The unique, unlikely celebrity of Tfue

“Gamer, esports athlete, social media influencer ... I'm just me, dude.”

Would you rather meet LeBron James or Tfue?

The question was posed in December to 9-year-old Guy Dadon. He was sitting with his mother after playing basketball in Los Angeles — just a few miles from Staples Center where James, the world’s most famous basketball player, leads the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the most storied NBA franchises.

“LeBr …” the mother began.

“Tfue!” the son interjected with a big smile.

The mother’s unfinished answer gave way to a look of confusion.

“Tfue?” she asked.

(Video/Jhaan Elker; Photo/Eve Edelheit)

Given the global celebrity of James, who has graced athletic arenas and Hollywood screens while racking up millions in endorsements, her surprise was understandable.

But among the younger generation, there is a strong pull to a new type of celebrity, one that exists in a world undiscoverable by those who don’t actively seek it out. At the center of this world — or certainly near it — sits Turner Tenney, better known by to his fans as Tfue (pronounced T-foo), the most watched gamer and entertainer on the video game streaming platform Twitch.

An unlikely star, the 22-year-old Floridian is one of the most talented players of Fortnite, a game that draws tens of millions of players per month. Fans tune in regularly for both his skill level and brash attitude, marking him as one of the chief personalities riding the growing popularity of live-streamed video game entertainment to unimaginable heights.

Tenney’s videos have been watched 1.3 billion times and he has won more than $600,000 in prizes. Major game publishing companies have offered him six-figure paychecks to show off their titles. His net worth has been estimated in the seven figures, still peanuts compared with someone like James, but astounding to those who never would have considered playing video games could provide a lucrative career path. Some of Tenney’s elite peers have secured their own sponsorship deals, a few going so far as to sign exclusively with a specific streaming platform in exchange for sums of money believed to reach into eight figures.

Richard Tenney, father of Turner Tenney, rides on the front of a school bus in the annual Holiday Street Parade in Indian Rocks Beach. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)

Merrick Westlund and Edwin Meza stand on top of a school bus while children pose in front of mock-up battle bus. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)

Merrick Westlund throws stickers during the parade. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)

Fans line the street hoping for swag and a glimpse of the Tenneys. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)

And his importance extends beyond the Internet. Tenney decided last year to sue the esports organization that helped develop his audience over what he considered a predatory contract. The move triggered a nationwide reassessment of fair business agreements in a nebulous profession still establishing its best practices. In the years to come, his family’s vision could further help shape the future for streamers around the globe by introducing a facility in Florida dedicated to help content creators build their image, and an audience.

Esports and video game streamer celebrity culture is not really new. But it has been easy to miss for older generations unaccustomed to spending hours on sites such as Twitch, YouTube or Mixer, preferring instead to be entertained by Hollywood on TV and at the cinema, or by traditional sports leagues. [Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose CEO, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.]

“Gamer, esports athlete, social media influencer, there’s so many different labels that you could label yourself as, so I don’t know. I’m just me, dude.”

Turney "Tfue" Tenney, on his video game stardom

As such, Tenney stands as an example of an increasingly stark bifurcation of fame between generations that has arisen with a more siloed media landscape and the ability of digital-first platforms to amplify video game players.

To those less Internet-savvy, his importance in the evolving world of entertainment is a complete mystery. But to a certain younger audience Tenney’s renown rivals, and sometimes even exceeds, that of the most famous celebrities — even if his trappings don’t mirror those of a superstar like LeBron James.

“Gamer, esports athlete, social media influencer," Tenney said in an interview with The Washington Post while sitting on the roof of his childhood home. "There’s so many different labels that you could label yourself as, so I don’t know. I’m just me, dude.”

Tenney prepares to stream Fortnite. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)

The starting point of a streaming star

The Tenney family home is situated in Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., a small, mostly middle class community of a few thousand framed by Clearwater to the north, St. Petersburg to the south and Tampa to the east. Perhaps the only indication that the single-story, beachfront house might be of note is the constant presence of a sheriff patrol vehicle parked in an adjacent lot — and a 20-foot plastic dolphin, perched in a tree on their property.

Just hours before participating in a Fortnite tournament featuring $187,000 for the winning squad, the world’s most-watched esports player sauntered out bleary-eyed from his house and into the winter sun. Dressed in a tattered T-shirt, shorts, Gucci flip-flops and championship-sized diamond ring, Tenney leered at his father, Richard, who was standing in front of a school bus spray-painted blue with the white letters of “Fortnite” stenciled on the side.

