Over a year since Fortnite Battle Royale's release on PC and console, the game's popularity has become old, tired news: no other game has ever so completely overtaken mainstream culture, its in-game emotes becoming favorites of celebrating soccer players and its gameplay drawing the likes of Drake, Travis Scott, and Marshmello to Twitch.
The game -- and his mastery of it -- has made Tyler "Ninja" Blevins a millionaire, and he has racked up more than his fair share of accolades over the past year, not only repeatedly breaking and setting new Twitch viewership records, but also becoming the first pro gamer to grace the cover of ESPN's print magazine.
And now, he has once again helped push gaming into the mainstream, appearing on The Ellen Degeners Show on October 12th. To the cacophonous cheers of a studio audience, Ninja walks out onto the set and quickly embraces its host, Ellen. Bright-eyed and blue-haired, clad in a black hoodie bearing his own gamer tag, he briefly explains his career, answering the common question of “how many hours a day do you game?” and then tells the story of how he met his wife.
When they launch into the Fortnite gameplay, Ninja casually jokes with Ellen about the absurdities of the game -- she is confused by the juxtaposition of killing with dancing -- and answers her half-serious questions. She kills nothing and spends much of the time admiring her character’s butt; by the end, she has collected 54 wood, though.
“You do have 54 wood,” says Ninja.
“What does that mean, 54 wood? So I have made money?” asks Ellen.
“You have made wood.”
“I don’t want wood, I want money,” she says with a whole lot of duh. When Ellen dies to “dezbryant883800,” the segment ends. As with most mainstream coverage of gaming, esports, and streaming, money -- or, more specifically, the disbelief that people can make money “just” by playing video games -- consumes much of the show.
“I’m not really into video games, but I found out that Fortnite makes hundreds of millions of dollars a month and the people can make millions of dollars a year just from playing Fortnite,” said Ellen in her pre-introduction comedy bit. “So this morning I went out and I bought myself an Xbox and I’m gonna be rich.”
The joke gets a laugh from the crowd, but to those steeped in gaming and esports culture, it is nothing new: isn’t that funny, video gamers making money? Later, one minute into their gameplay, she asks how much money she has made so far.
“Uh, about five thousand dollars?” jokes Ninja, then uses the opportunity to explain a bit about how streamers make money. “From a streamer and YouTuber, it’s kind of like, ad revenue and how many concurrent viewers you have--”
“Well, I have a lot of viewers,” interjects Ellen. The explanation Ninja offers, no matter how brief, is an important part of breaking down the stigma and, in some cases, disdain surrounding an industry that is often reduced to “just” playing video games. In an extended 10 minute version of his and Ellen's gameplay (embeded above) released on the latter's YouTube channel, Ninja answers more good, but expected, questions that clarify his career for the uninformed:
"Is this the only game that you play?" No.
"When [people] watch you, are they playing too?" No.
"How much [money] could you make [in the time that we played]?" Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? Probably five. He isn't sure.
"[The people we're spectating right now] are on speaker phone talking to each other?" Well, they're probably using headsets.
Ninja is not the first to explain streaming or pro gaming on a traditional talk show -- two members of the Houston Outlaws, for example, performed a similar song and dance on the Today Show earlier this year -- and he will not be the last, but he is the most popular to date. And he does not appear to be slowing down.
Just a few weeks ago, he was on the cover of ESPN's magazine. Earlier this week, he appeared in two Samsung Galaxy commercials, including one alongside Travis Scott, and today, he pulled off a casual, entertaining segment on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. What comes next for Ninja is a matter of when, not if.
It will be a long time before the unease and disbelief around streamers, much less esports, is completely gone; a long time before gamer personalities will become regulars on mainstream media outlets and have an opportunity to discuss anything other than how bizarre it is that they have careers playing video games -- but appearances like these indicate progress.
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