Step into Nike’s virtual sneaker hunt Airphoria built using UEFN

Imagine a sneaker hunt through a city in the clouds—one that takes you from gritty nightclubs to surreal prismatic beaches, collecting Nike Air Max Grails as you go.

That’s the premise behind Airphoria, an immersive virtual sneaker hunt in Fortnite created using Unreal Editor for Fortnite (UEFN).

The brainchild of the innovative team at Nike and created in partnership with Fortnite studio Beyond Creative with support from Epic Games Innovation Lab, Airphoria represents one of the first times a brand has tested the capabilities of UEFN. With it, Nike has realized a world that reflects its brand identity, complete with accurate digital replicas of physical products, while maintaining full creative control over the art direction of the game experience.

“This is really the next generation of storytelling,” says Bryon Panaia, Global Creative Director of Nike Brand Experience and Innovation. “UEFN has created the toolset for us to bring these stories to life for people in new ways.”

Creating a brand experience using UEFN

Nike is a brand that has a deep expertise in the power of immersive storytelling. The team’s multidisciplinary drive to push the company stories forward never rests. “We're trying to innovate our storytelling in the same way that we innovate our products,” explains Panaia.

In Airphoria, the brand has unlocked a completely new realm for fans to engage with it's products and innovations.

The immersive experience is a celebration of one of Nike’s most famous lines of sneakers—Nike Air Max—and a journey into its story.

Set in a city in the clouds situated on top of a giant inflatable Air Max shoe bag, Airphoria is the ultimate sneaker hunt.
Players stealthily explore the city, dodging sneaker drones, climbing up buildings, and crawling through vents, all the while collecting Air Max Grails and returning them to the vault in Airphoria. Anyone who completes the quest unlocks a collectible virtual sneaker—the Air Max 1 '86 Back Bling.

“Our goal with Airphoria—because of the massive audience in Fortnite—is to have one of the biggest sneaker drops, if not the biggest sneaker drop, that we've ever been able to do as a company,” says Panaia. “But to do that virtually.” 

The locations in the virtual city are built around five iconic Nike shoes.
Players land in Station 97, the environment based on the Air Max 97 sneaker. This leads them into The Underground—a gritty nightclub space inspired by the London Grime scene, based around the Nike Air Max Pulse.

Once they transcend that level, players go up to Air Max City, a world built around the OG—the Air Max 1—one of Nike’s most iconic sneakers.

The Scorpion is the inspiration shoe for the ethereal plane sitting at the highest level of the island. And last but not least, the Tailwind sneaker owns the airspace around Airphoria.

Nike had been searching for a place to create this type of experience but had been unable to find it until a year ago, at a meeting at Epic's Innovation Lab in Los Angeles.

There, the Nike team saw a demo built around Epic’s interpretation of what an Air Max virtual world could look like. “We were absolutely blown away,” says Panaia.

That demo was one of the earliest built using UEFN.

Working collaboratively using UEFN

UEFN enables developers to create experiences in Fortnite using Unreal Engine 5 tools.

Workflows that are straight out of the UE5 toolbox—like complex VFX, game mechanics, animation, and more—can be used in conjunction with traditional Fortnite Creative elements like devices, providing a hugely expanded range of options for creating and publishing content in Fortnite.

“I knew in the moment we saw UEFN for the first time that this was the tool of the future because it was going to give everybody the opportunity to create immersive, photorealistic worlds—and do that democratically,” says Panaia.

Combined with the fact that you can bring in your own custom assets, UEFN is a powerful tool for building bespoke virtual worlds that can be totally different to the look and feel of Fortnite—but that you can still publish to Fortnite’s huge audience of millions of players.

For Nike, there was an instant feeling that this would be a game-changing opportunity. “That's where people are already hanging out, building culture, playing,” explains Panaia. “It's great for us to have a place so close to where all this culture is already being created, where there are millions of players around the world engaging on a daily basis.”

With Nike excited to see what they could do with UEFN, the Epic team made an introduction to a creative studio that could help them make it happen.

