Ready or not, welcome to 2018—the year that the hottest emerging entertainer is a 26-year-old man who wears a yellow headband and goes by the nickname Ninja. His job? Broadcasting himself playing video games in the basement of his suburban Chicago house.
Meet Tyler "Ninja" Blevins, the spiky blue-haired phenom who reportedly earns more than $560,000 a month from subscribers who pay to watch him play games on his personal computer. The Lake Villa native first broke the Internet when he joined forces with Drake and a small cast of other rappers and celebrities on Wednesday night to play the megapopular survival shooter Fortnite. The unlikely team-up with the Canadian hip-hop artist instantly began trending on Twitter and shattered viewership records on video-streaming platform Twitch. The event attracted 628,000 concurrent eyeballs at its peak—more than, for instance, the 445,000 who witnessed Shaun White win his third Winter Olympics gold medal on an Internet device last month or the 372,000 viewers who watched Amazon's first livestream of Thursday Night Football in 2017.
Not all of the hundreds of thousands of viewers were there for the online presence of the Grammy winner. Ninja is currently the top video-game streamer on the Internet, and one of his avid followers is Drake, who played the role of fawning fanboy to the gamer during their casual shooting-and-chatting session. Drake's avatar was killed by enemy gunfire in the midst of one early match, prompting Ninja to offer to finish the game alone while earning a win for both members of the team. "You can back out, I can carry the win," he told Drake. "Nah," the rapper responded. "I want to watch the god work."
It was a surreal moment—the musical superstar behind the number one single "God's Plan" calling Ninja "the god."
Ninja leaped back into the national consciousness just two days later due to his online interactions with NCAA tournament darling UMBC. The 16th seed's bench celebrated big moments of its history-making win over top-ranked Virginia on Friday night with various Fortnite-themed choreographed celebrations. In the locker room after the game, UMBC forward Nolan Gerrity compared the feeling of beating a top seed to being "like your first Fortnite victory" and bragged that "we got the number one Fortnite player in the world, Ninja, to tweet about us."
This once-in-a-lifetime surge of mainstream fame isn't all the result of dumb luck. Blevins has been served well by a combination of superior hand-eye coordination, onscreen charisma, and dogged perseverance. His professional gaming career began almost a decade ago. The young Illinoisan competed in Halo tournaments for cash prizes starting in 2009, but eventually left the grind of what's now dubbed "eSports" to focus on the pursuit of streaming games.
The act of streaming games might sound banal or easy—but it's more than being skilled with a keyboard or controller. Ninja has earned more than 890 wins in Fortnite solo matches and does so while broadcasting himself for hours at a time while constantly interacting with a community of fans. Imagine if, for instance, Tom Brady was asked to beat the Bears while simultaneously doing color commentary and giving fans in the stands quarterbacking advice. Streaming doesn't take the physical toll of pro football, of course, but it's more than just fiddling with a controller.
Ninja was a marvel of relentless multitasking during his Sunday-night broadcast, a team-up with Connecticut rapper Witt Lowry. As 200,000 viewers tuned in, he kept one eye on a TV to watch his pals at UMBC play Kansas State while simultaneously dominating Fortnite games with Lowry and bantering with fans who were typing comments and questions into his Twitch channel. "What's my favorite animal? A dog," he said in rapid response to a viewer who tipped him $20 while knocking down an opponent with a sniper rifle from 150 yards away.
Over the next 30 minutes, Ninja delivered gaming tips and relationship advice, gave a few Casey Kasem-like shoutouts to family and friends of fans, and muttered his way through a Seth Rogen impression, all while skillfully winning three games in a row. Then between matches, he donned his yellow headband and enthusiastically danced to a techno track as animated ninjas popped up in the background. He stopped only to go to the bathroom and eat pizza delivered by his wife/manager, Jessica.
Still, Ninja might be doing these same things in relative obscurity if not for striking virtual gold when he switched to Epic Games' Fortnite. The shooter's thrilling "Battle Royale" mode is loosely based on the 2000 Japanese film of the same name about a group of randomly chosen junior high schools taken to an island and forced to fight to the death by the Japanese government. Fortnite's cartoonish take on the dystopian movie involves 100 solo players or teams of two or four people packed into a flying bus who parachute down onto an island with only the clothes on their back. Once they land, players quickly become scavengers who hunt for hidden guns, grenades, shields, and other items that help them conquer each other with force. The last person—or team—standing wins.
The free-to-play Battle Royale mode exploded in popularity in December after taking home the prize for Best Multiplayer Game at the 2017 Game Awards, and as of January it had been played by more than 45 million people worldwide and upwards of 3.1 million players concurrently on PC and console systems. Of the 26 Xbox consoles available to play at Ignite Gaming Lounge in Avondale, Fortnite is being played on an average of 20 of them, said Matt Garrity, Ignite's general manager. "It's growing massively and quick, we have calls about it all the time. We've had whole parties of 20 people and it's the only game they play," says Garrity.
Ninja's rise has been equally meteoric as Fortnite's: he hit 10,000 Twitch subscribers in December, 18,000 in mid-January, and 60,000 in late February, and now nearly 200,000 people pay $5 a month to watch him. He and Witt marveled at this and other recent milestones during one of their duo matches on Sunday night: "I can't believe it, five million subscribers on YouTube, almost a million followers on Twitter and Instagram." And now after his star-making gaming session with Drake and his flirtation with America's new darling college basketball team, he's earned international headlines and is suddenly in demand everywhere.
This newfound popularity also means adjusting to new demands. He rescheduled an interview with the Reader during a brief break on Sunday in order to fit in other appointments, including facetiming with members of the UMBC Retrievers just before their second-round loss to Kansas State to try to inspire them to make the Sweet Sixteen. On Monday, he was interviewed on CNBC. Fame has brought new challenges that can't be conquered with a video game controller.
"Dude, this has been an insane week," Ninja said to Witt later that night as they kept gunning down virtual islanders. "I'm getting so many e-mails and interview requests and I'm only sleeping like five or six hours a night. . . . I can't do it all, but it's like, this is it. You only get one moment like this on the Internet."
In other words, this Ninja won't be pulling a ninja-like disappearing act anytime soon.