Entrepreneurs

Meet Jess Blevins, gamer "Ninja" Blevins' secret weapon, helping him make $1 million a month in esports

Jess Blevins and her husband, Tyler "Ninja" Blevins
Source: Team Ninja

Working with your spouse can have its ups and downs. Like, when your husband just spent the last six hours livestreaming himself playing a video game and you have to spend your lunch break discussing sponsorship opportunities.

That's something 26-year-old Jessica Blevins knows all too well.

Jessica's husband is Tyler "Ninja" Blevins, a 27-year-old esports superstar who the couple says earns more than $1 million per month playing video games like "Fortnite," the incredibly popular online multiplayer survival game.

Tyler boasts a massive following of nearly 20 million fans who flock to YouTube and the Amazon-owned video game streaming site Twitch to watch him play "Fortnite" while he adds his own in-game commentary and occasionally chats with his fans in real time. He's an in-demand "Fortnite" gaming partner for celebrities, having faced off with Drake and rapper Travis Scott, and he recently made history as the first-ever esports player to grace the cover of ESPN The Magazine.

Jess (as she likes to be called) is Tyler's manager.

When Jess first started managing Tyler's career three years ago, she says she was mostly pitching him to potential sponsors. Now, it's the other way around.

"It's done a complete 180, where I wake up to 150 emails, all wanting to work with Tyler," she tells CNBC Make It. In addition to partnering with YouTube and Twitch, Tyler has also worked with Bud Light in the past and he has a growing list of sponsors that now includes Samsung, Red Bull and Uber Eats.

She oversees a team of about 15 people (full-time and part-time employees), aka "Team Ninja," that includes public relations specialists, a YouTube editor, a social media manager and personal assistants, Jess tells CNBC Make It. She rises early every day (around 6 a.m.) to start returning phone calls and answering the hundreds of emails Tyler receives each day from fans, members of the media and representatives from Team Ninja's sponsor companies, as well as anyone else interested in the Ninja brand.

But Jess isn't just Tyler's secret business weapon; she is successful Twitch star too.

IRL

Jess is no slouch when it comes to amassing an online fanbase. She currently has nearly half a million followers on Twitch. (She also has more than 600,000 Twitter followers and 1.2 million on Instagram.)

Using the alias "JGhosty," Jess started out playing popular online games like "Minecraft" before segueing into what the Twitch community calls "IRL" streaming (aka, "in real life"), where users livestream themselves doing nongaming activities — anything from dancing, singing or arts and crafts to talk show-style chatting.

In Jess' case, a few thousand people might tune in to watch her exercise, cook a tomato basil soup or play a popular game like Behaviour Interactive's "Dead by Daylight," she says.

As a woman in the industry, Jess tells CNBC Make It that she gets her fair share of negative comments from viewers. "I have a lot of people who don't think I do much, or don't really care because they'll always just see me as a successful man's wife. I get a lot of bad comments that way," she says.

For instance, during her cooking streams, "I get so many people like 'Go make him a sandwich, or park her in the kitchen,'" she says. "But I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, whatever.' And I'm not going to let that hinder me from doing my streams."

It's a topic that became especially relevant after a mini-scandal erupted over an interview in which Tyler said he refused to stream with female gamers other than Jess to avoid rumors or online harassment. Tyler later said he and Jess support "all kinds of streamers and gamers," and he recently hosted Twitch streams featuring Ellen DeGeneres and rapper-comedian Nora "Awkwafina" Lum. Jess says they are also working on new collaborations with other women.

Tyler, to whom she's been married for just over a year, will occasionally make an appearance, but he's usually busy with his own audience in another room of the nearly 6,700-square-foot house they bought for more than $1 million outside Chicago earlier this year.

"I think it's almost four years that I've been streaming now, this September," Jess says. "So, like, from there I just grinded and grinded from 15 viewers to 40, to now we get like 4,000 a stream. It's been a consistent grind.

"I think, both for Tyler and I, it wasn't always lucrative, but it's just what we enjoy doing. So we just kept doing it."

While her own income does not come close to matching her husband's at the moment, Jessica tells CNBC Make It that she's earning roughly $250,000 a year — which includes her salary as Tyler's manager as well as money from streaming on Twitch and other social media posts. (Jess did not reveal how much she makes from Twitch, but popular streamers typically make about $3.50 per month for each paid subscriber. Jess currently has more than 3,200 subscribers, according to the site TwitchStats.)

Gaming led to love

A lot of Tyler's fans assume that Jess is into gaming because he is, she says, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Growing up in northern Wisconsin, Jess started playing "Mortal Kombat" on Sega Genesis with her older brother at an early age.

