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'Ninja,' the Fortnite streamer who's one of video gaming's biggest stars

Any year in which a young man earns a living playing video games is a pretty darn good one. For 27-year-old ...

Posted: Jan 1, 2019 8:48 AM
Updated: Jan 1, 2019 8:48 AM

Any year in which a young man earns a living playing video games is a pretty darn good one. For 27-year-old Tyler Blevins, aka Ninja, 2018 was the best year of his life, he told CNN in a recent interview.

And who could argue? Ninja is, literally, killing it. The 94,958 Fornite kills he had racked up at last check have helped him earn what he says is close to $10 million this year. Blevins and his colorful hair (neon red at the time of this interview) have become a cultural phenomenon, and his skills and personality have helped make Fortnite the behemoth that it is — one that drove its company, Epic Games, to a reported profit of $3 billion this year.

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Blevins burst onto the scene after a record-breaking live stream (628,000 concurrent viewers, a record which he's since broken) with rap icon Drake back in March. Since then he has become a must-see on social media and more importantly, a must-stream. Ninja's "bread and butter," he says, are YouTube and Twitch, a streaming video platform. He estimates 70% of his income comes from the two services.

Every time one of Ninja's 20-million plus YouTube subscribers watches a pop-up ad on his channel he earns a percentage of the ad sale, and most of Ninja's videos on YouTube have been viewed millions of times. On Twitch, more than 12.5 million users follow him, and almost 40,000 pay to watch, subscribing to three different tiers and forking over either $4.99, $9.99 or $25 per month to watch Ninja blast his way to big bucks. Because users don't have to subscribe, ad dollars help the platform and its streamers make money too. Still, Blevins thinks Twitch "could do a much better job incentivizing" people to choose the pricier subscriptions; he compared Twitch to a giant "violin case" for a street performer, with people just throwing in what they feel is right.

The rest of Blevins' income is from sponsors like Samsung, Uber Eats and Red Bull. And those sponsors, along with Ninja's September appearance on the cover of ESPN The Magazine, lead to a major question about him and his peers in the burgeoning esports community: Are they athletes? Blevins said he sees himself instead as a small business owner, equating gaming to a small coffee shop. "They're gonna find another coffee shop if you're not there ... you have to be there all the time," he said.

Ninja mans that "coffee shop" for 12 hours a day, he estimates, working out to nearly 4,000 hours of Fornite this year alone, the equivalent of more than 140 days. Each and every time he's away from the shop, Blevins and wife/manager Jess are calculating how many subscribers they're losing, and how much money they're not earning. While the couple does carve out time for one another each day, their last vacation was their honeymoon eight years ago. And even that trip, long before Fornite, was still cut short for professional gaming.

Fornite has 200 million registered players around the world, a 60% increase since June, and Blevins says he thinks it's nowhere near peaking. No matter how long its popularity lasts, Blevins is enjoying his moment in the sun. He appeared on "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon" earlier this month, and has recently been moving into other revenue streams, like a clothing brand and music. He's released a rap album called "Ninjawerks" and "Fortnite Rap Battle," a compilation video in which he stars, has been viewed nearly 80 million times on YouTube.

While parents are watching the ball drop on New Year's Eve, Ninja will be capping off the best year of his life. As Fortnite fans wait for the battle bus, he'll be streaming on his Twitch page in front of an invite-only audience in Times Square, going from 4 p.m. ET to 4 a.m. ET in what he promises will be an "epic, cool, incredible time" — or just another day at the office for one of the hottest gamers on the planet.

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