“Who’s the f------ a------ that scheduled this interview?” he asked his father, straight-faced and monotone. A second passed, then came a smile directed toward his dad/PR agent.

The deadpan sarcasm from Tfue is the first indication of how close the super streamer is with his family and how large a role they play in his unorthodox life.

Tfue, a name Turner picked randomly after searching for an available gamer tag with four letters, was born the third of four siblings. His parents separated during his childhood. Asked about his school experience, he laughed, "What experience?”

“I went to middle school for a week. It sucked. I dipped,” Tfue said. “I never really went to school, technically I was home-schooled.”

His father, Richard, who was elected city commissioner in Clearwater in his early 20s, said the 1988 school shooting in Winnetka, Ill., where he attended middle and high school in the 1960s, made him wary about their safety. He also shared that his experience in Florida schools as a child was lacking.

“I went to middle school for a week.
It sucked. I dipped.”

Turner "Tfue" Tenney

“There was nothing for me to do there,” Richard said in his Johnny Cash-sounding, John Wayne-cadenced rasp. “I sat my youngest son down at 14 years old with [online educational software] Khan Academy and he worked his way through high school in a month." Only the oldest Tenney sibling, Alex, a former model, had formal schooling among the children. Turner’s older brother Jack, 25, has his own multimillion online following as a YouTuber.

“The ocean was their school, they learned to pay attention out there,” Richard said, adding that the boys worked very hard from a young age. “Eighty-hour weeks, 100-hour weeks. I had them selling TV antennas at flea markets. They sold them all!”

In their younger days, the Tenney boys pursued two distinct interests: filmmaking and action sports.

“Anything crazy, adrenaline-related, I loved doing. Anything on the beach, anything with a board pretty much,” said Turner, who won surfing contests and was competitive as a downhill skateboarder. Jack is a professional skimboarder.

“Turner could’ve have been a pro surfer, no problem. Jack, too,” said Richard, dressed in his signature slip-on beach shoes, shorts, baseball cap, and a T-shirt featuring Ice Cube.

The two Tenney boys have benefited from this kind of support from their father, and from each other, since they began shooting videos at the ages of 12 (Jack) and 8 (Turner). That experience helped put the Tenneys ahead of the curve when it came to the current era of Internet video content as a commodity. The world’s top esports streamer got his start as a bit player in his brother’s videos, which smack of Rob Dyrdek and “Jackass,” even though they weren’t allowed to watch the MTV show when they were growing up.

“It’s a group of friends trying have as much fun as possible all the time,” Jack said. “The first video got more views than people I knew, which blew my mind, and that was the start of it.”

Stickers thrown from the school bus during the parade. (Eve Edelheit for The Washington Post))

Conor Waldhauser, 11 poses for a photo with Jack Tenney. (Eve Edelheit for The Washington Post))

Stickers thrown from the school bus during the parade. (Eve Edelheit for The Washington Post) Conor Waldhauser, 11 poses for a photo with Jack Tenney. (Eve Edelheit for The Washington Post)

The experiences with his brother’s crew, called the Joog Squad (Joog is a local slang insult they appropriated) were so meaningful to Turner that he has a tattoo bearing the name.

“Growing up, I really didn’t have too many friends, just a few, but mainly I would hang out with my brother and his friends.” Turner said.

Though Jack thought his brother would do something directly related to the Squad, he said he has not been surprised by his success.

“He was always like the silent killer," Jack said. "We just always wondered when or how or why is Turner going to blow up?”

His early work with his brother well prepared him for his streaming star turn. Each one of these new streaming celebs blurs the lines between a YouTube personality, athlete and radio/talk show host, as they compete at the highest levels of their respective games, bantering back and forth with friends and commenters in a live online chat while they play.

The dynamic gives an aura of accessibility that is unprecedented for people with such a level of fame. To wit: A movie fan may see a favorite Hollywood actor on screen for a few hours annually, at best, plus some promotional interviews. Tfue bests that within a single day, typically streaming from noon until 9 p.m. — steadily building an audience all the while, particularly among the middle and high schoolers.

At a recent trip to a store, captured on YouTube, kids pointed at him, wide-eyed, and yelled “Tfue!” The same day as the Fortnite tournament, Jack and his friends drove the blue Fortnite bus in the Indian Rocks Beach Annual Holiday Street Parade. A mass of children darted over to it, literally dragging their parents in some cases, hoping to meet Tfue — who was practicing at home.

