From the 99th floor of Willis Tower, one of the tallest points in the midwest, a 27-year-old with bright blue hair sits in front of a live audience and plays Fortnite as if he’s still at home. Tyler "Ninja" Blevins is hosting his most ambitious Fortnite event to date, the Red Bull Rise Till Dawn tournament, and things aren't going well. An overnight duos tournament meant to run from sunset to sunrise, Rise Till Dawn has everything a tournament needs to succeed: the most popular game in the world and the top personality on Twitch. It fails in almost every regard.
The tournament is delayed for nearly three hours. Some PCs need to install the latest Fortnite patch, the fire alarm goes off at one point, and early games are stricken with intense lag. Not that it matters.
Blevins’ quick thinking and his outgoing nature—bolstered by the company of his wife Jessica "JGhosty" Goch and duos partner Ben "DrLupo" Lupo—keep concurrent stream numbers incredibly high, at times over 100,000 viewers. Tourney or not, Ninja and company are putting on a show.
Ninja is why people watch, even according to Ninja. "The entertainment, the reaction, just getting those kills—It’s just part of the energy and the vibe that I bring," Ninja told PC Gamer. "It’s what makes my streams special."
Mastering the blade
One year ago, Blevins was just another streamer putting in ten-hour days, seven days a week to get by. But in the past few months, he’s hosted the first major Fortnite tournament at the Esports Arena in Las Vegas, crushed Twitch streaming records, and made national headlines by playing with Canadian rap-sensation Drake. Most recently, over a weekend streaming from the Lollapalooza music festival, Ninja became the first Twitch streamer to hit 10 million followers.
What’s even more surprising is how all those major headlines feel like a distant memory— Blevins has been working without relent, putting in the same ten-hour days as if no one knew his name. It's a work ethic that will likely continue to carry his record breaking Twitch numbers to heights most would've balked at a year ago. And he's determined to stay there even if his golden goose, Fortnite, stops laying shiny eggs.
“Epic just nailed the shit out of it,” Ninja told PC Gamer. “It’s free to play and it runs flawlessly on my rig at max settings. Epic knew what they were doing and they hit it out of the park.”
No one can tell whether or not Fortnite will stay as relevant as it is right now, but Ninja believes the battle royale genre is a good as it’s gonna get because of Epic.
“Epic hasn’t hit a wall yet, and I don’t think they are close to one,” he added. “They’ve got the resources and know what they’re doing, they could stay on the top for a long time.”
"I will definitely not go down with the ship," Ninja told PC Gamer. "I’ve learned my lesson from every Halo game I’ve played, from PUBG, from H1Z1. It’s not that those games are bad, it’s just that their time passed. I feel bad for players sticking around with them, but I’m done sinking with the ship."
Blevins has taken huge steps to make sure his success lasts, even if it doesn't stay as monumental as it is now. He’s secured lucrative partnerships and has positioned himself to capture a huge chunk of any new viewers that find their way to Twitch. He’ll be making headlines long after he quits his ludicrous streaming schedule.
While other streamers have had similar rises, like the notorious 2017 Gamer of the Year DrDisrespect, Ninja has turned his success into a vehicle by partnering with Epic Games and Red Bull Esports for giant events that more than make up for lost streaming time.
He's almost too big to fail these days. Controversial slipups like Blevins' use of a racial slur while rapping along with a song during a stream back in March, (a mistake that would stall the career of other Twitch stars) seems completely forgotten a few months later. Blevins did issue a swift apology, saying it was his responsibility to keep his streams inclusive and he failed in this instance. The mistake was also a far cry from other popular streamers' use of homophobic and racist slurs, with some only stopping once the words were banned by Twitch.
VIDEO: Ninja and Marshmello win the Fortnite Pro-Am.
However, Ninja isn’t completely immune to the pitfalls of streaming life. During E3, Ninja headlined Epic’s Fortnite Celebrity Pro-Am 2018 tournament at the Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles. While Blevins and his partner, the bucket-helmed EDM artist Marshmello, won the tournament, he lost something as well. More than 40,000 subscribers left Ninja during his two day absence from conventional streaming, in large part because he wasn't able to recite his usual Amazon Prime subscription reminders.
