PITTSBURGH — After outrunning defensive backs through the first six weeks of the NFL season, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster spent his bye week eluding grenade launchers, machine-gun fire and the full cyber-arsenal at his opponents’ disposal in “Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.”
An avid video-gaming enthusiast, Smith-Schuster describes his favorite franchise, Call of Duty, as therapeutic, an off-hours respite from the grind of the NFL. Better still, it’s another way to connect with fans and extend his personal brand — something he has given a lot of thought to since declaring for the draft after his junior year at Southern California.
“[If] you take care of the stuff on the field,” says Smith-Schuster, who leads the Steelers with 42 catches for 561 yards, “then off the field, people love to know who you are. This is my hobby; this is what I love doing.”
Ideally, gaming will be Smith-Schuster’s second career after he retires from the NFL and can stream eight to 12 hours each day, like online megastar Ninja and others. For now, his gaming and streaming is primarily confined to six-hour blocks each Tuesday, NFL players’ day off during the season, or to special out-of-season events, such as the four-player stream he joined in March with Ninja and rappers Drake and Travis Scott that was both a personal thrill and a boon to his credibility in the gaming world.
“Streaming video games — I would love to do it full-time, but obviously it’s a part-time hobby because football is my number one priority,” Smith-Schuster says. “But for it to be full-time, I’d love to be part of that.”
In this regard, Smith-Schuster is a new-era NFL player who’s laying the foundation for his exit strategy while in the prime of his career. That could come in a few years (the average career of an NFL wide receiver is less than three years), or it could be a dozen years off, should he prove to be the next Larry Fitzgerald.
Either way, Smith-Schuster is shaking up norms for NFL players, peeling back the layers of his private life to show fans who he is via multiple social-media platforms. He’s not just on Twitter and Instagram, often with his 1-year-old French bulldog Boujee. Smith-Schuster has built a YouTube channel with more than 580,000 subscribers by posting videos of his Barcelona vacation, a summertime pool party and dog-park playtime. But the streaming of his Call of Duty sessions represents a deeper level of intimacy, inviting fans into his brain, in effect, as they follow along and critique his decision-making via chat in real time, without filter or audio delay.
“You want to connect with your fans on a more personal level, so I’m creating these videos that are 10 to 15 minutes long,” Smith-Schuster explains of his YouTube filming. “[Fans] want to know: ‘What are you doing at home in L.A.? How was your bye week? How are your teammates doing?’ They know about Instagram; they know about Twitter. But those platforms are not long enough to understand, on a more serious note, what is JuJu really about?”
That’s a radical departure for many NFL players, who have been schooled to sublimate their identity to that of the team. Their faces largely obscured by helmets, NFL players exist as positions more than people to many fans. They’re seen as jersey numbers, as cogs in service to a punishing game of blocking and tackling.
Smith-Schuster takes the field in his No. 19 jersey not only to play his position. He’s also there to entertain. And he approaches streaming the same way.
“When you play football, you want to see something like a trick play or something that is very exciting. You want to give the crowd something to be happy about,” he explains. “In video games, you want to give the crowd something exciting, too. That’s why [in ‘Black Ops 4,’ in which players parachute into a war zone to seek and destroy enemy combatants] the best thing to do is land where there’s a lot of people and try to get as many kills as possible. Give them something exciting. You want to give people what they want. They’re there to watch you stream, and they want to see a reaction.”
That’s what Tuesday afternoon was about at a downtown Pittsburgh hotel, where Smith-Schuster teamed with professional Call of Duty competitor FeLo, a lifelong Steelers fan, in an hour-long “Black Ops 4” session of Blackout Duos broadcast on the streaming platform Twitch. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose CEO, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.) FeLo’s given name is Tyler Johnson, and the 21-year-old represents part of what Smith-Schuster aspires to become.
A gamer since he was 10, Johnson hasn’t had to ask his parents for money since age 14. He now earns enough, from tournament winnings as well as subscriptions, to make a great living for his entire family, and last Christmas he bought his dad a BMW M3.
