This August, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins explained that he avoids streaming with women to protect the relationship with his wife. The admission kicked off a conversation about the gender divide on Twitch.
In an interview with Polygon, Blevins made clear that he didn’t want to give gossip vlogs or trolls additional ammunition to use against him and his wife, Jessica. Not casting with women is the easiest way to ensure those rumors don’t spark, he said, prompting streamers, analysts, reporters and YouTube creators to discuss why. Intentionally or not, Blevins’ comments became talking points for some of the biggest issues Twitch faces: a rift between streamers of differing gender, power struggles and women’s general mistreatment.
Not in the conversation, however, were streamers who do play with the opposite sex, a regular occurrence on Twitch. Some of these streamers are married; others are single. Some are well-known within their community and incredibly popular on Twitch; others are just getting started. All the variation means our biggest question isn’t an easy one: Why do some streamers choose to cast with people of the opposite sex, while others refuse?
Responsibility. Friendship. Change. Unification. Those were some of the words several of the streamers we spoke to used when responding to the question.
The answers seem simple, but co-ed streaming isn’t.
Streamers, the accidental reality stars
It’s important to note that Blevins does host women on his Twitch channel, even if he won’t play with them on air. When he’s not actively streaming, anyone who lands on his page will tune in to another streamer’s channel that he’s decided to focus on. He just doesn’t actively stream with women, and that’s where the critiques come in.
David “Grand POOBear” Hunt is a streamer best known for his Super Mario Maker speedruns, in which he challenges himself to complete some of the hardest levels created by players in record time. Though he isn’t close to Blevins’ level of fame, he isn’t a newcomer to the scene either, with more than 125,000 followers on Twitch, nearly 120,000 subscribers on YouTube, and close to 30,000 followers on Twitter. Hunt started streaming a few years ago after a near-fatal snowboarding accident, and now streams full-time.
Streaming is Hunt’s career, but he also leads an active personal and social life. He’s married and preparing for his first child; family remains his first priority. But that doesn’t discount the demands of professional streaming. One of the reasons Hunt’s channel is popular is because he often streams with women. Most are friends, and other streamers are talented gamers he wants to partner with for a playthrough.
Hunt, like other streamers in the community, paid close attention to Blevins’ comments and the conversation that played out after. There were parts of Blevins’ statement he could empathize with, especially as a devoted husband, but Hunt also took issue with Blevins’ main reason for refusing to stream with women. He told Polygon that it’s an immensely difficult situation to be in.
“I get where he’s coming from,” Hunt said. “I’m disappointed that that’s something someone would even have to think about. That’s not just a Twitch thing. Our vice president, Mike Pence, said the same thing essentially, which is insane to me. That is an insane notion to me that you can’t be alone with a woman. And if someone’s feeling that way because of outside pressure or inside pressure, I think that sucks. I just feel like that generally sucks.”
Streaming with women wasn’t a conscious decision for Hunt. He “streams with whoever’s gaming,” he said, adding that, sometimes, that happens to be women. That doesn’t mean Hunt’s oblivious to the conversations and politics that often affect Twitch, but he’s also aware of the platform’s ability to incite change.
“I really think it’s important that Twitch does help promote marginalized people in all sorts of fashion,” Hunt said. “Women, people of different races, ethnicities, sexual backgrounds … I do think that is important. I stream with women because they’re my friends who I want to game with on that particular day.”
Since Hunt is well known and streams with the opposite sex, he encounters the same moments that Blevins fears. People have created videos about the women he streams with, examining their relationship and spinning rumors. The scrutiny is hard, he admitted, but a video someone posts on YouTube or comments in chat won’t convince him to quit streaming with women.
“I’m with my wife all the time. I’m around her 24/7,” Hunt said. “I stream from home, she works in my business, so she’s here all the time. There’s literally no time for me to ever do anything. She’s pregnant right now, too, so we don’t even go anywhere without each other at the moment. [The gossip] doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t worry me.”
That being said, Hunt admits he’s not at the same level of fame as Blevins, who has “9 billion videos being made for everything” he does. His fanbase — both of theirs — will only continue to grow, and so too will Twitch’s prominence. With a platform based on obliterating the fourth wall, viewers’ obsessions with their favorite casters’ personal lives aren’t going anywhere.
“When you spend eight hours talking and interacting and eating — I know that sounds weird, but you share meals — that’s how you get to know people,” Hunt said. “You share meals and, a lot of times, you’re sitting there eating, hanging out and watching YouTube videos. It’s the same thing you would do kicking it with your friend. It’s really weird. People are always going to be interested in streamers’ lives even more so than like an actor to some degree. Your life is your product. I get that [gossip culture] is only going to become bigger for us.”
Women face the rumors, too
The catapult effect of streamer fame goes under-discussed, says Jane, a streamer with more than 100,000 followers on Twitch who asked to remain anonymous to protect her from backlash. It’s especially true when it comes down to someone like Blevins, who she says is made out to be a villain when that’s simply not the case.