Those are huge numbers—even if it’s only a fraction of Blevins total subscription base of over 513,000 at the time of writing. While Ninja is in a cozier position now with multiple sponsorships, what's alarming is that, proportionally, rapid and devastating sub loss is a problem for every streamer, and the expectation to be online as much as possible to stem the flow is difficult to endure. Taking a mental health day is a near impossibility, let alone a short three-day vacation to get some serious rest and relaxation.
"For us, streaming is life, basically. It’s hard to have a personal life, you have to eat your meals on camera, and I’ll lose more than 100 subscribers a day if I’m not online,” said Janet "xChocoBars" Rose, a up-and-coming streamer with more than 3,000 subscribers. "No one else is on Ninja’s level even though he deals with the same struggles we do."
Twitch subscriptions provide the biggest returns for those who are online more. Some subscriptions aren’t automatically renewed at the end of each month (many are recurring), so if streamers aren’t constantly active and bringing in new subscriptions, their overall subscriber count won’t balance out. "It’s impossible to take a vacation-vacation with how demanding Twitch is," Rose added. "I flew to Boston for my brother's wedding once and prepped my audience for a month, telling them I’d be gone and I still took a huge hit."
Ninja was similarly stressed early on, living a bleak, busy streaming life just to get by on Twitch. "During those huge binge streams, I got a steady audience of 50 viewers. I was 21 and didn’t have a life," Ninja said. "If I wasn’t sleeping, I was eating while streaming. If I had a girlfriend at a time I wasn’t with her—but I don’t even remember, I had no boundaries."
Being successful on Twitch is a battle royale in itself, and a mistake like changing their schedule or not streaming for a day can lose streamers hundreds to thousands of subscribers. It's the main reason to look for revenue streams and job security outside Twitch, making Ninja’s growing number of corporate partnerships a long term strategic move.
Ninja's rapid success doesn't mean he's hoarding his influence. Plenty of streamers ride on the Fortnite party bus with him every day. Both Caesar "CDNthe3rd" Noriega and DrLupo, while both popular in their own regard, have seen an influx in viewers by playing duos with Ninja and getting hosts from both him and his followers.
"I categorize it has one of the major points in my career," Lupo told PC Gamer. "Meeting Tyler on a corner of Pochinki [in PUBG] and killing him with a classic grenade lob." Lupo and Blevins have grown to be good friends after playing many a round of Fortnite and PUBG together, both rising to be prominent personalities on Twitch.
The streaming duo partner up for events often, their combined charm recently pushing GuardianCon’s donation to St. Judes Children hospital past $2.7 million with charity streams before the event began. Blevins' streaming block even received a single donation of $100,000 from an anonymous donor. Drake, is that you?
Lupo says that Blevins' success largely comes from his dedication and skill with a mouse and keyboard, although Twitch’s structure helps.
"Twitch is built in a way where smaller creators get drowned out, there are way more opportunities for the people on top," he said. "The layout of it and YouTube make it difficult to get discovered. When someone comes to Twitch for the first time they’re going to see someone streaming one of the top games and stop there."
Ninja has similar ideas. "If you are the first person to that game, you’re gonna get the audience that comes looking for it, because they’ll find you." he said. "Once you’re buried by other streamers, it’s really hard to come up. And I’ve been there."
"But it’s not totally unfair," Lupo added. "These streamers have done a lot to get where they are. It could also be seen as unfair for them to be anywhere else." If you browse through the front page of Fortnite streams on Twitch you’ll see a familiar cast: Ninja, TimtheTatman, TSM_Myth, SypherPK, Tfue, and other top players sit prominently for Fortnite's rapidly growing audience to stumble onto.
Along with Blevins' growing pool of partnerships and additional forms of revenue, Ninja is primed to grow beyond his Twitch roots. He joined pro athletes like Kyrie Irving and Marshawn Lynch with his own underwear deal with PSD underwear featuring a "breathable athletic feel" for $25 a pop. His frequent meals delivered by Uber Eats led to a sponsorship deal. Blevins is so popular he's already been the victim of a death hoax. Streaming 10 to 12 hours days nearly every day of the week just isn't sustainable for someone with such a booming personal brand, especially under such a bright spotlight with so many events and appearances piling up. Moving outside the fickle world of streaming may be inevitable.
"This is the first time I’m seeing this success, with Fortnite," Blevins said. "My success came partly due to luck with being the first one to seriously stream Fortnite, and partly due to my serious dedication to being live. But anything could happen. As we’re sitting here right now, Epic’s servers could go down and another game could come out. We don’t know what the future holds."