During a recent Samsung event, Twitch megastar Tyler “Ninja” Blevins said he purposely avoids streaming with “female gamers.” The site’s number-one streamer said that he believes if he invited women on his channel, the gossip mill would immediately begin cranking out videos suggesting that Ninja is in romantic relationships with them. On the one hand, he’s probably right about that. On the other hand, when you’re the most popular streamer on earth, everything you do has consequences.
“If I have one conversation with one female streamer where we’re playing with one another, and even if there’s a hint of flirting, that is going to be taken and going to be put on every single video and be clickbait forever,” Ninja said to Polygon at the Samsung event. Ninja is married, and told Polygon he didn’t want his wife to have to see those videos and hear those insinuations.
Today, after Ninja’s comments blew up over the weekend, he posted a statement on Twitter clarifying his position. “While I understand some people have implied my views mean I have something against playing with women, I want to make clear the issue I’m addressing is online harassment, and my attempt to minimize it from our life,” he wrote. “It is something that affects all streamers, especially ones that make their relationships public.”
“My wife and my family will always be the most important thing to me, and I am doing my best to protect them,” he wrote.
To an extent, Ninja has a point. Nothing gets clicks like gossip, and the sordid stuff flows like messy, sticky honey on Twitch and YouTube. For example, as wholesome as it was when Twitch’s second most-popular streamer, Myth, semi-frankly discussed losing his virginity earlier this year, nosy fans immediately started suggesting that a popular woman streamer with whom Myth sometimes plays was responsible. And that’s a relatively tame example. Earlier this year, another woman streamer, Amouranth, ended up at the center of a roaring controversy after a YouTuber posted a video accusing her of hiding her marital status to help rake in views. Harassment followed. It’s a messed up system in which fans have an undue amount of influence on influencers’ personal lives.
Still, blowback to Ninja’s sweeping proclamation was immediate, with many streamers saying that, while they understand where Ninja is coming from, in steering clear of women streamers he’s squandering a huge opportunity to help change the perception of women on Twitch—where they’re often referred to as “thots” or “egirls” and accused of using sex to steal viewers from more deserving men.
“What Ninja said is reinforcing exclusion on a huge scale,” a streamer who goes by the handle Bluejay said on Twitter. “He said it because he wants to avoid drama in his family life, understandably, but it’s an extremely harmful and exclusionary method and his audience will follow his lead, plain and simple. We don’t need more segregation in the gaming space to prevent the rumor mill, we need less.”
An ensuing back-and-forth with popular streamer Ellohime summed up the bulk of the discussion that took place over the weekend. “It’s easy for you to say stand up and fight cause you don’t have to be him,” Ellohime said in response to Bluejay’s explanation of why Ninja’s stance is so thorny. “His reasons aren’t even anti-women. It’s anti-internet culture. It isn’t on Ninja to make sure women are successful. Furthermore, isn’t that placing too much power in a man’s hands to make sure women do well?”
Ellohime eventually said that Ninja’s decision to publicize the line he’s drawn in the sand was “dumb,” but also said that he hasn’t seen evidence of a coordinated effort to keep women out of games. He wrote that he’s very aware that sexism exists, but believes it’s usually perpetrated by “dumb kids” who are trolling. In response to that, streamer Annemunition jumped in to respond.
“I think writing it off as ‘dumb kids being dumb kids’ is really understating the issue. I get harassed by adult dudes all the time,” she said. “And also, should we not be trying to set better examples and be better role models for kids, as the people in positions of power and influence?”
Ellohime ultimately agreed with this, but added that he thinks it’s sometimes “smarter to choose your battles, and the only person who can do that is the person making the choice.”
Countless versions of this argument played out over the weekend, but that’s more or less what it comes down to: a disagreement over the degree of responsibility Ninja—the biggest streamer on Twitch by every known metric—has toward women on his platform of choice. Is it on him to put his considerable resources behind normalizing the idea of men and women playing together sans imagined underlying sexual friction? Or is his decision to pull a Mike Pence perfectly practical?
Nobody’s asking Ninja to do all the heavy lifting here, nor are they suggesting that his stance is indefensible. It’s when we start digging into the ramifications, though, that problems pile up. Ninja is a streamer who, more than most, takes his position as a role model and person of incalculable influence very seriously. He’s tapered off his cursing on stream because he doesn’t want those words worming their way into young ears. He views his contributions to charity and other important causes—not his record-breaking numbers of Twitch subscribers and followers—as his crowning achievement. After a charity drive for the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention earlier this year, Ninja said that “if no one cared, and no one would donate for causes like this,” having so many viewers wouldn’t mean anything. He also has a history of raiding—that is, sending his audience over to—the channels of small streamers to help them get more viewers. Some of those streamers were women.
It’s disappointing to see him draw the line at playing with women. From his actions, he’s clearly a kind, giving person who wants to make things better for others. But with fame comes a certain degree of responsibility. And Ninja is famous—not “internet famous” like Pizza Rat, but really famous. Twitch, and gaming in general, is an environment that can be majorly inhospitable to women. While coordinated efforts to keep women out of games absolutely do exist, much of it is not premeditated. It’s a cultural issue, a systemic one that—in the absence of currents running counter to it—self-perpetuates. It’s death by a thousand slow, painful cuts. On Twitch, men are the default. As long as high-profile male streamers shy away from streaming with women, there’ll be gossip and the possibility of harassment every time it happens. Ninja could have a significant effect on the issue by boosting women on his streams the same way he boosts men.
While Ninja has faced much criticism for his comments, he’s a dude streaming on a dude-dominated platform to an audience mostly made up of dudes, and folks within his echelon of popularity largely defended him. He hasn’t even really tried putting his theory into practice, either. He decided from the get-go that things might get gnarly if he streamed with women, and that was that.
If Ninja played with women more and went to bat for them, yes, he’d probably have to shovel mounds of bullshit off his doorstep. Twitch and YouTube culture are a mess, and having mobs meddle in your personal life is a uniquely 2018 sort of hell. But Ninja is one of the most influential influencers out there—an influencer by which all others are judged. His words and actions have very real power, and he could make a serious dent in this issue. If you’ve got so much influence, why not use it to change things for the better?