Ninja sits in his gaming chair and streams himself playing Fortnite for several consecutive hours. The time spent amounts to a standard workday, if not longer. “I have streamed 3800 hours of fortnite this year,” Ninja tweeted last weekend. That’s almost 2,000 hours longer than a full-time schedule, actually. That’s overtime.
The long hours, the poor posture, and the refusal to pause for nutrition, sunlight, and chores—it’s why gaming chairs were invented (or marketed) in the first place. Ninja dominates Fortnite with a superstar athlete’s strength and reflexes. He’s quick, deliberate, and lethal; he’s very good, and it can be gratifying to watch Ninja dominate a Fortnite match. Ninja is, in the hyper-millennial parlance of last week’s Game Awards ceremony, the Content Creator of the Year. On Tuesday, Red Bull had Ninja streaming nearly six hours of Fortnite gameplay live from the company’s “gaming studio” in L.A. On New Year’s Eve, Red Bull will stream Ninja playing for 12 hours—into New Year’s Day—live from Times Square. Ninja streams 3,800 hours of his Fortnite gameplay and millions of fans watch him ecstatically. They clamor for more. They like, they subscribe, they donate, and they fawn. Ninja’s gaming chair has become a sort of throne.
Ninja leads a generation of obsessive, professional gamers who dominate YouTube and Twitch. The games-streaming culture isn’t new, but Ninja’s prominence marks a new tier of professionalization. He’s a digital advertiser’s dream—a golden-boy athlete with unique sway among millennial audiences. Ninja reportedly earns more than $500,000 per month on Twitch alone. He also makes money from YouTube, where Ninja’s own channel (with its 20 million subscribers) accounts for only a fraction of the website’s content about Ninja. In web news, too, Ninja dominates chatter and headlines with frequency rivaling a Hollywood lead or a head of state.
In August, Ninja—who is married—said he refuses to play with women in his gaming streams. “Even if there’s a hint of flirting,” Ninja told Polygon, “that is going to be taken and going to be put on every single video and be clickbait forever.” Ninja’s reasoning here is, as many gaming critics noted, hilariously juvenile. In any case, his defense against memeification backfired now that every gaming website refers to Ninja as the Mike Pence of Twitch. Still, Ninja’s trepidation underscores the broad and awkward uncertainties in his corner of the internet. Here’s a world-famous gamer who’s earned several million dollars playing battle royale matches while chatting into a headset, and he fears his marriage, not to mention his career, might be undone by one stray meme.
Web-streaming stardom is a relatively new celebrity mode. It’s proven lucrative but chaotic in the long term. Logan Paul once embodied Vine and YouTube’s transformation into the new Mickey Mouse Club. But Vine died, and Paul succumbed to his own immaturity on a platform that can’t afford to sponsor prank footage of suicide victims. PewDiePie, too, squandered his commercial potential through crude provocation, and he’s spent the past year losing ground in a strange feud with the Indian entertainment studio, T-Series. Ninja resists the conflict and controversy that Paul and PewDiePie have always courted. Instead, he represents the esports dream—a competitive landscape where top-ranked shooters, RPG speedrunners, and MOBA teams are splitting TV airtime, industry profits, and general acclaim with LeBron James.
Ninja achieved the ideal stature quickly. In March, Drake tweeted a link to Ninja’s Twitch stream, where the biggest rapper in the world just so happened to be playing duos matches with the top-ranked Fortnite player in the world. 2018 was Fortnite’s breakout year, and Drake bolstered Ninja’s breakout moment. Their stream together was a millennial summit where hip-hop and games culture mingled. Drake and Ninja agreed to lobby Epic Games to incorporate more hip-hop dance crazes into Fortnite’s character animations. It’s easy to fixate upon Drake’s part—the biggest rapper in the world laying siege to Tomato Town before a global audience does tickle the zeitgeist in a broad manner that everyone, including Baby Boomers, can understand. But there were quantifiable clues to Ninja’s own superstardom. Drake’s link to Ninja’s stream is, by far, the most favorited and most retweeted post in the rapper’s entire Twitter feed. There are two celebrities here. Drake adores famous athletes, and so, of course, he admires Ninja.
Of course Drake and Ninja, two millennial figureheads, share the same web. For five years, Vine cultivated a generation of young celebrities, including the Paul brothers, who pioneered web-video stardom. The Vine moment launched conventions attended by tens of thousands of adoring fans nationwide. In the post-Vine moment, web stars have migrated to older, more durable platforms. Ninja straddles Twitch, owned by Amazon, and YouTube, owned by Google. Ninja resides in the commercial capital of the modern internet, and so his stardom now amounts to a long-term concern—for Ninja himself, for his fellow streamers, and for the web-tech giants who monetize the newest form of arts, sports, and celebrity.
The 2010s began with heated argument among critics determining whether video games are art. This discussion examines the medium’s intellectual pretensions in comparison to, say, film. The decade will end with a profitable consensus that video games are sports, too. The past few years have only further complicated questions about whether video games, in general, share more in common with novels, movies, basketball, or chess. It’s all entertainment. Gamers are only beginning to test the medium’s bounds, and gaming communities—occasionally defined by rules disputes, cheating, in-fighting, and right-wing extremism—are still struggling to adapt their biggest channels for mainstream audiences. So, too, are their sponsors.
On Thursday, YouTube released its year-end video feature, YouTube Rewind, an annual series which celebrates the platform’s biggest breakout stars. Will Smith opens this year’s video. He summons the flying blue school bus that launches 100 players into free-for-all combat at the start of every Fortnite battle royale match. In the YouTube Rewind video, several web celebrities—including a few who have very little to do with YouTube, strangely enough —chat in their seats as the battle bus soars through sunlight and clouds, bound for the game’s competitive campground. YouTube is a group project. Technically, there’s no one star to eclipse all the others, not even Will Smith. But the battle bus leaves only one high-flying survivor and, of course, it’s Ninja who’s driving.