Ben Lupo sat in his basement in Omaha, Nebraska, one recent afternoon, trying to kill a brigade of heavily armed Russians before they killed him.
“I’m getting shot at already, dog,” he said into a headset, as the sound of machine guns echoed in the air. “So, this is not cool.”
Moments later, the Russians had cornered and finished him off — also not cool. It was a grisly end to an ill-fated campaign in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, a first-person shooter video game set in the fictional country of Urzikstan.
Lupo did not stew over his demise. He didn’t have time. About 13,000 people were watching him live on Twitch, the streaming platform where hordes of fans can pay to follow the best online gamers in the business. Few attract bigger crowds than Lupo, and since the coronavirus began forcing people to shelter in place, his crowds have only grown. He estimates that his viewership is up 25 percent to 30 percent.
“I feel,” he said in an interview, “like I’ve been preparing for this moment my whole life.”
It’s hard to think of a job title more pandemic-proof than “superstar livestreamer.” While the coronavirus has upended the working lives of hundreds of millions of people, Dr. Lupo, as he’s known to acolytes, has a basically unaltered routine. He has the same seven-second commute down a flight of stairs. He sits in the same seat, before the same configuration of lights, cameras and monitors. He keeps the same marathon hours, starting every morning at 8.
Social distancing? He’s been doing that since he went pro, 3 years ago.
For 11 hours a day, 6 days a week, he sits alone, hunting and being hunted on games like Call of Duty and Fortnite. With offline spectator sports canceled, he and other well-known gamers currently offer one of the only live contests that meet the standards of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Viewership numbers on Twitch leaped 31 percent from March 8 to March 22, according to Arsenal.gg, a data analytics firm. (By then, one in 4 Americans was under shelter-in-place orders.) During that two-week span, the number of hours a day watched on Twitch rose to 43 million from 33 million.
“Livestreaming and online video games are the only sports we can watch, right?” said Doron Nir, the chief executive of StreamElements, a company that provides tools and services to streamers. “This is a huge moment of validation.”
Lupo and his peers were having the best financial year of their lives even before COVID-19 struck. Three of the biggest tech companies in the world — Microsoft, Facebook and Google — have been trying to raise the profile of their online gaming platforms: Mixer, Facebook Gaming and YouTube Gaming, respectively. Their goal is to catch up with Amazon, which owns Twitch and roughly 70 percent of online gaming viewership.
All 4 of these giants have embraced the same strategy that keeps LeBron James in Nike sneakers: sign superstars to huge, exclusive contracts.
“You’ve got the biggest tech companies in the world competing for the top talent to stream exclusively on their platform,” said Rod Breslau, who helped start the e-sports section of ESPN’s site. “That gives the talent agency that works for a guy like Lupo a huge amount of leverage to negotiate.”
In December, Breslau said, Twitch signed Lupo and two other streaming stars to multiyear deals worth millions. It was a counterattack of sorts. Over the summer, Tyler Blevins, who plays under the name Ninja and is widely considered one of the best Fortnite players in the world, left Twitch for Mixer in a multiyear deal reportedly worth as much as $30 million.
These are sums that may startle the uninitiated. But Lupo and Blevins are celebrities in a gaming industry that generates more than $150 billion a year in revenue, according to Newzoo, a gaming analytics company — more than double the global film and music industries combined.
Marquee professional athletes from the worlds of basketball, baseball and football are about to jump into this fray. Josh Swartz, an executive at Popdog, which owns a talent agency for gamers, said he is preparing deals on behalf of stars of Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League, many of whom are part-time gamers.
“My phone is ringing off the hook with sports agents saying, ‘My guy plays Call of Duty,’ or ‘My guy plays Fortnite.’” he said. “These athletes are just stuck at home. In a lot of cases, they are going to end up with their own streaming channel,” watched by thousands of fans eager to interact with their heroes.
Lupo says he rose to the top of the crowded, highly competitive live-gaming pile through luck. Five years ago, he was an information technology specialist at an insurance company and started livestreaming part-time on a game called Destiny. At first, eight people watched, but the audience grew quickly. Lupo has top-notch skills, the warm, authoritative voice of a drive-time radio DJ and a gift for wry wit, even when mortally wounded.
“Why would I need to practice?” he asked viewers, after losing that Call of Duty game. “I’m a god. I’m insane. Look at my body, dude.”
What truly launched Lupo was a perfectly tossed virtual grenade. He lobbed it at Blevins while the two faced off in a first-person shooter called PUBG. A video of the encounter shows a stupefied look on Blevins’ face, displayed in a corner of the screen, which gradually segues into laughter and delight, as the death of his avatar sinks in.
“We hit it off immediately,” said Lupo. “We were like brothers, and people liked watching that friendship grow.”
Around this time, Fortnite made its debut and became a cultural phenomenon. Lupo and Blevins started teaming up to play against others. (Each game starts with 100 players). Blevins later asked Lupo to serve as a play-by-play commentator during a Fortnite event at the Luxor Resort and Casino in Vegas.
“About 300,000 people watched live,” Lupo said. “And a couple million more watched later.”
Lupo spends each day with an overhead camera pointed at his hands, another camera pointed at the side of his face and a display of what he sees on the screen. Most of the time, he controls an avatar who is both running for his life and in the midst of a frantic killing spree. He and his online teammates — he usually has a few, whom he talks to through a headset — scramble at breakneck speed, defusing bombs, sniping at enemies and hurtling over landscapes in hijacked trucks. It seems the opposite of relaxing.
Lupo’s fan base is riveted. It skews older than the average Twitch gaming channel. He is married — his wife, Samantha, is his manager — and has a 4-year-old son. His biggest supporters tend to hail from a similar demographic.
“He became a dad a couple months after I did,” said Nick Kallner, 34, who lives near Albany and has been watching Lupo since his Destiny days. “I have the sense watching him that he’s a dad like me, a real-world guy. Plus, he’s funny.”
And while Lupo is fluent in the language of bro-speak, his devotees include plenty of women.
“What cemented it for me is how he built a respectful community,” said Lindsey Hladik, who lives in Orlando, Florida. “As a woman, you get a lot of harassment, people casually throwing off offensive terms, and he’s always good about shutting down that kind of behavior.”
Hladik, 34, is a manager at an e-commerce site and has been working from home for the last three weeks. Lupo’s channel plays in the background, all day, every day.
“It’s like having the TV on,” she said.
The difference is that the star of this show performs for hours on end. Keeping energy levels up is just one of Lupo’s challenges. On a few occasions over the years, pranksters have sicced the police on him, calling the authorities and claiming that some horrible crime was unfolding at his house — a toxic gag known as “swatting.” That has made it uncomfortable when fans knock on his door to introduce themselves. In the moment, Lupo can’t help but imagine worst-case scenarios.
Even when there’s just peace and quiet, he spends most of his waking hours in a windowless room. It would be a grim existence, he said, if he didn’t love video games and performing before an audience that keeps growing.
“People are finding ways to distract themselves a bit from what’s going on in the outside world,” he said. “If I’m helping, that’s fantastic.”