“The first video got more views than people I knew, which blew my mind and that was the start of it.”

Jack Tenney, about the beginning of his streaming career

And yet, neither the Holiday Inn receptionist nor the server at Jimmy Guana’s restaurant in Tenney’s hometown had heard of Tfue.

Asked if he considers himself a celebrity, he demurs at first.

“I guess, depending on who’s around,” he said.

As the division in recognition in his own hometown alludes, Tfue and his streaming peers are enjoying a new kind of fame. And while sports and screen stars can learn the lessons of their predecessors for most matters, with no blue print to follow, Tenney’s ascent has required some on-the-fly learning.

Tenney purchased a warehouse that he plans to use as a kind of educational camp for aspiring streamers. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)

Letters from 'Joogsquad' fans are taped on the wall Richard Tenney’s home. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)

Tfue prepares to play Fortnite in his home. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)

‘The kid was a rocket ship’

At the Tenney family home last month, Tfue’s blond dreadlocked older brother Jack watched the TV as comedian Kevin Hart sat in an ice bath and conducted an interview with Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, the video game streaming personality best known by the mainstream public. Tfue’s father, Richard, scoffed at the show and said Tfue could have had all the same opportunities Ninja has enjoyed to date — ESPN The Magazine covers, “Ellen” show appearances, lucrative sponsorships.

Blevins was also the first big-name streamer to sign an exclusivity deal, leaving Twitch for Microsoft’s Mixer platform last year. A number of other high-profile game streamers followed suit, some signing with Mixer, others with streaming platforms such as YouTube, Facebook Gaming or Caffeine. Tfue remains on Twitch, where he is now the most-watched streamer following Ninja’s departure, but he has not signed an exclusivity contract.

“We turned down deals,” Richard said in regards to potential streaming exclusivity offers. “Turner’s focused on streaming.”

Tfue and Ninja know each other but are not friends, Tenney said. "He doesn’t really like me too much, so I don’t associate with him. That’s always been his choice.”

Both wildly popular, there are some key differences between the world’s two top streamers. Compared to the more refined and corporate-approved Ninja, Tenney is more of the Rolling Stones to Blevins’s Beatles.

“I’m like Darth Vader and he’s like Anakin Skywalker,” he said, referring to Ninja. “He’s more of the child-friendly, nicer dude."

Being cast, comparatively, as the bad guy hasn’t hurt Tfue’s earning potential. In September, Tfue said he was offered $140,000 by EA just to play Madden in a sponsored stream.

Turner — who currently has no sponsors, according to his father — put it another way.

“I just like to be myself. I don’t want to act like something I’m not, even if it means it’s gonna get me more sponsors or like, get me on different shows or whatever. If people [want to work] with me then they do, you know?”

A sign in the warehouse advises guests of the rules. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)

Among the first who wanted to work with him was FaZe Clan, a prominent esports organization featuring a large stable of popular content creators based in Los Angeles. Tfue’s ascent began in earnest in late spring of 2018, when he signed with FaZe. At the time, Turner called it “a dream come true.” His view counts began to creep into six figures and beyond, along with a rapid uptick in subscribers on YouTube and Twitch, according to Social Blade. He moved to L.A., residing in FaZe Clan’s glitzy house in the Hollywood Hills. The ensuing summer would prove to be a social media windfall for him, as his accounts saw exponential growth.

Tfue credits his rise to a host of factors, including defeating the acclaimed Ninja in Fortnite match play, as well as earning shout outs from Dakotaz and DrLupo, both high-profile gamers with their own massive followings. He notably did not reference FaZe Clan.

Richard addressed the role FaZe had on his son’s rise directly.

“The kid was a rocket ship," Richard said. "Anybody could have jumped on.”

Tfue’s experience with FaZe Clan gained national attention last May after he broke his contract with the organization, claiming its exploitative nature and citing language in which FaZe could claim 80 percent of any sponsorship money brought in by Tenney. The move led to a discussion within the industry regarding fair contracts for players as well as the proper role of organizations vis-a-vis their players. The debate is ongoing, as is litigation between Tfue and FaZe Clan, even as Tfue continues to team up with some FaZe members for certain competitions and streams.

FaZe has claimed that they only made $60,000 off Tfue, a figure which he disputed.

“I know for sure they made a lot more money off me,” he said.

