Sit in the chat of a streamer with an esports background and inevitably you’ll see the questions: “When are you going to compete again?” “Why don’t you join a team?” “Why don’t you start a team?”

The simple answer is that it takes time and costs money, and for streamers, spending the former competing means sacrificing opportunities to earn the latter. So it was a surprise when last summer, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, perhaps the most widely-known figure in streaming and, at his peak, the subject of a litany of mainstream “future of entertainment” articles, announced he would be fielding a team and competing in “Valorant,” a popular new shooter from developer Riot Games.

It wouldn’t last. On May 8, Blevins sent a group message to his teammates. His grandmother had passed away in late April, and some time away from “Valorant” had been clarifying. Blevins was vaccinated, and travel would surely soon resume for work. The obligations of celebrity, halted in part by the pandemic, were coming back. And for some time, Blevins had been shouldering a nagging guilt. His work, he thought, was dragging down the team. So for the good of the squad, he would vacate his spot on the roster.

Time In, as the team is now known, was hardly a runaway success. The team’s record is a vein of impressive victories streaking through a mass of bewildering, rock-bottom losses. But Time In was also a remarkable public experiment, a frank display of the challenges of balancing mainstream celebrity with the comparatively niche work of competing in a new esport.

Some on the team anticipated Blevins’s retirement for months. Now that it’s here, they’ll have to make do without him.

My co-worker, Ninja

Last summer, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Blevins’s foray into “Valorant” wasn’t entirely serious. Even the team’s name, then 100 Blifted, was a joke.

“Every time we would play a ranked game, Ninj would always say like, ’50 gifted, or 100 gifted if you clutch this,'” said Austin “Morgausse” Etue, a player on Time In, referring to subscriptions that can be purchased as a gift to viewers on Twitch. “And there was this one time that he said 100 gifted and I pulled off like, a 1v4 or a 1v5 or something like that. … He made a joke after, he was like 'Oh, did I say 100 gifted? I meant 100 blifted.”

The team ran with it.

Today, Etue is the only remaining member of the core trio that launched 100 Blifted, which included Ninja. (The third player, arguably the team’s founder, Michael “Sonii” Sherman, was booted after a vicious argument between him and Ninja spilled into public view). In 2018, a surprise win at the PAX West “Fortnite” Summer Skirmish landed Etue in the headlines: the 19-year-old netted $250,000 at the event. But two years after his big win, the game he had fallen in love with was grinding him down.

“Valorant” was a chance to try something new.

“I’ve always looked up to ‘Counter-Strike’ players. My whole life I watched Stewie2K, EliGE, all these big players pop off,” said Etue. “And so before [‘Valorant’] even came out, I was kind of dead set in my mind about switching. … I was always too scared to play “Counter-Strike” because all these guys have way more hours than me, I would never make it. I wanted to see, how would I face against these guys on a more even playing field with this new game?”

The only problem: Neither Blevins nor Etue had experience playing a tactical first-person shooter like “Valorant.” The genre takes some getting used to; precision is dramatically reduced when players move, requiring a more deliberate and patient approach to play. That’s where Alexander “LeX” Deily, a well-liked former “Counter-Strike” player and Gregory “Grego” McAllen, who had bounced from “Counter-Strike” to “Overwatch” to “Apex Legends,” slotted in.

“[Morg and Ninja] had absolutely no tactical experience whatsoever,” McAllen said. “They maybe loaded into a “Counter-Strike” game once or twice, but that was about it. So I knew it was going to be more of a project team, where we were going to build over time.”

Deily left the team soon after, but the sober, soft-spoken McAllen stuck around, becoming the team’s de facto leader. The role — teaching fast-talking “Fortnite” pros the comparatively glacial “Valorant” — forced him to excise certain phrases from his vocabulary.

“I was somebody who would use words like, ‘I think we should do this,’ you know what I mean?” McAllen said. “I had to really teach myself to be like, ‘We’re doing this, come here, do this now.’”

By all accounts, Blevins, who did not respond to a request for an interview, was an eager, energetic student. In an early expectation-setting conversation, Blevins promised McAllen that he wanted Time In to be more than just a “streamer team.” That commitment shone through in practice.

“He definitely wants to learn more than the average player,” said Kurtis “Kurt” Gallo, a current member of Time In. “He was just like, ‘Where can we go? What can I do? Can I learn any lineups? Come with me to do this.’ … It’s his passion project. He wanted to be a pro.”

