Drake ran around in a bush at one in the morning online this week. He was playing the game Fortnite on a stream with fellow rapper Travis Scott on gaming legend Tyler “Ninja” Blevins’ Twitch channel. Blevins is a slight 26-year-old dude with blue hair who is very, very good at the game, very bad at handling more than two beers, and who will make somewhere well north of six figures this month off his channel’s revenue. Later, JuJu Smith-Schuster of the Pittsburgh Steelers came by for a bit.
This all happened on Twitch, the streaming service Amazon bought for almost a billion dollars in 2014 because they wisely knew that ultimately, one day, Drake would accept an invite to play from Ninja, run around dressed as a bush in the wee hours of the morning, and that the whole thing would pay off their entire investment. (And get a thousand streaming commenters yelling “GOD’S PLANT” whenever he came into camera.)
At one point in Drake’s session, over 600,000 viewers were watching the game. That number happened despite Drake not even announcing the stream until 12:57 a.m. ET. At its peak, a video game stream turned out as many viewers in the middle of the night on a weeknight as a lot of fairly successful basic cable shows do in prime time. Take the sports category: It outdrew the early SportsCenter, the afternoon edition of Around the Horn, and the 10 a.m. edition of First Take.*
*The noon airing of Thomas and Friends on Nick still had more viewers, but no one beats children’s TV for ratings, ever. Paw Patrol is an empire, y’all.
That is a very obvious and corporate way of looking at the impact of Drake’s session. It is also the reason every large company looking for disappearing millennials will demand a Twitch strategy on its desk this week. They may not know what Twitch or Fortnite is, but if it means finding a rich seam of un-mined millennial eyeballs, then they are SO into it.
Comparing ratings to streaming eyeballs isn’t exactly fair in either direction, and it also misses the really exciting thing about Twitch and streaming gaming, the one thing that makes it so different from any other kind of gaming or sports experience. For the first time ever, people playing a game at the highest level are competing and playing with the public in front of an audience. They do it all the time, at zero cost to their skill. Sometimes, on select weeknights, they invite Drake and a few other friends to play with them.
That mix of inclusion and intimacy on this scale has really only happened in part before, and only in certain games or sports. Golf has pro-am tournaments where golfers play with normal types, there is the occasional celebrity bowling tournament here or there. It’s not new to gaming, for sure, either on Twitch (where gamers have been streaming for years) or within the games themselves, where general players have been running into pros since the dawn of online gaming. (Usually with lopsided and hilarious results.)
It’s certainly new in terms of major American sports, where elite athletes and average players of a game almost never play on the same field. Football — the most popular televised sport — is the prime case for this separation. Few average viewers really even play football, and even fewer could be on the receiving end of an Aaron Rodgers’ pass at speed without breaking fingers or tearing an ACL when the ball arrives. A pro-am event in football would be madness — and not particularly entertaining or watchable madness.
The same goes for almost every other major sport or second-tier sport. No one is watching a pro-am golf tournament for anything other than seven seconds of Charles Barkley’s war crime of a golf swing. Rock ‘n Jock has been off the air for years, even though the dream of the 25-point basket lives on in the hearts of every red-blooded American. Amateurs playing hockey with professionals would end with third-degree assault charges filed against someone.
In almost every major professional game, the greatness and skill level held by an exemplary player is something inaccessible and utterly unrelatable. The closest an average viewer could get to understanding or experiencing just what a professional was really capable of might have been ESPN’s coverage of the World Series of Poker, where in real time the viewer could experience the agonies of trying to figure out just what in the hell Daniel Negreanu had in his hand. (Negreanu, however, already knew what you had.)
Yet anyone might run up against Ninja in a game of Fortnite. For lack of a better word, the coolest thing about streaming gaming in general are the open spaces. LeBron James can’t play pickup all day against anyone who shows up. The risks for him are too high in a lot of ways — and that’s before considering the dangers of injury in playing with amateurs. On a professional court or field, the average athlete becomes a traffic hump only good for breaking fragile, expensive parts on performance machines.
In some contexts — and some only — this is exactly what streaming gamers can do. There is competitive play in a lot of games, sure, but for a lot of streamers the real value is in the experience and interaction with viewers and other players. The actual gaming doesn’t even really have to be good for the whole experience to work.
For example, take Drake’s record-setting session as a walking bush. Ninja is a Fortnite god, but Drake actually kind of sucks at the game, especially when paired next to a lighting-fingered twitch demon like Ninja. Smith-Schuster was late for the stream because his Mac failed him. (Smith-Schuster went and bought an entirely new PC at Best Buy. Never doubt his dedication.) Scott turned out to be pretty good at the game, but still came nowhere close to the kind of skill someone might see in elite Fortnite players. He did make it rain after a kill. No one can or should ever take that away from him.
Even with Ninja on board, the foursome needed several tries before getting a win in battle royale play. All that happened, and the stream was still entertaining for a generalist average viewer like me, who stumbled onto the stream after arising for no reason wide awake at 3 a.m. It was entertaining as hell in the way that long, kind of mesmerizing game sessions can be, and spotted with the same odd hilarities. There was Drake in a bush disguise, Scott making it rain or calling health “band-aids”, and Ninja getting visibly tipsy after just three beers with most of the chat mocking him for being a lightweight.
It had the comfort level and intimacy of a really good, unproductive, and completely satisfying night of watching roommates play a video game. The roommates happened to be two famous rappers, an NFL player, and one of the best gamers in the world, but the vibe was the same. Better still, it happened at zero cost to anyone in the room: Ninja was still obviously godlike, and yet everyone else could still enjoy playing along on the same field and leave with everyone’s brand unscathed.
That roommates-just-hanging-out vibe is an absolutely remarkable space to create for users, much less for four celebrities whose images and appearances are carefully managed and controlled. It is also potentially remarkable for advertisers, too — though how users will react to one of the roommates on the couch suddenly talking about Bud Light obviously and constantly might not work out quite the way they imagine it will. This big thing that feels small will probably be ruined by its own success eventually, especially for hardcore users terrified of normies rushing the gates with new Twitch Prime subscriptions and further spoiling the fun.
For one night, though? It’s either going way, way too far or not far enough to say that this was, with capital letters, The Night Gaming Went Mainstream. It doesn’t go far enough in acknowledging that gaming is already a gigantic mainstream cultural presence, a huge target for sports-interested investment, and a trendsetter for ... well for basically everything right down to the way people use the English language online and offline, think about political organization, or even how we think. We are already there, and have been there for a while.
It also might not go far enough by calling it a mere “Something.” Somehow a Twitch session in the middle of the night was a cultural moment that straddled more territory between sports and games and entertainment than anything else in recent memory, that not only had its own audience but that spilled out onto Twitter and beyond. (Name another event where Deadmau5 could be seen Twitter beefing with one of the principals mid-match?)
This all may end up as another obligation on a long list of obligatory things, yet another PR appearance for someone wanting to promote something elsewhere, another piece of online territory claimed and sanitized and dulled-down by sponsors and the leveling effect large audiences have. If for no other reason, though, the Drake Twitch session qualifies as a definite Something for a really simple but massively important reason. Whether they were playing or watching, everyone seemed like they wanted to be there—even the man walking around inside a bush.