The life and rise of Tim Sweeney, the billionaire CEO and founder of the company behind 'Fortnite,' Epic Games


tim sweeney epic

  • Tim Sweeney is the CEO and founder of Epic Games, the company that brought the world “Fortnite.”
  • Despite having a net worth of $7 billion, Sweeney enjoys the simpler things in life like Diet Coke and fried chicken from Bojangles’.
  • Read on to learn about the life and rise of Sweeney as he changes the way the world thinks about video games. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories. 

Tim Sweeney may seem like your average guy. He likes hiking, tinkering with technology, the occasional Diet Coke, and fried chicken from Bojangles’. 

However, he is anything but average. Sweeney is the CEO of Epic Games, the company behind “Fortnite” — the popular battle-royale-style video game that raked in over $2.5 billion in 2018. Epic Games also brought games like “Gears of War” into the mainstream.

Sweeney has a net worth of $7 billion, millions of which he has donated to forest conservation efforts. 

When it comes to tech execs, Sweeney is one who remains rather low-key. He’s single, unmarried, and doesn’t have any kids. And he’s never been enticed by the flashy trappings of Silicon Valley: Epic Games is based out of Cary, North Carolina, just down the road from Raleigh. 

Sweeney’s first-ever job is still his current job, though the responsibilities have changed since founding Epic Games in 1991. Overall, Sweeney describes his life as “simple.” If he means a simple life that has also radically changed the way millions of people play video games online, then, sure — a simple life indeed. 

Here’s everything you need to know about Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games.

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Tim Sweeney, 48, was born in 1970 and raised in Potomac, Maryland, with two older brothers. His father was a cartographer for the US government and his mother took care of Sweeney and his brothers.

Source: Wall Street Journal

When Sweeney was a preteen, he visited his eldest brother in San Diego, California, at a startup he was working at, which had an IBM computer. His brother taught him how to program on it, and Sweeney spent the rest of the rather impressionable trip “just programming the computer, figuring things out.”

Sources: Gamasutra, Kotaku

After turning 11, Sweeney spent hours on the Apple II Plus computer his brother gave him and used it to program video games. Sweeney told The Wall Street Journal in an interview that he spent more time “programming than I think I was sleeping or in school or doing any other one thing in the world.”

Sources: CNBC, The Wall Street Journal

Sweeney would play Nintendo’s “Super Mario Bros.” when he was a child as a way to “discover what games were doing and how they were doing it,” according to an interview with video game website Kotaku in 2011. Aside from gaming, the inquisitive future CEO would also take apart lawnmowers​, radios, and TVs to see how each gear functioned. He was also a big fan of arcades.

Source: Kotaku

Sweeney attended the ​University of Maryland as a mechanical-engineering major. During his second year of college, he decided to go all-in with gaming by creating his first full-fledged​ video game, “ZZT.” He also founded his company, Potomac Computer Systems, which would later become Epic Games, to develop the “ZZT.”

Source: Gamasutra, CNBC

Despite being a gifted young coder, Sweeney didn’t initially know how to program graphics, like “actual characters and objects,” into ZZT. Instead, he used symbols and smiley faces that would attack monsters and “run through levels.” The hardware also functioned as an editor, so users could create their own games with it. He released the game in 1991.

Source: Engadget

Sweeney dropped out of University of Maryland just one credit shy of graduating and moved back in with his parents in Potomac when he was 20. He used the $4,000 in his savings and began working on what would later become Epic Games in his parents’ garage. For quite some time, customers who were interested in buying a copy of “ZZT” sent checks to Sweeney’s parents’ house, and waited for a disk copy of the game to come in the mail.

Sources: The Wall Street Journal, CNBC

Sweeney sold “several thousand” copies of “ZZT” while living with his parents. He rebranded his company as Epic Games, a name Sweeney said was “kind of a scam to make it look like we were a big company.” With new orders coming in daily, Sweeney was able to move out of his parents’ house in 1999 and quit his side-gig, mowing lawns.

Source: Gamasutra

Sweeney then moved Epic Games to Cary, North Carolina, where it still remains. At the start, Sweeney’s primary role was still programming, until the release of “Unreal,” the company’s inaugural first-person shooter video game.