"Gaming has been around in my life forever, but I didn't ever think it was anything other than just a fun way to spend spare time," she tells CNBC Make It.

She and her brother played "Halo 3" on Xbox 360 in high school and Jess kept playing when she went to college, where her then-boyfriend competed in local "Halo" tournaments. Though she never competed herself, Jess attended dozens of gaming events during her college years.

In fact, it was at one of those competitions that she met her future husband, around 2010.

While a freshman at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Jess agreed to attend a "Halo" competition with her ex-boyfriend (they'd broken up a week earlier) in La Crosse, Wisconsin. As it turned out, Tyler was competing in the event, which was a few hours from where he was attending school at Silver Lake College.

Both Jessica and Tyler drove through "a ridiculous snowstorm to get up to northern Wisconsin" for the event, Jessica tells CNBC Make It, where Tyler's partner was a gamer who Jessica had met at another tournament.

"I thought Tyler was super cute, so I went up to [our mutual friend] and I was like, 'Hey, you know, how's it going?' And then he introduced me to his teammate." But at the time Tyler had a girlfriend and Jessica was fresh out of her own relationship, so the two "just kind of stayed in touch, but we didn't start dating then," Jessica says.

The two made contact occasionally, usually through Facebook, and a few years later, Tyler wished Jessica a "Happy Birthday." She tweeted at him, not sure he'd even see her message — "he had, like, 1,000 followers," she says.

Tyler "Ninja" Blevins and Jess Blevins, at the PAX East gaming conference in 2015.
Source: Jess Blevins

But, "he responded, like, within a minute, tweeted me back and then followed me," she says. They exchanged phone numbers, started talking every day and were dating within a month. That was 2013. A year later, Jess had graduated from college and she moved to Illinois to live with Tyler. In August 2017, the two were married in a private, traditional ceremony in northern Illinois.

When Jess and Tyler first met, she says, he was far from the esports superstar he is today. He had just started making his living as a professional gamer about a year earlier. "He was just, like, a kid that was good at 'Halo' and probably had a future in it. But, he wasn't anybody in the community yet," Jess tells CNBC Make It.

(As Tyler has previously told CNBC Make It, he worked at a Noodles & Co. restaurant while attending college during this period.)

Tyler won that event in La Crosse, Jess says. She can't remember how much he won, but the stakes were definitely a lot lower back then. Most local "Halo" events split prize pools as small as $1,000 among the top few finishers, she remembers.

Taking Tyler to the next level

While in college (where she majored in communications and human resources management), Jess worked part time managing booths at gaming events and competitions and after graduating she briefly worked as a recruiter for a staffing agency before she left to be with Tyler and to focus on building a following by livestreaming.

Tyler had been streaming since 2011 and they'd lived together for roughly six months before she realized he needed her help managing his growing career. That was in 2015, when Tyler was gaining more notoriety within the gaming community and playing "Halo" for esports teams like Team Liquid and Cloud9. He was starting to receive interest from gaming companies looking to sponsor players, but he was often too focused on gaming and streaming to seek out his own business opportunities.

"I would see him wake up, he would have emails from top-tier companies in the gaming space and he would just quickly respond, or respond with, like, typos or he wouldn't capitalize letters or sign his name," Jess says. "And I'm like, 'What are you doing, kid?'"

Jess told Tyler that he needed to show more professionalism if he wanted to be taken seriously in the industry and see his career advance. "And, for him, he was just like, 'I just want to stream. I just want to go live,'" Jess says. "He's always just been about his stream."

Jess told Tyler: "I will gladly wake up in the morning, have coffee, go over emails for you and respond accordingly. And, then, you can just focus on your stream."

She started out by reaching out to gaming equipment companies like Plantronics Astro Gaming with formal pitches for why they should join Team Ninja as sponsors.

"It was always so easy to pitch him, because I saw him work so hard," Jess says. "So I was able to tell these companies, like, all this guy does is stream. 'If you guys are a headset company, sponsor him. He is [online] 15 hours a frickin' day. Like, he is going to be representing your brand nonstop all day, everyday.'"

Jess' persistence paid off with some early sponsorships, which coincided with Tyler's star beginning to rise as he shifted to playing online battle royale games like "H1Z1" and PlayerUnknown's "Battlegrounds," while joining the esports organization Luminosity Gaming in 2017.

When "Fortnite" exploded onto the scene a year ago, Tyler was one of the game's best players and most active streamers. He became one of the faces of "Fortnite," which is now a multibillion-dollar behemoth, and "Ninja" saw his Twitch following soar from roughly 500,000 people in September 2017 to nearly 12 million today. Tyler also has nearly 20 million YouTube followers and 11 million on Instagram.

