The Astonishing Journey of Fortnite Pro Ashton Harris – Part I: The Grind

It only takes a few minutes to figure out what motivates 21-year-old Ashton “Astonish” Harris, one of the latest talents signed by gaming and lifestyle company XSET.  While Harris loves competitive gaming and playing football, his family comes first, even when that means putting his dreams on hold to help them. Harris, a pro-Fortnite player, qualified for the 2019 Fortnite World Cup and made his way to New York to compete, but the journey to get there and the road that followed was a slow grind.

There are plenty of families struggling to make ends meet in America; the income coming into some households just isn’t enough to cover life’s basic necessities. That might mean having to make sacrifices, like renting something instead of owning it (and paying a massive markup for a typically inferior product over a long period of time), choosing between necessities such as food or transportation to pay rent, a utility bill, or buy medicine; or just generally being one big bill away from losing everything. Harris’ family knew this situation intimately.

Harris, whose mother and father served in the military, traveled around a lot growing up, living in different places like Paris, Seattle, Germany, and Alabama. Eventually, his family settled in Atlanta when he was 12 years old. Growing up, Harris heard a lot of talk among friends that being a pro athlete or a hip-hop artist was the best measure of success. He certainly had his own dreams of someday playing college ball and perhaps one day being called up to the NFL. He played high school football and excelled at it, but a shoulder injury benched him for a short while and put the added burden of medical bills on his family. He finished out his high school years playing until he graduated but seeing his family struggle financially forced him to make some hard decisions.

After high school, he decided to put his dreams of playing football and going to college on hold to help his family. With a limited household income and several family members suffering from serious health issues, he planned on getting a job at Burger King or Target to help his mom pay the bills. But at the same time, he had gotten really good at Fortnite Battle Royale, and despite the limitations of being a controller player on a console, he knew he was really good at the game. In 2019 when Epic announced its intentions to do some big money esports competitions, Harris decided that this could be the best way to help his family.

“I’d been hearing things about esports, and after watching Myth, I heard that Epic had announced Fortnite esports and all these different tournaments coming up,” Harris told The Esports Observer. “I knew I was pretty good at this game, so I wanted to try playing it competitively, even though I was playing it on a console.”

It was a constant grind, but he put the work in every day to get better. Sometimes, he would earn money by wagering, borrowing a small amount of money from his mom, or using whatever money he had saved up. It was a lot like gambling in that you could win or lose a lot of money if you weren’t careful, but he kept his wagers small so that if he lost it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

“Every time I earned some money, I would play for like $5 -$10, and If I lost it, no big deal. But I was playing in other tournaments, too,” Harris said. “They would give away $250 – $1,000, and so every time I got something like that, I would just give it to my mom and dad.”

Harris often placed well in some of the smaller tournaments, but it was hard to break through into the upper tier events, which often required an invite from the organizer, and those usually went to well-known people with huge followings in the Fortnite competitive community. He admits he didn’t understand why, when he would place in the top 15 of a competition, he wouldn’t be invited, often concluding that it was probably random selection or dumb luck.

“I was in one called the Fortnite Solo Showdown and back then I was playing under the name ‘Frosty.’ I managed to place 11th or 13th and was actually so excited because I thought, ‘Oh wow, I might get an invite, this is really nice, good.’ Sadly, I never got an invite. My friend did though, and I was happy for him, but I was confused about why I didn’t get in. I had changed my name from Frosty and switched email, and I thought it might have had something to do with that, but I wasn’t really sure what happened. Honestly, I was kind of sad because l thought I would get one at 11th, so then I thought I needed to get first or second place or something like that to get in. But looking back, I guess they were just choosing randomly.”

 As Harris continued to play he knew he was never going to break out if he didn’t upgrade to a PC. With no disposable income in the house to spend on a high-end gaming rig, Harris asked his mom if there was anything they could do to get even some small measure of an upgrade. When you have a limited income, your options are often few and far between. After thinking about it, Harris’ mom rented him a PC from Aaron’s. Aaron’s, if you are not familiar with the company, is a rent-to-own retail chain that charges a weekly fee on household items like sofas, TVs, and even computers, with the end goal being you will own that item over time.

 “I asked my mom to help me upgrade so I could try to compete in these PC tournaments. She couldn’t get me one of those super PCs; It was a PC from Aaron’s, a rent-a-PC. All I could think was ‘I didn’t even know they sold PCs.’ It was a $250 PC you could buy at the store, but because it was Aaron’s with the rental and all those other fees, it costs way more than that. My mom couldn’t pay for it in full, so she had to rent it. That was the option we had at the time. It was bad.”

 Despite the limitations of using a PC from Aaron’s, a console controller, and a beat-up old TV he had hung on the wall to play, Harris managed to qualify for the 2019 Fortnite World Cup (as highlighted in this YouTube video), which earned him $50K USD before taxes. It was a life-changing moment for his family and the moment when his mom probably realized that her son wasn’t in his room wasting his time playing games.

“The $50K was helpful; I gave my mom more than half of that money [from the World Cup]. I kept some, put it in my bank account. She got some of the medical and bills for medicine paid off. A little on down the road, we eventually got my sister a German Shepherd, a service dog. Some people are confused about that. They thought I just got her a German Shepherd, but it was a service dog for her medical condition.”

Ultimately Harris would go on to New York, but feeling the pressure of being on the world stage competing for the first time, his nerves coupled with him being sick would see him place 87th at the event. Still, millions of people hadn’t made it as far as he had, and he was proud of the accomplishment. For the next year and a half, Harris focused on playing the game, getting better standings in tournaments, and using wagers to generate money for his family.  A few offers were coming in but it just seemed like things were kind of at a standstill for Harris.

“After the World Cup was really kind of just a blank,” he said. “Teams reached out to me and I reached out to them but I never sealed a deal or a contract. So it was just basically me being a free agent for almost a year and a half.”

 In the next year and a half after the World Cup, he would continue to grind, switching between mobile and console to PC and back again as Epic was figuring out what platforms it wanted to put money behind. He also did this because he was continuing to do wagers and find the best platform to continue to support his family financially.

“It was at that point in time I said that I was going to stop playing PCS for now because I figured out a way to get more money faster,” Harris said. “I told people, my supporters, that I was going to take a break from PC and play on console. But the real story that I told my closest friends – the people who really knew me – was that it was just easier to earn cash and give it to my parents to help them out. It wasn’t just me being done playing on PC or that I didn’t want to play competitively. I just wanted to get quick cash so things could be easier for my family.”

As time went on, Harris’ mom and dad were getting a little concerned. He was earning money here and there, but it just wasn’t generating enough income to make a substantial change in anyone’s situation, and he was missing out on college, and one of his dreams.

“My mom and dad wanted me to just go play football and see what happened. I’m playing Fortnite and she was kind of worried because nobody else could really work in the house except for my brother, but he has narcolepsy, and my little siblings were still in high school and they couldn’t really go anywhere because mom couldn’t take them. That’s why I just said to her, “Trust me.”

What he didn’t know at that time was that he had caught the attention of someone very important at a fledgling esports company that would change his life, and he was bringing along some friends for the ride.

To be continued…

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