He also rarely pulled rank. “I can’t stress that enough. He didn’t make himself special,” Gallo said. “He really made it clear that, ‘We’re equals on this. I want to grow with you guys.’”

But the squad couldn’t move forward on the strength of McAllen’s teaching alone. They needed a coach — and to find a good one, they’d have to pay. That’s when 100 Blifted got serious. If the coach was going to be paid, so would the players, and Blevins volunteered to support the team financially. Time In wasn’t the best team money could buy, but the money paid by Blevins was more than any of his teammates had ever made playing for professional organizations in the past.

“What I was getting in other games was criminal,” McAllen said. “I was severely underpaid in other games. It was absolutely ridiculous. It makes me mad to think about.”

The Time In players who spoke with The Post declined to specify their exact salaries, though Etue described it as “competitive” for the scene, somewhere in the range of $5,000 to $10,000 per month, according to the team’s members.

“I’ve been broke since I started [competing], pretty much,” McAllen said. “I had a period in ‘Overwatch’ where I got paid pretty decently by Cloud9 because we were doing really well and we negotiated for it, but it wasn’t like what we have right now. For me, it was definitely life-changing money.”

Putting the time in

As far back as three to four months before Blevins formally left, his teammates knew an exit was likely. The star was motived and energetic in practice, they said, but he’d also spend a lot of his free time grinding “League of Legends.” The “Valorant” meta had changed, and playing ranked games against strangers no longer felt rewarding. At its worst, it could be a tilting, demoralizing experience.

“He wasn’t enjoying ‘Valorant’ ranked, he wasn’t enjoying ‘Valorant’ in general,” Etue said. “He wasn’t saying that, but you could just kind of tell.”

A few hours after a particularly brutal loss, Blevins let the team know he would be leaving.

“He [posted] in our Time In Discord group channel, like, ‘Hey, boys, you guys have probably seen this coming,’” said Etue. “I’m really just not enjoying the game right now.”

The pandemic, paradoxically, gave the team a lease on life. With fewer in-person obligations and events, Blevins could focus his attention on competing. But eventually, Blevins would have to resume his streaming and content creation in earnest. It felt inevitable, but the wait was dreadful, said Etue.

“He canceled a lot of stuff to play,” Gallo said. “There were tons of networking things and a lot of deals that he had where he would just be like, ‘Listen, I can’t make this deal. I have a tournament today.’ Even if it was something as small as like $5,000, which — the money doesn’t mean anything to him, obviously — but like, he wanted to be there.”

For the next three months, Blevins will continue to support the team financially, according to Etue. Time In recently picked up a new player. With that slot filled, things will mostly continue as they did before: practice, scrims and competitions.

“I don’t think we’re going to be winning a tournament next week or anything like that,” McAllen said. “But I feel good about where we’re at.”

The players remain close with Blevins after his departure.

“On his first day, I was like, 'damn, I’m playing with Ninja?” Etue recalled. “I remember like two years ago when he was on TIME magazine. I was still living with my parents, and I saw him on my countertop. I was like, ‘What are you doing here Ninj?’ He was just doing all these big things. … [Now,] I truly can’t state how much of a brother he is to me.”

“I still snapchat Tyler every day for my Starbucks order. He does the same for me,” Gallo said. “We still talk quite literally every day.”

Time In is not a great team — at least not yet. They’re not the stewards of some strategy poised to take the scene by storm. They aren’t “game changers,” nor are they “mavericks.” Their story doesn’t align with the structure of a great sportswriting arc. For a while, they were mostly a team that happened to field one of the most visible celebrities in all of gaming. But when the schadenfreude that inevitably accompanies watching a celebrity fail lost its kick, what remained was a ragtag team of strivers, hearty with a miraculous new lease on life.

There’s just a bit more pressure now. When their three months of funding from Blevins are up, the team will likely have to find a new sponsor, or get picked up by an established organization.

“It’s kind of freeing now that it’s gone, now that it’s done and over with, because on one hand, I know Ninja’s happier,” Etue said. “And honestly, I think our team will level up as a whole because of it, because now that we don’t have the safety of Ninja our team, we really have to step it up. Personally, I’m motivated as hell to make him proud, you know, to rep the Time In brand.”

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