Superstar Gamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins Sets a Course for Hollywood
After Tyler Blevins signed a first-of-its-kind exclusive deal with Mixer last year, the streaming service shut down, making Blevins, who was photographed July 23 in Illinois, a very coveted free agent: “It was a little nerve-wracking, but also exciting,” he says. Nolis Anderson The world’s No. 1 live streamer, […]
The enthusiasm may have been genuine, but it certainly wasn’t spontaneous: Universal, in anticipation of its wide release of the British war film that weekend, had enlisted Blevins for an endorsement to woo the millions of mostly young, mostly male fans who follow his live streams — exactly the sort of viewers the studio needed to attract to theaters. While it’s impossible to quantify the direct impact of the campaign’s 10 million impressions, 1917‘s opening weekend brought in $37 million domestically, a bigger haul than expected for the war epic.
As Ninja, the blue-haired, bandana-wearing face of video gaming, 29-year-old Blevins has what Hollywood so desperately wants: a direct line to the next generation of superfans. Sure, you may not have heard of him, but millions follow him on social media (15 million on Instagram alone), watch his streams for hours at a time (a recent Fortnite video topped 165,000 concurrent viewers), buy products he recommends ($14 Ninja boxers, anyone?) and, at least pre-pandemic, flocked to events where he appeared (like 2019’s Lollapalooza, where his stream was broadcast from the Red Bull tent).
His pull is so strong that in 2019, Microsoft’s Mixer platform paid him upwards of $30 million, per sources, to decamp from industry leader Twitch for an exclusive deal — the first of its kind. (When asked, Ninja and his management team declined to disclose terms of the deal.)
It’s little wonder Hollywood is so eager to tap into that stardom: Add up every movie ticket sale in 2019 and the total is still less than half the $109 billion that digital games brought in. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings told investors last year that “we compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO.” And Blevins is the industry’s unofficial ambassador — what Tony Hawk was for skateboarding in the ’90s, Ninja is for video gaming. He has live-streamed Fortnite (his main game) with Drake, taught his signature dance move (the Pon Pon) to Jimmy Fallon, and appeared in the NFL’s 100-year anniversary campaign.
Now, Blevins has set his sights on Hollywood in a more immediate way. Instead of just hawking its content, he wants to star in it. That’s why Blevins showed up on The Masked Singer last year (only to go home on the first night) and the reason he filmed a cameo in Ryan Reynolds’ upcoming gamer movie, Free Guy. He’s looking at “literally anything and everything Hollywood,” he tells me when we video chat in mid-July. “Movies, voice acting, cartoons.”
It’s a Friday evening and Blevins and his wife, Jessica, 28, who is also his manager, have poured themselves glasses of wine and settled into different rooms of their Chicago-area house for an evening of gaming. This is a pretty normal routine for the first couple of streaming, but before they log on for the night, they’re gearing up for a round of online trivia courtesy of a quirky Jackbox Games title where answering incorrectly leads to virtual murder.
Over the next 30 minutes, I learn that geography and biology aren’t his strongest subjects, though he once thought he might become a teacher. After he gets a question wrong, something about an amphibian, he accuses me of “100 percent googling that shit.” Even when the stakes are low, Ninja hates to lose.
On Fortnite — in which players are dropped into a candy-colored world and must fight until only one is left standing — Blevins, per FortniteTracker.com, has an impressive 36 percent win rate and is among the top 20 in terms of overall kills, out of 350 million total registered users. The best streamers are not only dexterous players, however, but also skilled entertainers who can easily chat with their audience and come up with on-the-fly commentary. Imagine Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers not just evading tackles but giving live updates about his every move to fans and responding to their comments in real time.
When Blevins goes live as Ninja, he morphs into a louder, more energetic version of himself. He’s charming and funny and expertly talks to the tens of thousands of people who regularly tune in. Typically, he joins up with other streamers — guys with names like TimtheTatman and DrLupo, who have millions of followers of their own — and they chat about their lives while playing.
Blevins often ends live streams in a stupor, exhausted from the toll of staying engaged and animated for sessions that can last up to eight hours. He describes the experience blissfully as one where you lose track of responsibilities and “just get lost.”
Behind Blevins, I catch a glimpse of the underground studio where he spends most of his days. “I’ve been in the basement my entire life,” he says with a laugh. But this is no average man cave. It’s tricked out to resemble the set of ESPN’s SportsCenter, with monitors that broadcast video clips and a standing desk where he can offer color commentary on other gamers’ play. He moves his camera so I can see the Ninja-branded gaming PC on his desk, the Detroit Lions helmet signed by the whole team, the Red Bull fridge that glows from the corner. “This,” he says as the camera trains on a disco ball installed on the ceiling, “is for when I win a game.” He presses a little button near his computer and suddenly the whole room is bathed in a sparkly red light.