Balancing life and massive success

As Tyler's career continues to soar, managing him has become more than a full-time job, which is why Team Ninja now includes more than a dozen other people working under Jess. Meanwhile, Jess has to find time for her own social media career, which now includes roughly one stream per week of up to four hours.

That's about as much time as she can put aside for streaming, considering her daily schedule managing Tyler. On a typical day, Jess wakes up early to walk their two dogs (a pair of Parti Yorkies named Chance and Navi), make coffee and start going through the hundreds of emails that Team Ninja receives every day. Tyler's first streaming session of the day runs from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Jess says.

Jess and Tyler "Ninja" Blevins with their dogs, Chance and Navi. 
Source: Team Ninja

"If I'm doing a cooking stream, also during that time I'll go run and I'll get all my ingredients for my cooking stream, [write a title for the Twitch stream] and everything and get hooked up in the kitchen, go back to emails, shower, get ready, and then 4 p.m. rolls around and [Tyler] gets off," Jess says, running through a typically hectic day in the Blevins household.

Most of the time Jess and Tyler get to spend together each day comes between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. (when he starts streaming again until 2 a.m., sometimes later). Even during their time together, Jess says, she and Tyler are "doing a lot of just business stuff," including discussing opportunities for the couple to travel to events like the ESPY Awards in July (where Tyler played "Fortnite" with a pair of New York Knicks) or Ninja Vegas 18, a "Fortnite" esports tournament that Tyler hosted in Las Vegas in April (which more than 660,000 people watched live on Tyler's Twitch stream).

It's a busy schedule that doesn't allow for a lot of downtime, with Tyler streaming every single day. They rarely take a day off or a vacation (minus work-related trips to gaming tournaments and other public appearances for Tyler), Jess says. They did travel to St. Lucia in the Caribbean for their honeymoon in 2017, but Jess says they rarely splurge on any big-money expenses otherwise.

"Our only big purchase, I think, has been our house," she says of the five-bedroom home they bought this year in a gated community in the Chicago suburbs, near where Tyler grew up. "And, I don't think we went above and beyond with that. … We haven't gotten anything like sports cars or gone on extravagant trips at all."

"I would say our biggest splurges are when we are traveling and we'll go to Louis Vuitton and Tyler will get a new pair of shoes and I'll get a dress … that's kind of our fun splurge, going to Louis Vuitton. "

Of course, considering how little alone time Jess and Tyler get together on account of their busy schedules, the fact that she — as his manager — has to spend that time talking about business is probably her least favorite part of the job, she says. "Our breaks are just talking about business and, unfortunately, I need to do that, because there are people that need answers and we don't have enough time as it is," she says. "But, if it wasn't me he would have to be having those talks with somebody else."

Ultimately, Jess is thrilled that she and Tyler can work together in their new house. And, the fact that their careers overlap makes each of them that much more understanding about their insane work schedules.

"I think the best thing is that we are working together and we're working in the same space," she says.

"If I didn't stream, I don't think I would be as understanding, because I wouldn't get it. Like I would think possibly, 'Oh, he's like sitting and playing video games all day.' But, because I do it myself I know how much energy goes into producing content during the stream."

Next stop, Hollywood?

Looking ahead, as Tyler's manager, Jess says she wants to see his fame trend more and more into the mainstream. Despite appearing on magazine covers and in a national commercial (for Samsung), Tyler's not quite a household name — but, Jess believes that's within reach.

Jess wants Tyler to cross over from gaming fame to Hollywood. They've turned down offers to do reality TV shows, because they want to hold onto what little privacy they currently have, she says. But, Jess is convinced that Tyler's personality — he entertains millions on his gaming stream every day — can translate to acting jobs at some point.

That's something Jess wouldn't mind happening for herself, either. A horror movie aficionado (her favorite is "Scream"), Jess tells CNBC Make It that landing a role in a slasher film is one of her "dream goals." She's even told her husband, "I will not use your name for anything except if it gets me in a scary movie," she says.

In the meantime, she's happy managing Tyler as his star continues to grow, and she wants to keep building on her own online following. Could her cooking streams turn into something bigger, like her own TV cooking show? She only started doing them because it's fun, and she doesn't necessarily see it turning into a scenario where she's doing "Martha Stewart stuff" on national television, she says.

"I just have fun doing it, so if it does turn into something that gives me more opportunities, like that's awesome, but definitely not the point of doing it."

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This 26-year-old is making $500,000 a month playing video games
Jess Blevins and her husband, Tyler "Ninja" Blevins
Source: Team Ninja
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