For would-be full-time streamers, cultivating a subscriber base requires consistent, daily gaming — as well as an engaging personality. Smith-Schuster has the latter but can’t do the former and play football at the same time.
That’s why even the most successful professional gamers don’t step away from their computers more than one day per week, eyeing any day or significant portion of a day when they’re not streaming as inviting fans to abandon them for a more compelling feed.
“Consistency builds the audience,” says Mike Rufail, a former professional Call of Duty player, as well as an esports coach and broadcast analyst who is now CEO of Dallas-based Team Envy.
For Tuesday’s live stream, the hotel’s converted gaming room is dimly lit, with an eerie orange glow created by a professional “stager” who arrived in advance to set the scene. Two large black leather chairs sit side by side, each facing its own game monitor, with a larger screen behind that displays live comments from fans.
Smith-Schuster dons headphones that gaming company HyperX pays him six figures to endorse, according to Forbes, and plays a few practice games with Johnson to work out the basics of communication, which is critical when competing as a team. Then the session launches for real, with the Blackout battle royal mode map spread out before them as they parachute in.
With Johnson choosing the landing spot, both scramble to find weapons and set out to locate enemy soldiers and zombies. Like a veteran NFL center, only more cheerful, Johnson calls out positions and tactics nonstop.
“You have to make sure you’re upbeat the whole time; you have to make sure you’re really positive,” Johnson explains before the session. “You’re a role model for a lot of these people, so you have to put a lot of energy into interacting, greeting your chat and being entertaining.”
That’s precisely what he and Smith-Schuster do between games. One fan wants an update on Boujee.
“Boujee’s great! He’s at home chillin’, being a good dog,” Smith-Schuster says.
Another asks, “Who’s the biggest gamer in the league?”
“Dude, right here!” Smith-Schuster answers, pointing at himself.
Toward the end of Smith-Schuster’s rookie season of 2017, some Steelers fans voiced concerns about the time he spent on video games, often playing until 2 a.m., arguing that he would produce more on the field if he focused exclusively on football. When asked about the beef Tuesday, this is his counter: “They don’t understand I’m only 21 years old, and I’m doing something that’s hard to do. I stay up late because that’s my choice. If I’m able to stay up late and play video games and still go out and perform, why should they be mad?”
Through a spokesman, the Steelers say they have no concerns about their young receiver’s gaming pursuits.
According to Smith-Schuster, video games have helped the Steelers' receiving corps bond. Holdout running back Le’Veon Bell is a big gamer, too, he notes, but no match for him.
“I’m for sure better than him,” he says with a broad smile.
But it’s tough to predict whether full-time gaming is a viable second act for this rising NFL star, whose 93.5 receiving yards per game rank sixth in the NFL entering Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns.
“Natural ability is not enough to make it to the very top; you have practice and train just as hard as other people are willing to train,” notes Rufail, who was known as the “CoD-father” for his Call of Duty prowess during his seven years as a pro. “There are plenty of people who are 6-feet-6 or 6-8, but if they play basketball once a week, they’re not going to be great.”
There’s no question, however, about Smith-Schuster’s marketability. He brings a ready-made following of Steelers fans to his streams. He’s naturally outgoing; he’s one of seven children, and he delights in making himself seen, heard and noticed. That alone is enough to make Rufail want to make him an honorary member of Team Envy, a perennial power in Call of Duty world championships.
But in the heat of “Black Ops 4” battle, business matters don’t matter.
Between blasts, Johnson dispenses tips on how to land faster upon deploying — something Ninja has mastered that gives him an edge. And together they solve problems: How do they open the weapons cache stuffed with accessories they need? Where can they get Level 3 armor? The trauma kit? Why can’t they find a helicopter?
They play for nearly an hour before getting a first win.
“Finally!” Johnson sighs, especially pleased that it was a “high kill” game. He had 14 kills; Smith-Schuster, six.
“Let’s keep rolling!” Smith-Schuster declares. “All gas! No brakes!”