The one thing Ninja makes clear is that Drake came to him. This was not a product of thirsty DMs, or fan petitions, or soul-sucking corporate bartering between two rapacious industries. Epic Games did not cut a check in the name of Aubrey Graham, nor did Warner Music buddy up to the Bezos estate. I understand why you might be suspicious – the games business is no stranger to the tragic poetry of bungled celebrity endorsements, (see: a glassy-eyed Zac Efron trudging through Battlefield 1 deathmatches, Jamie Kennedy's famously atrocious E3 monologue.) But Ninja, the moniker for the 26-year-old Illinoisan Tyler Blevins, played Halo competitively for years before his Fortnite stream blew up, and that's made him uniquely capable of sniffing out any inauthentic boardroom chicanery. He swears up and down that this wasn't one of those tired stories. After all, this story began on Instagram.
"I was streaming in the morning, and my entire chat – about 100,000 people – started telling me that ChampagnePapi had followed me on Instagram," he said, over coffee in a private Discord call. "I had no idea who ChampagnePapi was, because I hadn't heard that name before. So I asked, and everyone was like, 'Drake! Drake! Drake!' I go on and look, and I was like, 'Oh my god, it's him.'"
Ninja played it cool. The first person he told was his wife, business manager, and fellow streamer Jessica "JGhosty" Goch, and once the shock wore off, he casually followed the rapper back. After that opening gambit, Blevins refused to engage: no messages, no comments, no gloppy Insta-hearts left on his jewelry or his pineapple Lamborghinis – a truly ascetic dedication to keeping his chill. "You don't want to make it awkward," laughed Goch.
His patience paid off. Three days later, Drake dropped a message in his inbox, saying simply that he liked his stream, and wanted to play together sometime. Ninja was obviously down, and the two penciled in a night about a week later. Fast forward to that afternoon, and Drake had to cancel. "I'm at the studio man, I can't make it," recalls Ninja. At that point, both Tyler and Jessica thought maybe they were being catfished, as if some weirdo hacker had wrested control of the Instagram servers, and was using that power to personally disappoint them. However, those concerns were put to bed about a week later. It was a random Wednesday night, Ninja was in the middle of his usual grind when he received a text message directly from Drake's phone: "Yo, let's play."
The rest is history. What was your favorite moment from the Drake and Ninja duos stream? Maybe that moment early on, when Blevins talked the man who rapped "Worst Behavior" through the trouble of downloading and installing Discord on his phone. The imagery of Aubrey Graham trying to double-tap the correct voice channel, in the way that everyone struggles with the byzantine language of a brand new app, was wonderfully banal. Or maybe you prefer those incidental moments of teammate brotherhood – Drizzy dropping the wood he's harvested to facilitate Ninja's infamously sick building skills. ("I want to watch the god work," said Drake, a natural hype man, shortly after one of Ninja's many awesome kills.) Personally, I'm partial to Blevins' unshakable equanimity. Yes, he's a kool aid-dyed millennial playing video games with Drake, and there were certainly a few moments where he couldn't hide that toothy grin from his face. But for the most part, he treated the rapper like he would anyone else in his party: Someone to win with, someone to bullshit with. He walked that tightrope beautifully, even as his viewers spammed the lyrics to "God's Plan" into the chat.
Ninja and Drake smashed every conceivable Twitch record by the time they concluded their stream. Together they peaked at 600,000 concurrent viewers, eclipsing the 388,000 set by Dr. Disrespect back in February during his heroic return. But unlike Disrespect, or Tyler1, or any other superstar on the platform, Ninja's broadcast earned some legitimate mainstream attention outside of the games press. Both Drake and Ninja were top trends on Twitter all night, and once they added additional star power in the form of Travis Scott and Pittsburgh Steelers standout JuJu Smith-Schuster for some late night squads, all bets were off. It was, without a doubt, the most famous team that's ever queued for matchmaking. On Twitter my feed was occasionally filled by other luminaries who wanted a piece of the action. Logic issued a threat, Lil Yachty jumped on his PSN and Post-Malone asserted his truth that "PUBG is still better."
All of this speaks well for Fortnite, which was a game people had almost forgotten about before it's ridiculous Battle Royale renaissance, but it also puts Ninja in a fascinating place. His collaboration with Drake was thoroughly organic – Drizzy was a fan who reached out and became a friend. This is the unity between celebrities; we do not blink when Drake pals around with Kevin Hart, or James Harden. Ostensibly Ninja should be in that same category. The man conquered Twitch and earned himself over a million followers on Twitter and Instagram. Over the past week he's done television interviews for bemused hosts on the local news, and, as Goch notes, has fielded constant requests from radio stations across the country. But this is still a new paradigm, and Ninja knows he's one of the first people to test the waters between social stardom and Hollywood stardom; between professional gamer and professional rapper.
