Drake, rapper Travis Scott and Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster played a video game called Fortnite Battle Royale with a streamer named Tyler "Ninja" Blevins on Thursday. Depending on how many names in the previous sentence you recognise, this might seem like an unremarkable bit of business, but this was actually a momentous cultural event, signalling a shift in the way the gaming and entertainment industries interact.
You'll see gaming culture in mainstream entertainment on occasion, but usually it's a fumbling mess ― videos of celebrities playing video games with "Clueless Gamer" Conan O'Brien, for instance, are cute if awkward hat tips between industries that indicate the two aren't ready to fully explain each other to their respective audiences.
But here, early on Thursday morning, were two mammoth celebrities in their own worlds — Drake and Ninja, that is — joining forces for a public, unscripted event that was open to each of their millions of followers. The stunt's success suggests something is changing, that the distance between the industries has practically vanished.
Twitch ― a dominant streaming app rivalled only by YouTube in the gaming sphere ― saw 628,000 concurrent viewers on the Drake-Ninja match, breaking its previous record by hundreds of thousands of viewers. Twitter exploded as Drake and Ninja's audiences collided in an instant. Game journalists began publishing explainers about Twitch, Fortnite and Ninja's quick rises to fame in the streaming community, while others wondered who the hell Drake was and why this particular stream was so important.
It was a novel and surprising moment, because it felt relatively genuine. The crew had chemistry on camera, and their every interaction spread quickly on social media. And it supposedly wasn't a marketing gimmick. Epic Games, Fortnite's developer, told HuffPost that Drake was a fan of Ninja's and set up the whole thing organically, without any major corporate intervention. (Drake and Ninja's teams didn't comment for this article.)
But the authenticity of such an event isn't important ― it was a huge success and mutually beneficial for everyone involved. Looking at the stream's promotional value alone suggests that a world-renowned performer like Drake benefits from publicly interacting with a gamer like Ninja, who already had millions of followers and more than 150,000 paid subscribers prior to the stream.
Forbes estimates that Ninja likely made tens of thousands in revenue in gaming for just under an hour with Drake and company:
I think he gained around 10,000-15,000 subscribers, each of those worth $3.50 in monthly income. The Drake stream alone increased that revenue by probably $35,000-45,000, and Ninja is now pulling in well over $600,000 a month through Twitch subscriptions alone, which is separate from bit and donation revenue, and his YouTube income.
Ninja's brand most certainly helped Drake's. For example, the rapper got 135,000 retweets when he announced he was playing Fortnite with Ninja, while his previous tweet, an announcement of his new music video, received just 39,000.
Epic Games, meanwhile, was quick to capitalise on its success. On Thursday, it announced the "ultimate Fornite Party Royale", in which it will pair 50 celebrities and 50 pro gamers for a match at the E3 Expo in Los Angeles in June.
This dovetailing of the two industries has been happening for a while; it's just that those outside of the gaming and streaming world haven't been given a glimpse into the culture unless the story is tabloid-worthy.
TV and news entertainment didn't seem to pay much attention to social media star Logan Paul ― who has more than 16-million followers on both YouTube and Instagram ― until he filmed an apparent suicide victim and posted the video to YouTube. Twitch's top streamer, Dr Disrespect, didn't reach the public conscience outside of gaming until he admitted to cheating on his wife and took a hiatus from the platform.
Felix "PewDiePie" Kjellberg became a household name after several racist remarks and vile stunts ― one of which featured PewDiePie paying men to hold a sign that read, "Death to All Jews" ― led to the disintegration of some of his partnerships. It also led the mainstream media to realise:"Holy crap, a YouTuber has more than 60-million subscribers and all the influence in the online world."
Meanwhile, gamers and brands are seeing unprecedented riches. Esports events have been selling out top venues for some time, and so much money and so many sponsorships are flying around the industry, that underserved young gamers are starting to talk about unions. Events such as Games Done Quick ― in which gamers stream speed runs of our favourite video games ― are so popular that they're raising millions for charity. Gaming platforms like Twitch have seen exponential growth in recent years.
While the Drake–Ninja pairing on Thursday may have represented the joining of the entertainment and gaming industries, the telling image was provided by Travis Scott, or rather his Fortnite avatar, recording a kill and then spraying money everywhere. "Cash," he said, as if delivering a benediction.