A funny thing happened the other day. I was browsing around the comics in Forbidden Planet on my break, when I saw something called “Ninja: The Most Dangerous Game!”
The blurb was promising enough: “THE GAME IS REAL! THE STAKES ARE LIFE AND DEATH!”
The plot revolves around Tyler Blevins (better known as “Ninja”) receiving a magical controller and being sucked into a virtual world where he and his friends have to fight in the ultimate battle royal – but if you die, you die for real!!! (… shock of shocks).
For context, this post isn’t a look so much as story, so much as it is about exploring a brand, and how Gen Z is cross-pollinating our media.
To the uninitiated, “Ninja” is a video game streamer, and one of the best Fortnite players in the world – a Battle Royale last-man-standing video game that has become a global phenomenon. I wrote more about it here, if you’re curious. In fact, recently he even had skins put into the game.
Anyway, “Ninja” has found success by building a brand that gets millions of views daily and embodies a Gen Z social media celebrity. Making money through sponsorships, endorsements, and e-sports tournaments, he’s part of a new age of marketing and engagement – not only representing companies but building up an IP in the process, and using their platforms for causes.
Bigger influencers could originally sell merch or be sponsored as potential revenue streams beyond platforms like YouTube and Twitch. But now, we’re seeing a more transmedia approach; attempting to create a “narrative” instead of just a personality.
The question is, does it work?
THE INFLUENCER PLATFORM
Just to get the fundamentals out of the way, we first need to look at the influencer platform and how it differs from other methods of media engagement – buckle up.
For a market, it’s relatively new. Really, it only really took off in the mid-2010s with a rise of sponsorships, and even terminology like “Elite-Influencer,” “Major-Influencer,” and “Micro-Influencer” yielding different levels of engagement.
But one market which has dominated social media across tiers is gaming. Whether it’s a constant livestream via Twitch, or something more old-school like the more analytical Angry Video Game Nerd, it’s a medium which has seen a drastic rise in audience engagement these past years.
For Gen Z and Millennials, the appeal of the influencer comes from a feeling of authenticity and even intimacy. You can follow literally thousands of hours of your favourite personalities online, either playing a video game, talking about their lives, speaking directly to you. They almost become a friend as you embark on a personal journey together.
Compared to other stars and celebrities, it is this intimacy that can be better translated as “authenticity” when it comes to marketing. It’s one thing when a recognisable name like Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson is used to promote a soft drink. But it’s been shown to be more effective when it’s your perceived “friend” telling you to try a soft drink.
The influencer industry is worth about $10 billion industry as of today, but experts predict it could easily rise to $15 billion by 2022. Yet, we’re already seeing signs of change and evolution.
ARE THERE LIMITATIONS?
One of the interesting thing about influencers is that they often want to branch out into other lines of work. In Britain we have Joe Sugg (Thatcherjoe) who gained a following vlogging and blogging and has transitioned over to shows like Strictly Come Dancing and a West-End performance in Waitress.
In the states, controversial YouTuber Logan Paul has equally tried branching out into acting on YouTube Premium Originals like The Thinning series and Airplane Mode – although he’s more or less playing “himself” in these roles … albeit an exaggerated version.
Arguably the earliest video game YouTuber, James Rolfe (aka. The Angry Video Game Nerd) has also seen success branching out into directing and starring in AVGN: The Movie and getting his own video game off the ground.
The sky is supposedly the limit. But one of the things to note here is that there isn’t really a “narrative” to these personalities. The closest is arguably AVGN where the videos and reviews exist in a heightened reality of weird monsters, real-life video game glitches, and over-the-top reactions to mediocre retro media. Having a movie and game set in this exaggerated world isn’t the strangest thing out there.
But the difference is Rolfe plays a character; Ninja is his character. So, how the heck does a fantastical graphic novel series about a real-world gamer work?
CAN INFLUENCERS BUILD STORYWORLDS?
In asking this question, I don’t mean “can influencers write stories?” Anyone can pick up a pen and get writing!
No, this is a question about whether they can be integrated into storyworlds, which is what the goal of Ninja’s graphic novel (the first in a series) sets out to achieve … in a sense.
In the past real-world personalities have crossed over into more fantastical media – heck Marvel did an episode where the real-world SNL met The Avengers, and Scooby Doo was famous for meeting the Harlem Globetrotters.
However, this is a new era of media … and admittedly stranger.
For a start Ninja has already released a book – Get Good: My Ultimate Guide to Gaming which was a non-fictional guide to gaming. It’s fine for what it sets out to do.
But the new book is marketing itself more as a series (in fact, it says it’s the “First book of a series) which brings into question topics of narratives, beats, and branding.
Often when you have a real person in a fictional scenario it’s more for branding purposes than anything. Some can go onto be classics like Superman vs. Muhammed Ali but equally that wasn’t trying to be a “series” of stories – this is.
Without going too much into spoilers (not that there’s much to spoil,) this also feels like a branding attempt, but is almost too safe for what it’s trying to be.
Throughout the story Ninja and friends are put in a life and death Battle Royale scenario. They’re put into a video game, and it’s standard “die in the game, die in real life” rules. It’s OK as a plot, but it’s let down by its characterisation and writing.
It feels like it’s trying to be an exciting adventure, but I couldn’t stop thinking about other stories it’s lifting from. As a “character” Ninja is far too perfect, seemingly unstoppable and able to defeat just about every rival after calling them a “Noob”. Even for a life and death situation, it never feels like there are any stakes.
BUUUUUUUT, I am not the target demo. I reckon a ten-year old would love this. It has that same power-fantasy as something like Ben 10 or SHAZAM! where you have literally every power to beat bad guys. But this is also unique in that we haven’t really seen this with a real person before – at least, not where they’re the character sustaining a full series.
Looking at Ninja’s young fan base, it makes sense to depict him like a cool unstoppable video gamer for a graphic novel – it both sells his brand and makes a profit whilst doing so. Critically, it’s not the most compelling story, but it doesn’t set out to be. It’s simply a way to make an influencer look cool.
Then I got thinking about limitations again, and more importantly potential.
THE INFLUENCER HERO’S JOURNEY?
For me, the limitation is mitigating brand and character.
Ninja doesn’t have a hero’s journey to go on; he’s already “The Ultimate Gamer.” If he were in 1989’s The Wizard he would have been the rival kid with the power glove.
No, instead he is selling his brand at the cost of story. He’s already the coolest of his supporting friends, he can already beat his enemies, and he doesn’t need to second guess – there is no struggle, and there is no journey as a result.
That’s not to say that the real-life Tyler Blevins hasn’t gone through his share of hardship. I reckon when we do get to his eventual biography, there’ll be more interesting details there. But most importantly, I suspect we’ll see more of these graphic novels or tie-in material crop up with a new wave of influencer, which is why I wanted to tackle this topic now.
It could be a lucrative market to transform influencers into characters in the future, but it may only endure with a compelling story. There’s nothing that this story offers that hasn’t been done better in other explicitly-fictional media.
The challenge is creating compelling struggles and challenges for their personal hero’s journey. Once that is cracked, then the sky’s the limit.
But did Ninja: The Most Dangerous Game work? As a narrative, not especially. As a promotional tool for young audiences, absolutely.
Of course, we’ll have to wait and see what happens when Vol 2 comes out … noob.