“He’s in that room 10 to 20 hours a day,” says Jessica, who has her own Twitch channel with 500,000 followers (despite her husband’s defection) where she games, cooks and chats about life. “We have this big [plan], and he doesn’t necessarily know everything that’s going on.” The “we” she’s referring to are the lawyers, managers, accountants and video professionals who form Team Ninja, helping Blevins parse contracts, book appearances and maintain his online presence. In a normal month, Team Ninja easily nets more than $1 million from the likes of merch sales, appearance fees and sponsorships.
But the primary source of income for streamers like Blevins is the platforms, like Twitch and YouTube, which split advertising revenue with gamers. Streamers also make money from subscriptions and donations (though most fans give only a few bucks, Ninja once received $40,000).
Normally, on an evening like this one, Blevins would be jonesing to start a stream. But, like much of the world, Ninja is on hold. In his case, though, it’s not the pandemic that’s to blame. In June, Microsoft-owned Mixer, the platform he’d called home for the past year, abruptly announced it was shutting down after failing to draw enough live-streaming business away from competitors like Twitch, which with over 15 million average daily streamers is the largest such platform. Blevins tweeted that he had “some decisions to make” and quietly logged off the service.
Now he’s a free agent — and a coveted one. He’s live-streamed only once since then, on YouTube in mid-July. Behind the scenes, he’s been weighing his options and talking to several platforms about a potential deal.
He’s still gaming, usually until 2 or 3 in the morning, but these sessions are just for him. To illustrate just how chill things have become, he takes off his headphones and lets long sapphire hair fall into his blue eyes. “This is as long as it’s been ever,” he says, confiding that only Beverly Hills hairstylist Lee Rittiner is allowed to touch his locks. Since Blevins has been vigilant about social distancing, his natural light brown color is beginning to peek out at the roots.
For most streamers, an extended hiatus like this would be a career killer. Conventional wisdom is that every hour you’re not streaming, you’re losing subscribers. Blevins used to stress over the number of fans he’d lose when he took a break for, gasp, business calls or in-person appearances. He doesn’t anymore. In fact, this break might be the best thing that could have happened to him.
For the past decade, Blevins has been running on the hamster wheel of streaming fame. Like many suburban middle-class kids, he started playing games as a fun way to pass the time between school and soccer practice. Blevins was good, handily beating his two older brothers in Halo after it came out when he was 10 years old, but he didn’t realize just how good until Microsoft launched the Xbox Live online gaming platform in 2002 that let him see how he stacked up against gamers around the world.
Sometime during this period, he abandoned his original gamer tag — Candide, after the French satire by Voltaire, his favorite book — for one inspired by a Halo move that gamers had dubbed “a ninja.” When I ask if, in the years since, he’s considered the complications of a white man adopting a moniker that’s culturally Japanese, he says, “I’m a huge fan of Japanese culture. Why I’m still using it is just through the lens of a really big fan. It was never anything more than that.”
Blevins competed in his first Halo tournament at 17, driving with his salesman father to Columbus, Ohio, from their home in suburban Illinois to play with a group of guys he’d met online. Soon, he began regularly playing on the professional circuit. It was at one of those matches that he first met Jessica, who was there to watch an ex-boyfriend. “She was the most beautiful girl there,” he recalls. They stayed in touch but didn’t start dating until several years later.
Competing in esports was a good time, but you had to win to make decent money, and even a $25,000 first prize wasn’t a living wage once you split it among teammates and paid taxes. So, while he was taking courses at Silver Lake College, a small Catholic school in Wisconsin, Blevins began live-streaming in 2011 for a new website called Twitch. His first month on the platform, he stunned himself (and his mother, who works in financial services) when a $1,000-plus check showed up in the mail. “I put it all away,” he says. “I never spent money on anything except Taco Bell and Starbucks.” Eventually, he was earning enough — around $70,000 a year — that he decided to quit school and focus on streaming full-time.
Blevins might have stayed a decently successful, mid-tier gamer if it wasn’t for Jessica and his brother, Chris. They were the ones who convinced him to ditch Halo, which had hit a ceiling in popularity, and go after online battle royale games like H1Z1 and PUBG that had the potential to reach a much larger audience. After he started to win, his streams took off.
At this point, Blevins was making a comfortable six figures, and he and Jessica, who studied communications and human resource management in college, were managing his career from their small apartment. While he was streaming for 10-plus hours a day, she would be on the phone, trying to convince anyone who would listen to sponsor him.
