Tyler “Ninja” Blevins is the most popular face on Twitch. Even if you're a non-gamer, chances are you’ve heard his name, at the very least. It’s impossible to escape his influence, as he continues to rack up new sponsorships and opportunities, such as playing games with rapper Drake and being the center of several massive tournaments for charity with millions of dollars on the line.
There’s just one peculiar thing about Ninja that seems a little bizarre: He doesn’t invite women to play with him on his streams.
He made this abundantly clear when speaking to Polygon at Samsung Unpacked 2018, a recent event during which Epic Games finally debuted the Android version of Fortnite, its massively popular battle royale game.
“I don’t play with female gamers,” he said, leaving no room for interpretation on the matter. At first, it sounds like a rash, boyish decision with no legitimate rationale behind it. But there's a very frustrating reason behind his decision.
“If I have one conversation with one female streamer where we’re playing with one another, and even if there’s a hint of flirting, that is going to be taken and going to be put on every single video and be clickbait forever,” he explained further, clarifying his position.
He's not wrong, unfortunately, as people will run with any indication that their favorite online personalities are in a relationship (as if that were the single most interesting fact about anyone on the internet or in real life: who they're spending their time with). People will take the subtlest intonations, the dumbest comments, and the most seemingly insignificant of interactions and plaster them all over YouTube with monetized videos in an attempt to cash in on some of that sweet, sweet traffic they're so desperately seeking. They'll obsess over it. It's unhealthy, and frankly terrifying that people behave this way, but that's par for the course when it comes to the way women are treated far too often in the gaming industry.
As Polygon notes, when female streamer Imane "Pokimane" Anys began playing Fortnite with Ali "Myth" Kabbani, it opened the floodgates for fans to speculate whether the two were an item simply based on their mutual streams.
According to Blevins, this was a decision he made of his own accord, without the influence of his wife and manager Jessica "JGhosty" Blevins. “That was not even her. She had nothing to do with it. That was me being, ‘I love our relationship,’ and, ‘No — I’m not even gonna put you through that.’”
To hear Blevins tell it, his decision isn't about him looking to shut out his female fans, but rather quell any potential of rumors that could damage his marriage or spark rumors. Blevins is welcome to dedicate time on his platform to who he wishes, and it's difficult to blame him for making the decision to protect the bond he has with his wife. These situations can and do crop up, and it's on Blevins to decide whether or not he wants to contend with them.
The issue here goes much, much further beyond that. This is more than a Ninja problem. It’s a problem deeply ingrained with the industry and society alike. Too often, when members of the opposite sex have great chemistry or appear in some capacity together on a project, there’s always some sort of assumption that there’s a romantic component involved.
With Blevins' ridiculously large platform of over 10 million viewers, it's disappointing that, due to bigger issues within the community, women can't have the same opportunities to game with Blevins as other male streamers and celebrities. When you get that popular, you've got to protect yourself and your loved ones in some way, even if it means potentially angering another segment of your fanbase, and this is Blevins' way of doing just that, as frustrating as it may be.
When women are often scrutinized over every single decision they make when it comes to streaming their favorite games, up to and including what they wear and what they play (as well as how they play it), it's easy to see why excluding them from the platform will ultimately lead to less heartbreak, though. To hear Blevins tell it, he hasn't had any negative responses to his decision. “I honestly think that [...] it’s just kinda like a respect thing,” he told Polygon.
While Blevins believes this is a "respect" thing, it's also likely owed to the very same fear women have that he spoke on: becoming the epicenter of rumors. These are the same kinds of rumors that could spiral out of control and lead to harassment campaigns from hardcore fans, and the same kinds that end up pushing women off of social media platforms entirely. It is, more than anything else, a stark reminder that, when it comes to equality within the industry and society, we’ve still got plenty of work to do.
Don't blame Ninja, though – blame systemic sexism within the industry. Change has to start with us as individuals, so if you want to see this sort of behavior curbed, we're all going to have to work on it together.