Beyond Creative have deep expertise building islands in Fortnite. They’ve previously created Fortnite islands for brands including Honda, NFL, and Chipotle, and are well versed in the Fortnite Creative toolset.

As a Fortnite studio, Beyond Creative also brought an understanding of what appeals to the Fortnite player base to the project.

Working alongside Epic’s London Innovation Lab, Beyond Creative set out to bring Nike’s vision for Airphoria to life.

The collaborative nature of UEFN enabled Nike to get hands-on in the creative process, exploring, iterating, and prototyping in a way they hadn't been able to unlock on previous projects.

UEFN enables creators and developers to work on experiences together in real time, both from a player's perspective, live in the environment, or as an editor, making edits while the player interacts with those changes. That presents the opportunity for direct feedback between teams and the ability to rapidly iterate or test out ideas.

There were a lot of sessions where Beyond Creative and Nike worked on the art direction together, capturing detailed visuals and adding finishing touches that would ensure the experience was truly on brand.

“We were only limited by our imagination,” says Panaia. “We developed a ton of custom assets, from graffiti, video, and NPCs; to the actual building and environments; to taking our products and bringing them into the world. All of that happened seamlessly.”
The team thought hard to come up with innovative ways to weave Nike’s iconic products into the virtual space, including turning the Air Max 97 into a subway car, reimagining the Tailwind as Airplane that flies around Airphoria, and even designing a sneaker-shaped museum where players explore digital art based around the five different Nike Air Max shoes.

Panaia explains that UEFN’s creative flexibility gave the team a blank canvas to brainstorm concepts—no ideas were off the table.

“If anything, UEFN proved to be an accelerant of our ideas—there was no sense of limitation,” he says. “It really took our vision and pushed it further and further. We felt that anything was going to be possible with this tool.”

Bringing custom content into UEFN

The founders of Beyond Creative don’t come from a traditional game development background: they’re part of a new breed of creators who cut their teeth in digital content creation on platforms like Minecraft and Roblox.

Moving development from Fortnite Creative to UEFN, then, was something of a learning curve. “When I opened UEFN for the first time, everything looked quite daunting,” recalls Liam McMahon, Co-Founder and Lead Artist at Beyond Creative.

“This is new software that I’ve never used before. But the more you start diving deeper and discovering what’s there, there’s just so much more you can do—especially with the lighting and 3D modeling.”

As the project progressed, the team at Beyond started to unlock the creative opportunities presented by UEFN including the ability to bring in custom content which meant that time-consuming workarounds are no longer necessary.

“In the past when a client requested a specific asset we don’t have in Fortnite Creative, we would have to kit-bash all the pieces together,” explains Tommy Hall, Co-Founder and Lead Programmer at Beyond Creative. “But now, it’s super simple because we can just import that.”

For Airphoria, Nike’s in-house 3D team provided custom 3D assets that were ingested directly into UEFN, with a little optimization here and there on the textures.

Business opportunities for creators using UEFN

Hall says UEFN has broadened the horizons of the team at Beyond Creative, presenting its employees with new opportunities to dabble in sound design, Niagara VFX, materials, programming, and more.

With a variety of new creative tools at their disposal and roles at the company expanding, it’s no surprise that the face of the company is evolving, too.

The move to UEFN has seen Beyond Creative evolve into a new breed of studio—one where experts native to the communities of virtual worlds like Roblox and Minecraft come together with professionals fluent in the language of traditional game dev skills like VFX and animation.

McMahon notes that the business has already started to bring Unreal Engine developers onboard to work on things like VFX.

He urges creators who are enjoying using Fortnite Creative to try their hand at UEFN. “UEFN is the next stepping stone for creators,” he says.

“I’d encourage people to come into this space if they really enjoy what they’re doing in Fortnite Creative. A year from now, you're going to be looking back saying, ‘this is the best switch I ever made.’ ”

The Airphoria island is available now through June 27, 2023, at 8 PM ET. Access it via Discover or island code 2118-5342-7190!

    Want to try UEFN for yourself?

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