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Ninja takes Manhattan: Times Square stream puts Fortnite spin on New Year’s tradition

Tyler "Ninja" Blevins looks out over Times Square in Manhattan, where he will broadcast a live stream of himself playing Fortnite on New Year's Eve. (Ben Strauss/The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — High above Times Square — on the roof of One Times Square, in fact — Tyler “Ninja” Blevins was filming a promotional video. His shock of red hair was set against the shimmering glass of the skyscrapers that rose around him, and he stared into a camera.

“I’ll be back here at 4 p.m. on New Year’s Eve,” he said. “Get your floss pants ready!”

The lights of Times Square flashed all around him, the sounds of traffic filtered up, and Blevins danced the pon pon.

On New Year’s Eve, Blevins — who is famous neither for flossing nor the pon pon, both dance moves, but for playing the video game Fortnite — will host a 12-hour rocking party from the famous setting in the grand old tradition of Dick Clark.

For millions of Americans, there is no more quintessential New Year’s celebration than the ball drop in Times Square, its place in Americana secured by Clark, a cultural icon in his own right, who emceed the event on ABC from 1974 to 2012.

This year, as the final seconds of 2018 count down, Blevins — or Ninja, as the 27-year-old is better known — will be streaming from the third floor of the Paramount Building, not far from TV network hosts Anderson Cooper and Ryan Seacrest, a new voice ringing in the new year — though most of those watching Blevins will be too young to pop champagne.

In many ways, it will be a fitting end to a year in which video gaming has grown far beyond a niche curiosity. Fortnite — the 100-player, last-person-standing survival game that boasts more than 200 million users worldwide — has felt less like a video game and more like a phenomenon. The glitterati of the sports and music worlds play, parents worry about their “addicted” children, and the New Yorker has devoted thousands of words to understanding it all.

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The biggest star of this world is Blevins, who normally plays for 10 hours every day and earns somewhere near $500,000 each month through sponsorships and subscription fees. He broadcasts every minute of it on Twitch, the live-streaming platform owned by Amazon. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“It’s a new era of gaming,” Blevins said. “And a new era of New Year’s Eve.”

A year ago, Blevins hosted a New Year’s Eve party at the house he was renting in suburban Chicago for a few family members and close friends. “It was supposed to be fancy-pants party; we all dressed up,” he said.

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He had been streaming for seven years and had recently made his first million dollars, so it was meant to be a celebration. Blevins and his wife, Jess, served cocktail weenies, and a friend brought homemade meatballs.

“I guess maybe it wasn’t that fancy,” he said with a shrug.

This year, as Fortnite swept the world, Blevins blew up. In March, he played Fortnite with rap star Drake and set streaming viewership records; he was on the cover of ESPN the Magazine; 12-year-olds were recently camped out at his New York City hotel, looking for pictures and autographs.

The night before his promo shoot with the famous Times Square ball, he was a guest on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

“Why would you want to watch someone play a video game?” Fallon asked.

“Why would you want to watch the best of the best play football, soccer?” Blevins shot back.

The numbers back him up. Blevins has the most-watched channel on Twitch with nearly 13 million followers, and he has another 20 million subscribers to his YouTube channel. There are an additional 12 million followers on Instagram and nearly 4 million on Twitter.

Blevins is most popular among teenagers. Half his Twitch viewers are ages 18 to 24, and 30 percent are between 13 and 18. He recently did live color commentary on his channel of the NFL’s “Thursday Night Football” stream, in an effort to help the league reach younger fans.

Manhattan, though, remains somewhat of a novelty. Before his recent visit, Blevins had been to Times Square just once. “I love the lights, man, the action,” he said, as a black SUV drove him down Broadway. “It’s futuristic.”

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“I brake for antioxidants!” he said, reading the tag line for a juice drink off a billboard. “Pom!”

So what will happen on New Year’s Eve? Just as on the traditional network TV broadcasts, special guests will show up and hang with Blevins. He wouldn’t share names, but there will be lots of Fortnite.

“It could be anything, because it’s Fortnite,” Blevins said. “Like when lightning struck the middle of the desert, and a dark evil cube formed. It was just crushing people. You know, stuff like that.”

He added, “And we will definitely do something with the ball.”

The ball-dropping in Times Square has evolved over the years. More than a century ago, bricks were launched in the air by revelers. The ball dropped for the first time in 1907, a somewhat safer pursuit.

Guy Lombardo, the famous bandstand leader, was the first celebrity to popularize a nationwide broadcast, on the radio and then on TV. By the 1970s, Clark was turning New Year’s Eve in Times Square into a cultural institution for a new generation.

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Now, some 180 million people will see coverage of the ball around the world (Blevins hopes for 1 million live viewers on his stream at midnight on the East Coast), and a host of channels will broadcast live from Times Square, including Mexican station TV Azteca.

Cooper, who will host CNN’s telecast, said that he watched the Times Square event every year as a kid. A cold December night, he said, is made for television.

“I agreed to work on New Year’s Eve because I’d never actually had a fun time going out on New Year’s,” he wrote in an email. But that seminal moment — Times Square, countdown, ball drop — is unforgettable to Cooper. “The confetti is thick as snow. And ‘What A Wonderful World’ … is playing over the loudspeakers. I love that moment.”

Blevins didn’t necessarily grow up enamored with Clark in the same way.

“My parents watched Dick Clark when I was a kid, while I played video games in the basement,” he said.

But, he added: “It’s New Year’s Eve in Times Square. It’s culturally bigger here. And the ball is awesome.”

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