In just a year, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, 27, has become the multimillionaire face of Fortnite, the impossibly popular battle royale video game in which up to 100 players are dropped onto an island to fight to the death, with only one emerging victorious.
A former competitive Halo player, Blevins plays Fortnite for 10 hours a day in his home outside Chicago. He streams those games on Twitch, responding to questions and interacting with fans who pay to watch him play. He also competes in tournaments.
Blevins’s reach is staggering. He has more than 12 million followers on Twitch, almost 12 million on Instagram and nearly 4 million on Twitter. He has landed on the cover of ESPN: The Magazine, and wherever he goes he is mobbed by teenagers and tweens who immediately recognize his brightly dyed hair.
If you’ve never heard of Blevins, find a 12-year-old and ask them, because they surely know. In New York City to do a round of media appearances — Blevins was on the “Tonight Show” on Monday night — he stopped by the offices of The New York Times to answer some questions. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What skills are needed to be good at Fortnite?
In Fortnite there could be a situation where you can push into the kill or run away and get toward the safe zone. What’s the right play? The right play is the smart one — probably to get to the safe zone. But some player who is maybe really good at the game will go for the kill. And guess what? Someone else comes in, and the storm’s there, and he dies. The smart decision making — that’s what’s going to separate the next level of the game.
But I feel a lot of what you’re known for are these spectacular moments, that actually don’t seem like …
… they’re the smartest decision? If I’m competing I will not go for those plays. Those plays do not reward you as a player. The whole point of battle royales is to survive. Me as a flashy player, a streamer, I’m going to go for the kill every time.
Is it a barrier for e-sports that you can make more money streaming than on the competitive side?
I think it’s important for people to understand what they want.
I’m O.K. with not traveling the world and competing in tournaments. And losing. I’ve won, I’ve lost. And losing is the worst, especially as a streamer when you are gone for five days, because you traveled across the world and you didn’t stream any of those days. You lost, you didn’t even make any money, and now you’re back home and you just dipped 10,000 subscribers.
Ninja has a huge audience online but he also draws a crowd for live performances, like at TwitchCon 2018 in San Jose, Calif., where he played Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.CreditRobert Reiners/Getty Images North America
How many subscribers are you losing this one hour that you’re talking with us?
I’ll probably lose, like, 200 to 300.
That seems phenomenally stressful.
It’s stressful. What’s more stressful is that people don’t get it. Even my subscribers and my viewers, they’re like, “Ninja, man, you lost 5,000 subscribers.” I lost 100,000 when I went to E3. I went for four days, I won the tournament there with Marshmello, but I didn’t win money, it was for charity. So it was $500,000 — it was worth it, 100 percent, but I lost 100,000 subscribers.
Do you take a vacation? Like a two-week vacation to the beach?
No, the longest vacation I’ve ever taken was my honeymoon, and that was like six days. And that was devastating. It was a calculated risk. My wife knew. God bless her, we’ve been together for almost six years now.
Are you worried about burnout?
No. not at all. I love playing video games, man. And I’ll always love it.
What about the physical degradation of your skills?
I am definitely still in my prime. I am still fantastic at the game, and I will never not be good at video games in my opinion.
How many hours of sleep do you get a night?
Like five or six is usually what I get.
Do you want eight?
Of course I want eight, man. Are you kidding me? If I didn’t have to wake up to the alarm it would be the greatest thing in the world. I hate my alarm. I slam it and then just slowly roll out of bed, and I’m like, “I could probably use another two hours,” but, you know, got that schedule, dude. If I am five minutes late, I look at that chat and it’s like, “Is Ninja late? Is he streaming today? Why isn’t he on?”
What are the key drivers of your income? You’ve said you earn over $500,000 a month.
YouTube and Twitch are the primary incomes, for sure. And then I would say 20 percent deals and partnerships and things like that. And that’s generous. My wife can answer that perfectly for you.
I wanted to hide how much we were making because I don’t care. But now I kind of want everyone to know: This is how much the top guys can make. It’s important that parents can see. All the contracts for professional athletes — all their salaries are public: This is how much the best quarterback makes, this is how much LeBron makes a year. That’s a huge driving factor in bringing things to, “Hey this is how much Ninja might make this year or next year.” That is now a bar that parents and kids can look up to.
When you are streaming and talking to people 10 hours a day, is it inevitable that you cross the line? For instance, you have a Controversy section on Wikipedia.
I don’t want to say this the wrong way and come across the wrong way, but of someone who is of my size and status, there aren’t this many people that are this big that are live all the time, that you have contact with. There are definitely celebrities you have no contact with. Some, you don’t see them unless they are on a movie screen.
I have people that have access to me every single day. I get clickbait questions, donations, like what you just said, 10 hours a day I am basically deflecting 90 percent of the questions that people ask me.
“Who is your favorite person you play with?” “Who is your favorite streamer that you play with?” “Who is the best basketball player that you’ve played with?”
If I answer those questions, it’s going to be clickbait on an article or a YouTube video, and they will say “Ninja thinks Baker Mayfield is better than JuJu Smith-Schuster, or “Ninja thinks Dillon Francis is better than Marshmello.”
Have you had a chance to meet any athletes who are into what you do?
Villanova was at the ESPYs. They were giants. “Can we get pictures, dude?” They were talking about Fortnite.
It’s actually something we’re trying to work with more. Because they’re also super interested in working with us, to collab. JuJu Smith-Schuster, I think, was the first athlete I played with. The first artist ever was Will Lowry, the rapper. We had a lot of fun with that, man. Baker Mayfield, I think I play with him the most now.
Is he any good?
He’s actually really good. He puts a lot of time in, so he should be.
Do you have a football team?
I know. It’s O.K. I was born in Detroit, and my dad was a Lions fan when we moved. My brother was a Lions fan for 12 years, and then my dad had enough of the Lions.
Have you met Barry Sanders?
He didn’t even know who I was, which made it even more amazing because he still came up to me, took a picture with me, I shook his hand, took a picture with my family. Afterward, literally as we left, he’s like “Ninja, you’re a gamer. I’m going to ask my boys about you when I get home.” And then literally that night he tweeted and was like “I had no idea you were such a big gaming influence man, it was a pleasure meeting you, let’s do something in the future.”
You are doing e-sports, traditional sports, you have an album out. Why are you moving into these different cultural areas that are adjacent to gaming?
The goal was just to be bigger than gaming. That is something everyone strives for, right? Michael Jordan, LeBron James, all those people.
Are you worried about the crazy amount of money being poured into e-sports? Some people are worried that revenue isn’t growing enough.
These are the first-generation e-sports teams. Are they making the right decisions all the time? Probably not. Were the first people who created business in the history of businesses getting it right on the first time? Probably not. Are there poor investments? For sure. There are a lot of entrepreneurs who file bankruptcy God knows how many times before they finally actually hit the nail on the head with a good business. It is the same thing with a lot of e-sports teams.
So you aren’t like LeBron James, you are Bob Cousy or George Mikan.
Definitely, but I’d like to be like LeBron James. If you want to put that in there …