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How pro gaming became a path to fame, and what it reveals about Gen Z marketing

January 1, 2019
Leigh Admirand

Leigh Admirand

SVP, Reach3 Insights

This evolving definition of celebrity emerged as a major theme in a recent study conducted by Reach3 Insights.

In the past, you had to take specific paths to gain fame. You had to be a singer, a band member or an actor and use mainstream media to reach as many people as possible. Household names like Elvis, Britney Spears and Beyoncé became celebrities by taking these paths.

The rise of social networks opened new channels to gain thousands of fans, but for the most part, music and acting remained the two main paths to becoming major celebrities. Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Alessia Cara and Crazy Rich Asians’ Awkwafina took this route to fame.

But more recently, new paths have emerged. Today, you don’t need to know how to sing or act to amass thousands of fans, earn millions of dollars and even become a household name. You can be an Instagram influencer, for instance, and earn as much as $18,000 USD per post by partnering with brands. Many YouTubers who don’t act or sing earn a decent living by vlogging about their daily lives.

Perhaps one of the more unusual ways of becoming a celebrity today is by becoming a gamer. Just this month, it was revealed that the streamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins is set to become the first esports player to be featured on the cover of ESPN Magazine. Ninja, it’s worth noting, makes a not-too-shabby $500,000 a month exclusively from gaming.

This evolving definition of celebrity—and the rise of streamers in particular—emerged as a major theme in a recent study conducted by Reach3 Insights and Rival Technologies on our Gamer Community. Our study examined the attitudes, behaviors and expectations of Gen Z players towards the online multiplayer game Fortnite.

In the process, we engaged more than 900 players, collected hundreds of selfie videos and images, and uncovered interesting insights on the increasing influence of streamers and its implications for companies marketing to younger consumers. We recruited our Gamer Community by partnering with TheSquatingDog, a streamer celebrity, who posted an invitation to his followers via Instagram.

Just as Influential as Mainstream Celebrities

If you don’t take the popularity of streamers seriously yet, it may be time to change that. A majority of Gen Z players we chatted with said they consider famous Fornite streamers as being on the same level as “normal” celebrities like Steph Curry, Cardi B or Ariana Grande. Additionally, 45% selected a streamer (Ninja, NICKMERCS, dakotaz) as their fave over Steph, The Rock or other celebs.

The lesson here is that popular names within a smaller enthusiast group (video game streaming, geek or comic icons, etc.) can hold as much sway as more mainstream celebrities. If your brand is planning on working with celebrities, you might want to look beyond mainstream names and go narrower. Working with niche stars may be more cost-effective. And since they are seen as experts by their followers, online influencers can be just as influential within your target audience.

Look Beyond Numbers

When brands look for influencers to work with, they often look at subscriber or follower numbers. This is a good starting point, but the number of subscribers someone has doesn’t tell the full story.

Depending on the platform, a person’s subscriber number may or may not be meaningful. On YouTube, for instance, when people subscribe, it makes it more likely and easier for the viewer to see that person’s content in the future, but the content-creator doesn’t get compensated for simply having a new subscriber. Since there’s no cost or barrier, anyone can click that subscribe button on YouTube on a whim even if they might not actually ever come back to that creator’s channel.

In contrast, on Twitch, subscribing is an actual monetary transaction that costs $5 and the streamer earns a portion of that. The subscriber number on Twitch is a lot more meaningful that way—it’s not merely a popularity and visibility stat but an actual source of income and more of a commitment from the subscriber.

In our study, we found that most Gen Z players simply subscribe to the streamer’s channel or just watch, but they don’t do any other interaction. Direct sales of the streamer’s own merch or straight monetary donations from viewers are unlikely. And while the players we spoke to stated they aren’t likely to check out a streamer’s sponsors, there’s still merit to viewers seeing these brands on-stream to increase their exposure. Many top brands agree as most top streamers are sponsored by major brands such as Doritos, Intel and Gillette.

Engage a sample of your Gen Z audience to better understand which celebrities or online personalities have influence beyond simple name recognition.

That said, if you are looking to work with streamers as potential partners or spokespeople, you have to do more in-depth research to understand the true influence of a streamer. Engage a sample of your Gen Z audience to better understand which celebrities or online personalities have influence beyond simple name recognition. There should also be a connection between the influencer’s expertise and your offering, so talk to your target audience first to determine fit.

Sharing Their Own Content

It’s no secret that the line between audience and content-creator has disappeared, and this is reflected in our findings. Modern game consoles make this easier than ever, with “share” buttons having a dedicated spot right on the controller. We found that while Gen Z players do watch popular streamers, they themselves create their own content. One in five players said they also post their Fortnite videos on YouTube, even the young teen Gen Zers.

So why YouTube? For one, the barrier to entry is low. It’s free and easy to access, not to mention top of mind as the most popular video streaming platform in general. Both regular players and more established streamers constantly upload videos of gameplay, highlight reels and clips of top plays.

Overall, Fortnite has done well creating a whole meme culture. Partly this is due to the playful nature of the game’s design and skins, but also because there’s always something interesting happening in the game. Every week or two, players can expect small changes to happen, and every month, there is usually a moderate change or event. These changes drive online chatter and excitement for the game.

The strong rivalry between top players also helps fuel people’s enthusiasm for sharing content. Not only do Fortnite players want to one-up each other—when they win, they want to brag about it by posting videos online. It’s a big deal to them when they manage to be the 1 winner out of 100 players.

Think about ways of enabling customers to share their own content about your product online

As a brand, you might want to think about ways of enabling customers to share their own content about your product online. Your regular customers may not have the reach and influence of celebrities, but they can help create word of mouth online, which is still valuable marketing.


In a way, digital technologies have democratized the concept of celebrity. It opened more paths for people to become famous, and it gave audiences a way to find influencers in their own tribes, no matter how niche. Gen Z consumers, as the first true digital natives, are both experiencing and helping shape this evolving definition of celebrities. And if your company wants to resonate with these young audiences, it’s important to keep up.

Leigh Admirand
Leigh Admirand

SVP, Reach3 Insights

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