Entrepreneurs

How this 26-year-old went from working at a fast food joint to making $500,000 a month playing video games

At 26, professional gamer Tyler 'Ninja' Blevins has seen enormous success: He's the most popular streamer on Amazon-owned gaming platform Twitch, and he recently broke the site's record for the most concurrent viewers by playing with rapper Drake.

Blevins has almost 4 million followers on Twitch, 5 million on YouTube, 1 million on Instagram and one 1 million on Twitter, all of whom come to watch him play "Fortnite," a multi-player action game available on Xbox, PlayStation and mobile, which has surged in popularity in recent weeks.

Those followers are worth a lot of money for Blevins. In March, the gamer told a Forbes contributor that he makes $3.50 per paid subscriber (a subscription on Twitch costs $4.99 a month) streaming "Fortnite," which, with 160,000 subscribers according to Forbes, equals about $560,000 per month. And that's before including his YouTube ad revenue or the "donations" viewers can give Twitch content creators, numbers which Blevins declined to disclose.

Tyler Blevins, known as Ninja, is a popular player of "Fortnite" on Twitch.
CNBC
Tyler Blevins, known as Ninja, is a popular player of "Fortnite" on Twitch.

But Blevins' success wasn't immediate. And he took a cautious approach to the industry.

In the beginning, says Blevins, "I continued to do well in school and focus on the future of my life" he tells CNBC's "Squawk Alley" of his time at Silver Lake College in Wisconsin from 2009 to 2010.

"It was one of those things where if I was doing well in school, putting in the time and effort there, and soccer as well, that I would be rewarded to play as many games as I want," he says. "I maintained my job that I was working at Noodles & Company and I stayed in college while I was doing all of these things."

Even as a kid growing up in Grayslake, Illinois, a suburban town about an hour outside of Chicago, Blevins says he's always had a naturally competitive streak.

"I always want to be the best," he said in a video for Bud Light, which has sponsored him in e-sports competitions. "I love competing and I always want to play the best. If I'm not doing well I'll be upset and I'll be raging."

Along with his two older brothers, Blevins began playing video games at a young age.

"My dad actually was the main influence," Blevins explained on the Twitch stream "Walshy's Halo History." "He loved video games when they started to come out and he would purchase them 'for us,' but really we would go to bed around as early as you can imagine when we were little, 6 p.m., 7 p.m., 8 p.m. .... He would play on the consoles until 2 or 3 a.m. in the morning."

The family owned early gaming consoles like Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo and bought Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation games when they came out in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In November 2001, Halo, a multi-player, futuristic war game was launched on Xbox.

As a 9- or 10-year-old, Tyler asked to play Halo along with his older brothers John and Chris Blevins, John remembers. They thought he was too young to play, but "he just destroyed us," says John.

"He would stay up past the wee hours and just keep working," Chris adds. "I think that's when we were like, 'Okay, maybe we're not going to play with Tyler anymore.'"

As Blevins realized his skill and the potential to play in competitions and win prize money, he became serious about gaming.

"I started realizing, 'Oh my god, you can actually go to these events, I can actually make a team and I can compete against them," he says. "That was when stuff got real."

He first played competitively in 2009 by entering a Halo 3 event in Orlando to small success. But Blevins gained notoriety playing a later version of the game, Halo: Reach, in 2011 at competitions in Dallas; Columbus, Ohio; and Anaheim, California.

"You have to be better than hundreds of people, thousands of people — you have to be the best player to even win money from tournaments," says Blevins. And he was. The same year, Blevins was making about $100 a day streaming his playing on Twitch.

In 2012, his team won the Halo 4 2012 MGL Fall Championships, with Blevins notching the highest score in the final game. He's since competed with major e-sports teams like Team Liquid and Renegades.

For Blevin's family, the growing success was a surprise.

"You know you argue with him about how much time he's spending on it, and he starts making a little money here and there, and it's nothing," Tyler's father Chuck Blevins says. "Then the next thing you know, he tells me 'I'm getting streams. I'm getting subscriptions. I'm getting sponsors.' And I'm thinking, 'Where is this coming from?'"

Blevins was doing so well that last year he announced he would not be competing in Halo championship events, instead focusing on streaming "Fortnite" on Twitch.

A giant force in e-sports and video games, Twitch streams have been watched for 355 billion minutes as of January 2017, with 15 million daily active users and over 2 million unique broadcasters every month. The company was acquired by Amazon in 2014 for $970 million.

But Blevins doesn't see professional gaming as a viable career path for everyone. For ambitious young people, he suggests diversifying your interests and skills.

"All the kids out there, you can't just drop everything and focus on playing video games for a living," he tells CNBC. "It's also becoming a very competitive career choice right now, and you want to make sure that you're securing your future."

For his personal windfall, he plans to make it last: "[I'm] definitely investing and saving it as much as possible. I don't plan on doing anything crazy with it."

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