that are primed and ready for the future. Meta will need to run twice as fast to catch up.

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