Image: Ninja (twitch.tv/ninja)

When Tyler “Ninja” Blevins hit 100,000 subscribers on Twitch, he could barely form words. The streamer, sporting his trademark yellow headband, broke out into a fit of incredulous laughter before howling at the top of his lungs. But he had every right to lose his shit: after all, he’d just broken the all-time overall subscriber record with 50,000 subs a week earlier.

Doubling an all-time record in just a handful of days? Madness. Now at over 130,000 subscribers, Blevins will earn at least $350,000 this month and potentially millions by the end of the year. Every few messages in Blevins’ Twitch chat, there’s another subscription notification. It adds up fast. For comparison’s sake, even other popular streamers tend to only get a handful of subs per minute, while regular streamers would be lucky if they saw those kinds of numbers after a whole month’s worth of streaming. At this point, Blevins is so big that even Drake follows him.

It’s the kind of success story Twitch culture thrives on. Blevins started out as a pro Halo player and has been streaming since 2011, before many of us had a concept of what a “streamer” even was. He’s the platonic ideal of a “grinder,” somebody who’s put in the hours and slowly worked his way up the Twitch food chain.

Except that’s not all there is to it. Blevins’ exuberant personality and ceaseless dedication to his craft have certainly played a role in his ascension to the status of Twitch deity, but only up to a point. Raw skill and a penchant for wild plays is another key part of the equation. The rest is a string of controversial circumstances that have shaped the discussion around Twitch over the past few weeks thanks to promotions involving highly sought Fortnite skins.

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Sneaky success

There’s no doubting that Blevins, a 26 year-old from Illinois, is a phenomenon. These days, his streams regularly attract more than 90,000 concurrent viewers, eclipsing big names like Dr Disrespect, Tyler1, and Shroud, and putting him nearly in the same league as esports events like Overwatch League and League of Legends’ Championship Series.

It wasn’t that long ago, though, that Blevins wasn’t even pulling a thousand viewers at any given moment. A former moderator, AngelicNinja, told me that when he was involved with Blevins’ channel back in 2014, Blevins tended to get “about 800 viewers max” and didn’t even have a thousand subscribers. Not terrible by any means, but definitely not an indication of future superstar status, either. Stream VODs from back then paint a picture of a dude who cared a lot about his skill level in games like Halo, but was also silly enough to do Spongebob impressions in the middle of intense matches. AngelicNinja took a break from Twitch and, upon returning recently, was shocked at how big Blevins had become, but relieved to find that not much else was different.

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“His core personality hasn’t really changed, at least not as far as I can tell from on stream, and I think that’s really helped him,” AngelicNinja said in an email. “He was always a grinder, playing and streaming tons even back then when the support wasn’t anywhere near as crazy. I always figured he could go big given the right circumstances, but with him only playing Halo at the time, I never really expected it to actually happen.”

After Halo 5, however, Blevins switched over to H1Z1, the game that catapulted the now-preposterously-popular battle royale genre into Twitch’s limelight—at least, before PUBG beat it up and took its lunch money. Then he moved onto PUBG, and later last year, Fortnite. The former two games spiked his popularity, but when he started playing the latter, that’s when things really took off. Why? Because Blevins already had a built-in audience that allowed him to be at the top of Fornite’s directory on Twitch, causing even more viewers, who were searching for good streams of the increasingly popular game, to flock to him.

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“He’s risen to the top of every battle royale-style game he’s dedicated serious time to,” a longtime fan of Blevins’ named Ultimate-Hopeless told me in a DM. “As a result, he’s carried over portions of each audience, either because his notoriety caught a passerby’s interest, or because his already dedicated fans are eager to see him conquer the next big hill.”

Nosoup911, a fan who’s 34, watches Ninja’s streams with his son, which leads to another common refrain among fans: kids love him. He’s a veritable spirit bomb of energy during most streams, and many of his shticks—for instance, donning a his trademark yellow headband and dressing his avatar up as John Wick for lengthy, almost cinematic elimination sprees—are entertaining in an almost childlike way. He’s youthful, passionate, and a little bit wacky—all of which works phenomenally well in conjunction with Fortnite, which is the talk of high schools across the country right now.

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Blevins, a longtime streamer and former Halo pro, has proven to be very good at shooting, looting, and building towers that go up, up, up in Fortnite. When he leaps off of his makeshift defensive structures and fires down at opponents’ unprotected heads, bursting their shields in the process, you can almost see echoes of the Halo player he used to be. Nosoup911, who’s relatively new to Twitch, subbed to Ninja a couple months ago, just a few days after he started watching his stream. Skill, he said, was definitely part of the appeal, but so was the earnest personality that accompanied it.

“I found myself watching him for hours,” Nosoup911 said in a DM. “Not sure what it was, exactly, but the combination of great gameplay, raw emotion, and comedy just appealed to me. It’s not scripted. He’s extremely passionate about the game and his performance. Many people say he’s ‘cringey,’ and I can see that, but he’s extremely passionate about what he is doing and how well he performs.”