In 2017, Epic Games released battle royale game Fortnite, and Blevins noticed that it was attracting many young players, even as a lot of hard-core streamers wrote it off as childish. He recalls thinking, “Oh boy, this is a very big opportunity. I’m going to grind this game and see where it goes.” As Fortnite increased in popularity, audiences started paying attention to the guy who regularly sat near the top of the leaderboards.
“He’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met,” says actor-singer Jordan Fisher, who has appeared on Broadway in Hamilton and on Netflix in To All The Boys: P.S. I Still Love You and who began streaming at the behest of Blevins. “He’s just constantly strategizing.”
Then, one night in 2018, Blevins found himself playing Fortnite with Drake. It wasn’t a stunt, he swears. During the winter of that year, @ChampagnePapi began following him on Instagram. Blevins didn’t know what to do. His mind raced: “Do I message him?” He didn’t, but a few days later, @ChampagnePapi slid into his DMs: “Yo, let’s game.”
They set a date for Friday night. Blevins waited up until 2 a.m., but Drake was working on an album and no-showed; he promised to bring his setup to the studio later that week. The night they finally played together (alongside hit-making rapper Travis Scott and Pittsburgh Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster), Blevins’ live stream hit 630,000 concurrent viewers, breaking Twitch records. It’s the moment when Fortnite went mainstream and Ninja became a star.
Blevins describes the year that followed as “a blur” of flights, TV appearances and charity events. He showed up in a Samsung commercial and in the NFL’s 100-year anniversary Super Bowl spot. “We created a dialogue with younger people who were watching, saying, ‘Hey, Dad, there’s Ninja,’ ” says NFL chief marketing officer Tim Ellis. “It’s important for us to generate young fandom for the future health of the NFL.” Ninja became the first gamer to land the cover of ESPN The Magazine, and published a graphic novel, Ninja: The Most Dangerous Game. All the while, he was still streaming for hours each day, fearful that the minute he stopped, the career he’d built would evaporate.
In summer 2019, Microsoft presented Blevins with a lifeline. The tech giant was looking to take on Twitch with Mixer, the rival streaming service it had acquired in 2016, and it wanted Ninja to sign on as an exclusive partner.
Headlines would later scream about the millions that Mixer paid Blevins to abandon his 14 million Twitch followers, but he swears money was only a small factor. “I had a very nice offer from Twitch as well,” he says, explaining that he was impressed by some of the technical features available on Mixer (like higher-quality video streams) and sold on the promise that he’d have more flexibility to pursue non-gaming opportunities. And he liked the idea that, as the first streamer to sign an exclusive platform pact, he would be setting a precedent.
Blevins announced the move Aug. 1 with a glossy video of a faux press conference where he interviewed himself about the move. “It’s the same me,” he declared, “just a different platform.” Soon, several other top streamers, including Polish-Canadian gamer Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek, joined him at Mixer. Twitch, feeling the pressure, rushed to lock down the big personalities who remained, and YouTube Gaming joined the dealmaking fray. This was the game world’s “streaming wars.”
But Ninja alone wasn’t able to draw viewers away from Twitch. After an early stream at Lollapalooza that popped with a peak 80,000 concurrent viewers, his audience began to fade. Soon he was averaging just one-fifth of the viewers that he’d pulled on Twitch, per third-party analytics firm Stream Hatcher. And while consumption on Mixer rose 150 percent in 2019, according to StreamElements, it wasn’t enough to catch up.
“It was expected,” Blevins says, pausing a beat before he adds, “and frustrating.” But he kept putting in the work, streaming upwards of 250 hours during the first few months of the pandemic. “I wanted the platform to succeed so much,” he says, “and I believed in it.” At one point, he was so miserable with his performance that Jessica stepped in and told him it was OK if he wanted to quit streaming. “We can stop this life,” she assured him.
In some ways, it was a necessary wake-up call. The very thing Blevins had feared was now happening. But while his streaming presence had contracted, his brand was growing bigger. That fall, he signed on for Fox’s The Masked Singer, and a couple of months later he became the first gamer to release his own shoe, the Adidas “Time In” Nite Jogger.
When news broke that Microsoft was shutting down Mixer — no, executives didn’t bother calling its biggest star to give him a heads-up — it almost came as a relief. His camp says the relationship ultimately ended amicably. Now he has time to sit back and make sure that the next deal he signs is “smart.” And, after his 11 months at Mixer, he’s no longer worried that his audience will bail. “I’m a lot more comfortable and relaxed knowing I don’t have to be live every single day.”
