Fortnite streaming phenomenon Tyler Blevins, better known as Ninja, caused a tectonic shift in the world of gaming this week when he abandoned his massive following on Amazon’s Twitch platform for Microsoft’s lesser-known rival service, Mixer.
On Friday, Ninja made his Mixer debut from Lollapalooza with launch sponsor Red Bull in front of an online audience larger than what he recently averaged on Twitch, a testament to his platform-transcendent star power.
Terms of the deal with Microsoft have not yet been revealed. However, it comes as more tech giants elbow over the burgeoning cloud gaming market with Google’s Stadia and Apple’s Arcade slated for release later this year.
With brand investment in esports marketing ballooning, here are some of the big takeaways from Ninja’s defection:
Mixer needed a jumpstart, and this was it
After a relatively quiet rollout a couple of years ago, Mixer has built a modest user base in the shadow of powerhouse Twitch. Mixer benefits from an automatic installation on Xbox consoles and integration into the larger Microsoft gaming ecosystem.
But Ninja’s addition could put the platform on the map in a new way. The debut stream rocketed the app to the top of the charts in Apple’s app store and ballooned its Google search hits.
Dan Nemo, co-founder and COO of StreamMetrics, said Ninja’s move illustrates the increased growth and diversity of the gaming market driving platforms like Mixer.
“For us, it more validates the media, the breadth, the number of players,” he said. “It’s heating up. It’s a way to reach the coveted viewers.”
Ninja may have already peaked, but his fans will follow him
The fortunes of gaming streamers are intrinsically tied to the popularity of the games in which they specialize. That’s become a burden for Ninja lately as viewership for Fortnite, gaming’s biggest phenomenon in recent years, has dropped in the past year, despite the hugely popular Fortnite World Cup final that took place in New York this month. Ninja has been reportedly losing followers in commensurate numbers and was unseated as Twitch’s most popular streamer earlier this year.
Yet Ninja’s Lollapalooza stream on Friday proves that his brand still has huge power. The event garnered as many as 80,000 viewers at times and ballooned his new account to more than 370,000 subscribers as of Friday afternoon. For perspective, that view count is bigger than those he had been averaging in recent weeks on Twitch, though far below his popularity at his height last year, when he would regularly pull in up to 150,000 fans, according to Polygon.
“Tyler proves that gaming influencers move the needle,” said Kelby May, vp of sales at Ninja’s management firm, Loaded. “In less than 24 hours of announcing, almost 500,000 fans joined Ninja’s first livestream and subscribed to his channel, approaching his previous industry-leading subscriber count, proving that the power engagement for prolific gamers is strong.”
Microsoft’s gaming business also needed a boost
Ninja isn’t the only one hurting from Fortnite’s apparent decline. Microsoft execs mentioned in an earnings call last week that its gaming sales had suffered due to a “tough comparable” from the lower revenue of an unnamed third-party game, and at least one analyst suspected that title was Fortnite. As a free-to-play game, Fortnite makes its money from selling in-game items and extra features, and Microsoft takes a cut of those sales—usually around 30%—when they happen on its Xbox consoles.
With no major game releases this past quarter, Microsoft’s game sales dipped, as did its console sales. But growth in Xbox Live and Game Pass provided a bright spot, proving that interest in the walled garden ecosystem Microsoft has built around gaming remains strong.
Microsoft’s gaming talent acquisition also comes as Xbox is preparing for a new generation of the ongoing console wars and increased competition from new rivals in the gaming space.
Later this year, Google plans to release Stadia, its cloud-based gaming platform, which will roll out more broadly in 2020 and likely have natural tie-ins with YouTube. Stadia also will likely compete directly with Xbox for subscribers, as will Apple’s Arcade when it debuts in fall 2019.
Microsoft’s also working on a cloud-based gaming service of its own. Last year, it acquired PlayFab as a way to accelerate game development across mobile, PC and console devices. And while it’s tough to say how tightly bound together these console-video pairings will be, it’s a sign that most of the major tech players want in on the massively growing market of esports, which continues to grow in terms of players and viewers.
Brian Kim, general manager of GumGum Sports, said Ninja’s story points to how livestreaming has fragmented even as the value of influencers and content creators has risen rapidly. Kim said he bets Ninja’s brand sponsors will likely get the same amount of exposure on Mixer as they would on Twitch, but it’s still too early to tell.
“There’s a clear analogy here with what we’ve seen in the NBA in recent years, where it’s become a star-driven league,” he said. “Except it’s happened faster in esports. … Ninja’s fans are going to follow him from Twitch to Mixer to maybe some other platform in the future.”
“Microsoft and Mixer are making this power play to get Ninja’s audience. That’s why I don’t think Ninja’s brand sponsors have anything to worry about,” Kim concluded.