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Case in point: in recent times, Blevins has also made waves by holding a charity drive in the wake of a friend’s suicide. In doing so, he received support from popular streamers and YouTubers alike, ultimately raising over $113,000 for the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention in just one day. At the end of it all, he was nearly in tears.

“This is one of the most amazing things I have ever done in my entire life,” Blevins said at the time. He added that he could have 100,000 viewers, but “if no one cared, and no one would donate for causes like this,” it wouldn’t mean much at all.

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To be fair, the drive helped catapult Blevins’ profile even further into the stratosphere, but watching clips of it, you get the sense that he’s being sincere. He wants to help. He wants to do good—something that was also apparent when, for instance, he used his platform to speak out against the notion that women are stealing people’s viewers and ruining Twitch after another streamer’s hateful rant revived that ugly discussion.

Blevins does not deviate far from the typical Gamer Dude On Twitch formula, but his particular brand of heart-on-sleeve earnestness makes him just a bit more endearing. In a time when dramatic falls from grace (followed by equally dramatic and calculated returns) make for surefire success on Twitch, Blevins is refreshingly un-cynical in his approach. He’s aware that his newfound success is unprecedented, and he’s wildly excited about all of it. He regularly expresses gratitude and incredulity on stream.

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There’s a powerful appeal to watching somebody do something nobody else has done before, especially when they’re aware of it. On Twitch, fans can follow Blevins’ rise every step of the way. They can see him laugh, cry, and get frustrated when he doesn’t perform as well as he’d like. They can watch him react to this absurd circumstance in real time, like when he could barely contain himself while watching his subscriber count approach 100,000. There’s a frenzy around his success, which—because so many people are talking about him and checking out his channel—begets more success. Twitch clips, algorithms, and the general structure of the site further buoy him up. He’s won the Twitch lottery, and now he’s on top of the world.

Right place, right (prime) time

There are, however, questions about just how many of Blevins’ subs are legit. This largely stems from the fact that Blevins’ sweaty, screaming dash to 100,000 subscribers coincided with a major Fortnite promotion on developer Epic and Twitch’s part. Since February 28, people have been able to sign up for Twitch and Amazon’s subscription service, Prime, and, in return, receive highly coveted Fortnite cosmetic items and a special glider. In the process of all this, people get a free one-month subscription to a streamer of their choice. Many of those, skeptics claim, have gone to Blevins. The implication, then, is that these aren’t “real” subscribers, but merely people hunting for gold in Twitch’s suddenly loot-rich hills. After they’ve gotten what they came for, they have no reason to stick around.

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At this point, Fortnite is more popular than PUBG on Twitch, and people go bananas over Fortnite loot. Some streamers and viewers, however, speak of Twitch Prime “bots” in hushed, resentful tones, claiming that people have found a way to automate the process of redeeming the Fortnite deal and subbing to streamers in droves with dummy accounts. These people, they further allege, sell the accompanying Fortnite accounts to make money on sites where boosted accounts go for anywhere from $60 to $300.

Their Twitch subs, then, are incidental, indiscriminately selected, and likely temporary. Blevins’ channel is the biggest and most visible, the thinking goes, so a majority of these accounts have ended up subbing to him. We’ve reached out to Blevins multiple times over the past couple weeks, but as of writing, he had not replied. But onlookers see what’s happening with other streamers, and assume it’s happening to Blevins on an even larger scale.

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“Kinda a weird thing to complain about,” tweeted a popular streamer named Shorty, “but the compromised Amazon Prime accounts spam subbing Twitch Prime to channels needs a fix. Sure it’s more money in the streamer’s pocket, but it’s still not right.” He added that at one point he got 200 new subscribers in 30 minutes, and none of them were on his viewer list. Other popular streamers quickly chimed in with their own similar stories.

A smaller partnered streamer named Righty told me it’s been happening to him, too. “Recently I’ve been getting a few subs here and there that have less than 1 minute in my chat, all with Twitch Prime,” he said in a DM. “So I’m kind of concerned, as a fellow friend was recently banned and now unbanned after someone was donating fraudulent bits to her.”

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In a statement to Polygon, Twitch claimed that bots aren’t to blame in this particular case, and the Fortnite Prime deal really is just that popular. “We’ve seen large numbers of players trying Twitch Prime for the first time, getting free loot, and using their first monthly free channel subscription,” said Twitch’s statement. “It’s great to see many broadcasters getting a bump from these new Twitch Prime members. New members are subscribing to these popular Fortnite channels and we haven’t seen any indication of bot activity.”

All we know for sure, then, is that Blevins’ subscriber base has grown faster than ever since late February, faster than anybody else’s on Twitch for that matter. Is this growth spurt—which has likely seen at least “a bump,” as Twitch put it, from the Fortnite deal—the determining factor in his popularity, though? Definitely not. He broke the all-time sub record before this deal ever began, after all, and the headlines that generated doubtless drew even more people to his stream. Blevins’ newfound popularity is so immense that people are trying to explain it all away, but smoking guns and silver bullets are for cowboys, not ninjas. There is no singular explanation for it. Blevins, after years of slow-building success, has been lucky enough to land in the right place at the right time with the right game, personality, look, skill level, and built-in fanbase. Will it last? I suppose we’ll see in a month or two.