“More people watch gaming video content than HBO, Netflix, ESPN and Hulu combined,” data crunchers at Nielsen say. It feels like we get metrics like these every year, meant to prove just how big and influential platforms like Twitch are. Somehow, though, the cultural impact of live streaming hasn’t felt entirely real. (If it was, Nielsen wouldn’t have to say so.) Sure, tons of people might watch a man in a wig shoot people’s faces off for hours every day, but next to a pop culture giant like Kanye West, a successful Twitch streamer is a microcelebrity. Well, until this year.
2018 saw the rise of the world’s first game for the meme generation: Fortnite. And it exploded with the force of The Dress, multiplied by a thousand. The battle royale shooter was not necessarily the first of its kind, or even the best of its kind. But it didn’t have to be. Instead, Fortnite opted for accessibility by giving its candy-colored island away for free. And, more importantly, Fortnite borrowed from wherever it could, as fast as it could. Is the internet obsessed with something today? The developers will make a joke about it in-game tomorrow. It’s the closest thing we have to a video game that keeps up with endless scroll, and the only one that has provided us with a language as universal as the GIF. You would not believe the places I’ve seen people just bust out into a floss. (For example, in the middle of a dark alleyway.) Fortnite’s main export is not gameplay, but culture. It’s a game that just happens to have a sense of humor, and a penchant for spectacle.
But Fortnite did not accomplish world domination on its own. After all, it is a video game, and all video games have players. And among those players emerged one star: Tyler “Ninja” Blevins.
For hardcore video game fans, Ninja is not a new name — he had a whole career as a Halo pro before anybody even knew what Fortnite was. But his success at the time was comparatively limited. Back in 2014, he never even broke a thousand concurrent viewers on Twitch. But in 2018, Blevins at one point had a livestream with a whopping 628,000 concurrent viewers, ultimately becoming the biggest streamer on Twitch. It’s tough to pinpoint what pushed him over the edge. Blevins credits social media: he was so good at Fortnite, that fans started sharing his clips on Instagram, where they would go viral. But skill isn’t the whole picture, and Blevins often doesn’t compete at the highest levels of the game.
First and foremost, Blevins is an entertainer, and an approachable one at that. With his neon-colored hair and frantic personality, Blevins sometimes feels like he’s a cartoon character — except in this case, you can talk to him. Actually, many fans end up asking Blevins for life advice, and the 27-year-old doles out whatever wisdom he can as he plays. Viewers come for his uncanny ability to outdo John Wick, but they stay because Blevins is a nice enough guy. After years of getting blamed as the harbingers a the never-ending national culture war, the gaming community seems relieved to have someone who represents the hobby positively — for the most part. It also helps that Blevins now has enough clout to attract the likes of rappers like Drake. If there was ever any doubt Fortnite, and by extension Blevins, was a worldwide phenomenon, it’s gone now. Even your mom might know who Ninja is: he’s the boy that played video games with the guy who made “Nice for What.”
But while Twitch may have gotten its first real star, Blevins didn’t seem totally ready for it. Unlike traditional celebrities, internet celebrities often don’t get media trained. For Blevins, that showed. This was the year the streamer accidentally let slip the n-word with a hard R. (He apologized.) It was also the year that Blevins proclaimed that he would not play Fortnite with other women on his stream as a means of preserving his marriage. (He did not apologize.) Blevins’s hyper-visibility, combined with a community that loves to gossip, meant that Blevins also fell into a number of smaller controversies this year. Some fans claim that he’s changed his personality since making it big. Others feel that the fame has gotten to his head, rendering him unable to deal with minor in-game annoyances.
Through it all, Blevins continued to look beyond Fortnite. He’s been on Jimmy Fallon once, Ellen twice. He was on the cover of ESPN, and was recently interviewed by the NYT. He released an EDM album that’s apparently pretty good. He teamed up with Logic and Justin Roiland to promote Fallout 76. He’s the face of Hershey’s new chocolate bar. He’s commentated over Thursday Night Football. He was at the Game Awards. He’s going to host a show at Times Square for the New Year’s ball drop. Perhaps the fandom mini-revolts have less to do with his blunders than a general sense of Ninja fatigue, the understanding that something is getting lost as he continues to grind his way through things that aren’t a victory royale.
Fortnite might not last forever. But Twitch’s first star is determined to get as much out of it as he can.