"I understand that I'm popular. I understand that I'm making money. But at what point does Drake know that he's Drake?" says Blevins. "At what point can Drake text LeBron, and if LeBron bails or changes plans, he can be like, 'Bro are you kidding me? Come on.' At one point can I stop treading around those questions? For me, I don't think I'll ever change that, because I don't think I'm better than anybody else. And obviously streaming still isn't the NBA or being the most popular rapper in the world. So I don't know if that's something I'll ever be able to shake, and I don't think that's a bad thing."
One thing is clear: Ninja absolutely deserves it. Some people show up on Twitch and instantly emerge as a prime influencer, and some people grind forever without ever crossing the Rubicon. That was Blevins' existence for years. He was a Halo guy – first earning props during the underrated Reach cycle, eventually inking pro deals with major organizations like Cloud9 and Team Liquid between 2014 and 2016. That scene is where he nurtured a number of his industry connections, and it is also where he met Jessica. "I was in college, and I was always into Halo," she remembers. "I went to this tournament to hang out and watch, and I was like, 'Who is that guy?' I made the first move. All suave, I was like, 'I'm going to go up to Aaron [one of their mutual friends] while he's by this guy I think is so cute.' … After that we added each other on Facebook."
Halo is one of the most popular franchises of all time, but it's never been a particularly major force on Twitch. Ninja did a solid job of establishing himself as one of the game's prominent personalities, but he always eyed the coveted top spot, and slowly he realized how that simply couldn't happen while he restricted himself to a shooter that didn't get a ton of viewers. "When you stream certain games, you're limited to the people that are exposed to the game," explains Blevins. "If there's only about 100,000 people playing Halo at any given time, you're probably going to get less than 10 percent of that."
So as time went on, Ninja started to diversify his oeuvre. First with H1Z1, the prototypical platform for our current wave of Battle Royale bedlam, and then PUBG – which briefly ruled the roost for a few months last summer. The goal, says Blevins, was to blow up. Countless games pass through the Twitch biosphere every month, and only a few hang on to become bonafide sensations. Ninja sensed the energy around Fortnite, and knew that if he bought in early, he could start growing his channel at an unprecedented rate. "Half my chat was asking me to try Fortnite, and saw that a lot of streamers weren't into it, and I knew it was a possible move for me," he says.
He was right, of course. Even before Drake followed him on Instagram, Ninja was posting hall-of-fame numbers on the daily Twitch schedule and had even managed to lap the public channels of Riot Games, Rocket League, and Overwatch League. Did anyone expect him to emerge as the first true celebrity streamer? No, not necessarily, but he certainly had all the tools. Ninja avoids the decibel-shredding shrieks of the thousands of headstrong YouTubers eager to mine daytime clicks from millions of primary-school kids around the world. (Instead, he speaks with a lardy Midwestern drawl.) He's also good-looking; classically attractive and strong-jawed in a distinctly gamer-dude way. And perhaps most importantly, he's transcendentally good at Fortnite. Blevins may have first made his bones in Halo, but the guy has found his medium in Epic's murderous sandbox. I have watched him hit cross-country rocket snipes with the flick of the wrist, I have seen him summon multi-tiered castles with a twitchiness that rivals most StarCraft players. Playing video games is probably not art, but Ninja at least makes the argument.
Frankly, the thing I find most reassuring about Ninja's rise is how cognizant he is of the responsibility that comes with his influence. He knows full well that when half-a-million people tuned into his Drake stream, he could easily have torpedoed all of that goodwill in an instant. "If I was talking about getting high the whole time, that would've been a horrible look," he says. "A streamer doesn't understand the power they have." One of the more impressive things Ninja and Goch have orchestrated since their breakthrough is a diverse portfolio of philanthropic causes. In February he raised over $100,000 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and last weekend he announced that he'll be attending an April soiree at the Esports Arena Vegas, where $2,500 will be donated to the charity of his choice for every game he wins. The games community is perpetually stuck in a cycle of bad press – especially when it comes to issues of self-harm – so we're lucky to have someone at the top who's genuinely invested in improving the culture.
"We're literally molding and shaping the minds of these kids. … There are these massive people on YouTube and Twitch that are not doing anything with the responsibility they have," says Ninja. "We need to be instilling good morals in these kids. It's a calling."
"Morals were already important in our relationship," adds Goch. "Once hundreds of thousands of people started following us on Twitter, we had sit downs and said, 'We can never let our morals go.' … That's our number one, letting people know what we believe in."
Nothing lasts forever in the entertainment industry. That is true for Drake, and that is true for Ninja. And sure, when you start breaking bread with rappers and ballplayers, it can be difficult to keep your feet on the ground. Blevins isn't afraid of acknowledging that either. "We're just blessed man," he says. "We're smart; we're saving everything, we're ready for more."