Turner added that another reason for leaving FaZe was to help other gamers, those with less prestige, to attain more rights and leverage. He also wanted to put himself in a better position to focus on his craft.

“L.A. gets old and you gotta kinda go back to your roots sometimes,” he said. “I was very stupid and dumb, but now I know a lot more about legal stuff. … I learned that I should not rush into things too quickly, even at a time when things are moving fast.”

There have been instances where moving, and speaking, unchecked has created controversy and raised character questions around Tenney. He was suspended by Twitch two times, once for using the word “coon,” a term with strong anti-black connotations, during a live stream. Tfue said in an online video he was using Southern slang for the animal, since his opponent’s character looked and played like a raccoon. Another Twitch ban was issued against him for unconfirmed reasons. He was not banned by Twitch after seemingly using a variation of n-word in a “Minecraft” stream last September. Fortnite publisher Epic Games also disciplined him for violating their end user agreement terms related to selling in-game merchandise.

Tenney has released videos addressing the controversy on Twitch, where he apologized. He took responsibility for his Epic ban in a separate video.

“Obviously there’s a few instances where I’ve said stupid things that I didn’t mean,” he said.

A sign the home of Richard Tenney. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)

Coming soon: Tfue Studios

Even as he is still enmeshed in the battle with FaZe, it appears Tfue is on the cusp of entering a new phase of his career. The Tenney family is working together to create a centralized hub of video game streaming, action sports, stunts, and other hijinks, where both Tenney boys will both create content and teach others how to level up as well.

“We just take Jack and Turner, put them in a building, and show these kids how to do it,” said Richard, before ripping a golf ball off the wall of the space, warning people to be aware of ricochets.

“We gonna bring ‘em in, get ‘em started. If you have two, three, five thousand [followers], you have a chance!” he exclaimed, referencing how many subscribers he believes are needed to catalyze large scale growth. To that end, Tfue bought an old, 16,000-square foot warehouse using revenue sharing proceeds from Fortnite, which he said is his biggest source of income. His total earnings have allowed him to purchase a home of his own, also in Indian Rocks Beach.

True to the family’s form, outside the warehouse there are mock-ups of “SpongeBob SquarePants” character homes, a destroyed car, and the big blue bus, which was Tfue’s first car.

The warehouse-based concept is partially based on Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory, featuring skate ramps, studio space, and other implements to cook up fun and drive business. The other part of the idea is to create a new kind of gaming or streaming org, where selected people will be taught fundamentals of how to grow their following. Richard also mentioned forthcoming online courses that would be available to everyone.

Tfue competes at the 2019 Fortnite World Cup. (Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images) (JOHANNES EISELE/JOHANNES EISELE)

In many ways, Turner is pioneering the culture, and expectations, of what it means to be a video game star: he spends most of his days indoors playing video games, but still experiences some anxiety, he loves surfing, fishing, skeet shooting and jumping off tall things.

But he’s quick to point out that he’s not trying to be a “nerd, inside” and instead hopes to “get gamers into working out.”

“Just because I have a lot of followers or more money than the average person doesn’t mean I’m going to be a different person. I’m just the old me doing the same s---,” he said.

On the morning of the Fortnite Champion Series tournament, Tfue had other, more pressing concerns. With just a few hours before the Chapter 2-Season 1 finals, his system wasn’t working. The world’s most watched player was on his hands and knees fiddling with one of his hard drives, trying to get it work right. Two dogs rushed in, followed by his girlfriend, who tried to shoo them out.

His team would place seventh, good for a prize of $5,625 per team member — a disappointing finish in both placement and payout, Tfue said.

A couple days later, just after the rooftop interview, Richard was rallying Jack and the Joog Squad for a fish taco run, with talk of a stop at local smoothie joint that hand-draws cheerful designs on its Styrofoam cups.

As Jack walked out the door, he discussed plans to catch the latest action at a surfing competition with his friends, film some new content, and then indulge in his hobby of digging for shark teeth later that night. Richard grinned as he shared a prank he was mulling, before turning to ask Tfue if he wanted to join them.

“I’m going to stream,” he said, walking into his childhood room and to an eager audience of thousands.

Tenney puts on his headset and prepares to stream. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)

Noah Smith is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and a docuseries TV producer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @VildeHaya.

Joe Moore

Joe Moore is the art director for Launcher, the Washington Post's home for coverage of video games and esports. He works throughout the newsroom on print and digital projects. He was previously the lead sports designer at The Boston Globe.