Though gaming observers were quick to speculate that Ninja would run home to Twitch, it isn’t that simple. His departure from the streamer was somewhat contentious. (Jessica was later quoted saying that his growth had stalled at Twitch and that the team there “did not listen to us” during negotiations.) Though there’s no lingering ill will, he’s keeping his options open.
The other likely player is YouTube, which through its Gaming vertical has grown into a formidable competitor. On July 8, he surprised fans when he live-streamed Fortnite there for the first time. The broadcast now has 3.7 million views. “It’s really refreshing to get viewers again,” he says, adding that he suspects his stream removed any doubt people may have had that he’s still a big draw.
It’s not lost on him that both Twitch and YouTube are owned by deep-pocketed tech giants — Amazon and Google, respectively — that could also support some of his more ambitious projects, like the program he’s hoping to establish to make video gaming more accessible to low-income communities in Chicago and Detroit.
He’s looking at all his options, says Josh Swartz, COO at Blevins’ management firm, Loaded, with a focus on a flexible streaming schedule, ad revenue benefits and “the ability to create content that expands beyond live streaming through TV, film and other entertainment opportunities.” But he’s taking his time. “I’m pretty comfortable and confident that everything’s going to be OK,” he says. “If I don’t get the deal I’m looking for, I’m in no rush.”
Blevins is filling the hours he used to stream with Twitter, where he’s taken to speaking out on a range of subjects, from social injustice to data privacy concerns on TikTok. A few weeks ago, he retweeted a video about President Trump’s Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally and commented, “COVID-19 is very real, it has killed over a 100,000 Americans, #CancelTrumpTulsaRally.” Jessica had warned him against it. His detractors would bring up his support of the Black Lives Matter protests, she cautioned. He did it anyway. The comments began to flood in: “Bro, stay in your lane.”
Still, he’s trying to be smarter about what he says online. He knows he’s a role model to young fans, so he’s stopped swearing in his broadcasts. A couple of years ago, during the height of 2018’s Ninja frenzy, he appeared to say the N-word while reciting rap lyrics during a live stream and later issued a three-part apology. Around the same time, he drew ire from some female gamers when he told gaming news website Polygon that he wouldn’t stream with women because he didn’t want to stir up rumors that he was cheating on Jessica. He contends it was all blown out of proportion. “I have streamed with many female streamers, and I’ll do that with anyone who’s as passionate about gaming as I am,” he says.
In the two years since, he’s been investing time in learning about how vile — and often violent — the largely white male community of streamers can be toward women and people of color. “If someone asked me when I was 18 if I thought I had white privilege, I probably would have had a bad answer because I wasn’t taught that, and I definitely didn’t educate myself,” he says. “I think I grew up a little.”
But on this summer evening, there’s a less weighty matter consuming him. “Give me another cheese question,” Blevins begs after correctly answering a dairy-centric query that allows him to avoid death in our trivia game.
As our conversation wraps, I ask him about his Hollywood ambitions. Many influencers go the hosting route, but that doesn’t interest Blevins, who’s got his eye on voice work. He’s actually quite good at impressions, he says. “I love doing Jim Carrey from The Grinch.” Then, as if anticipating the question coming next, he adds, “I have a video up. I get real nervous, so I’d rather not …”
Blevins, who doesn’t have a talent agent, is reading scripts and shopping original ideas that he could produce or star in, like competition series Ninja Battles that previously streamed on Mixer. But he seems pretty pragmatic about his chance at Hollywood success. “It just has to make sense,” he says. “If it’s tough because I’m not comfortable with it yet, I can work on that. But if it’s tough because I’m not good, I’m not going to cry over it.” Blevins was supposed to appear in 2019’s Jumanji: The Next Level, but the scene ultimately was cut. His ego wasn’t bruised, he says. He still landed the small part in Free Guy, which is currently set for a Dec. 11 release. “They were like, ‘You were amazing, you’re a natural,’ ” he says, getting excited. “I kept telling Jess, they’re just gassing me up, saying that so I don’t think I suck. But we’re being told that it’s not gas, so I hope it’s amazing.”
The fresh round of platform negotiations has forced Blevins to think long and hard about just what his endgame is, something that doesn’t come easy for the guy who’s usually focused on just winning the next round. “I have always been afraid of becoming a sellout,” he says. “I tell Jess every day, I’m never going to work with someone I don’t want to work with and I’m never going to endorse something that I don’t like.” Beyond that, he says that no matter what else he’s doing, “I’ll be gaming my entire life.”
But he doesn’t dwell on the future for long. It’s getting late, his glass is empty, and Fortnite is beckoning.
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