Source: CNBC

“Unreal,” which was released in 1998, was a PC-based game that allowed users the ability to play together on separate computers. The 3D graphics technology behind the game was called the Unreal Engine “that has evolved to become the ubiquitous bedrock upon which Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC and even iPhone and iPad blockbusters are built,” according to Kotaku.

Sources: Business Insider, Kotaku

In 2006, Epic’s “Gears of War” was released. It was built upon the Unreal Engine for Microsoft’s Xbox 360. The New York Times described the game as “a more deliberate, thoughtful sort of shooter [with] plenty of action and gore.” The publication also called “Gears of War” one of the “best looking” games.

Sources: CNBC, The New York Times, The New York Times

By the release and subsequent success of “Gears of War,” Sweeney was 30 years old and beginning to see success. According to an interview he gave to the Journal in 2019, he had a “Ferrari and Lamborghini in the parking lot of my apartment … People who hadn’t met me thought I must be a drug dealer.” Sweeney has since gotten rid of his sports cars.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

The first “Gears of War” franchise, which included nearly a dozen titles, went on to sell over 22 million units, making over $1 billion in revenue. (Microsoft bought the “Gears of War” franchise in 2014 for an “undisclosed amount.”)

Source: CNBC, Gamepedia, Engadget

Epic Games is also responsible for games like “Shadow Complex” and the “Infinity Blade” series, both role-playing fighting games set in past and futuristic time periods. In 2013, Chinese tech company Tencent invested $330 million into Epic Games for a 40% stake.

Sources: Business Insider, CNBC

In 2015, Epic Games announced that the Unreal Engine would be made free, making it easier for any aspiring game developer to start their next project. The technology behind the Unreal Engine is regarded as “one of the most widely used engines in existence.” By making the Unreal Engine free to use, Epic Games gets a cut when game developers and publishers sell games made with it — a significant part of the way the company generates revenue.

Source: Business Insider

Epic had revealed a new game it was working on called “Fortnite” in 2011, a survival-style game that Epic pictured as a small, indie title. But Epic didn’t start offering early access to the game — at that point, it was simply “Fortnite Save the World,” a cooperative shooter — until mid-2017.

Source: Polygon, IGN

Everything changed for Sweeney and Epic Games in September 2017 with the release of “Fortnite Battle Royale” — a free-to-play battle-royale-style version of the game where users “collect resources, make tools and weapons, and try to stay alive as long as possible.” The game found worldwide success just a few months after its release, amassing over 200 million players across seven different game platforms.

Source: NBC, Business Insider

Sweeney, however, does not like to take credit for the success of “Fortnite” — he credits it largely to the game developers on his team. The Journal reported, “the entrepreneur is adamant about one thing: He did not create ‘Fortnite’ — his employees did. He didn’t design or program the game” — but he did create the company that did.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Even though “Fortnite” is free-to-play, Epic Games receives revenue from it “entirely from in-game purchases, even though the virtual goods give players no competitive advantage.” Character costumes, called “skins,” seasonal “battle passes,” and accessories can cost up to $10 each. With over 250 million “Fortnite” players, the company made over $2.5 billion from the game in 2018 alone, and over $4 billion since its release.

Sources: Business Insider, Business Insider, Engadget, The New York Times

With the blockbuster success of “Fortnite,” Sweeney skyrocketed onto Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index with a net worth of $7 billion. This puts him above other billionaires like George Lucas and George Soros, but well below tech giants Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. Epic Games currently employs more than 700 people.

Source: Business Insider

“Fortnite” has not only made Sweeney a richer man, but many “Fortnite” players as well, including Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, 28, who reportedly made $1 million a month playing the game and streaming it on Twitch (he has now switched to streaming platform Mixer). This past summer, Epic Games also hosted a “Fortnite World Cup” where players could win a piece of a $30 million prize.

Sources: CNBC, USA Today

Read more: This 28-year-old makes $500,000 every month playing ‘Fortnite’ — here’s how he does it

Sweeney is a very casual guy. His workplace attire consists of t-shirts and cargo pants. When people go to an interview at Epic Games, they are advised not to wear a jacket and tie.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Despite having a sports car infatuation at the beginning of his career, Sweeney has since spent his millions on conservation efforts in North Carolina. He bought 193 acres in Alamance County for​ preservation and donated $15 million to protect 7,000 acres of forests in western North Carolina.

Source: Triad Business Journal