“The channels that have focused on personal lives of YouTubers [...] that’s not new,” Jane said. Streamers are now the celebrities. There is such a real connection that’s to be had there. Streamers and content creators don’t have PR training. A lot of them forget the weight their words actually can have.”
Jane’s gone through parts of this herself, and took action to ensure she didn’t end up in a position where her personal life could become the subject of hungry gossip vlogs on YouTube. She hid a relationship with another prominent creator for years, even lying about their whereabouts to ensure no one could piece together that they were dating.
“If we were in the same place at the same time, one of us would agree not to take pictures so that people couldn’t see we were together because we didn’t want to be on those shows,” Jane said. “It was a very real part of my life for a long time. I didn’t want to end up on those [shows] because I just didn’t want to my life to be surrounded in controversy. I already lead this complex, very public life. I don’t need to add to it, and be like the flavor of the day for whatever show is going on.”
As Twitch’s audience base grows, so does the hunger for streamer gossip. In a tweet commenting on Polygon’s interview with Blevins, Omeed Dariani, the CEO of Online Performers Group and an expert on Twitch culture, said Blevins’ comments and the conversation surrounding them were evidence that streamers weren’t prepared for the impending YouTube tabloid community.
“This hasn’t even started yet,” Dariani tweeted. “I’ve seen paparazzi waiting at an airport just trying to get a photo of Robert Redford walking to his car. Seen them waiting outside of clubs in Cannes — inside when they can manage it. Seven figure offers for information. Spies. Hacking. We aren’t ready yet, [and we] can’t stop the tide. We need to give [Twitch] celebrities access to the same toolboxes used by athletes, actors, etc. Professional PR teams to manage the message, media training so performers know what to say (and what not to).”
Jared and Tiffany are co-hosts on a popular Twitch show called Up Down Left Die. They’ve been friends for almost a decade, and bonded while attending college together. They didn’t start streaming until a few years ago, and while they’re just friends, that hasn’t stopped people in chat or in real life during fan meetups from asking about their relationship.
“They’ve asked us in chat, ‘Are you guys together? Are you dating? Are you married? When’s the wedding?,’” Tiffany said. “We’ve gotten some of those, and we just were pretty upfront about it.”
“I don’t blame them for asking that question,” Jared added. “The only other few streamers that I see that are actual duos and that are male and female, I find most of them are dating or married or something like that. So I understand that approach. There was one kid who came in and kept saying, “Kiss,” and I was like, all right, let’s time that person out. They’re just coming in here to kind of troll and harass. I don’t sweat it. Our mods handle it really well.”
Jared and Tiffany understand they can’t stop fans from ’shipping them, nor do they blame their viewers for doing so. Part of the reason they’re successful is because of their dynamic, Tiffany said.
The questions — and potential rumors — don’t stop Tiffany and Jared from playing together. Although it’s challenging to imagine what Blevins is going through, Tiffany said it was disappointing and hard to hear him speak about not wanting to play with women because of his marriage.
“We’re not married, so it’s hard for me to really see his position,” Tiffany said. “But this industry can be so toxic towards female streamers. For me to hear [those comments] from someone who does have a really, really big influence — especially since his audience is a lot younger — I feel like it’s a little bit harmful. I understand where he’s coming from in terms of wanting to protect his own personal life, but I think sometimes people don’t really think of the repercussions that take place on a bigger scale. I’m a minority. I’m female. I take that stuff to heart. I just wish he didn’t say it. That’s his position, and if he’s not going to change his mind, I kind of wish he never said it at all. He’s not aware of the harm that his words can say.
“It does feel like he is perpetuating the idea it’s okay to block female players out of this industry.”
Deciding to stream with women
Other streamers say they see both sides of the argument, even if they, too, are open to streaming with women. Miki is a popular streamer with more than 30,000 followers on Twitch. He often hosts women on his channel, and when he heard Blevins’ comments, he found himself in a predicament: Miki believes all streamers should support women, and that includes streaming with female friends often.
But he also sees Blevins’ point about protecting women.
“I found Ninja’s statement disappointing, but justified,” Miki told Polygon, citing the toxic response toward women on Twitch and gaming-adjacent subreddits.
While he empathizes with having every word processed by an attentive internet, Miki also knows the power and potential of being in that position.
“Ninja has the influence to change the perspective of a lot of these people, and streaming with women would be a great way to do so. Regardless of the reason, saying, ‘I won’t stream with women’ leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”
Much like Hunt, Miki doesn’t think Blevins is a bad guy for wanting to prioritize his relationship, but recognizes the importance of opening up streaming collaborations to everyone in order to help the culture grow.
“Streaming with women has never been a conscious choice for me,” Miki said. “Myself and a big group of friends play games every Friday together. I don’t really think about anything beyond, ‘Do I enjoy streaming/collaborating with these people?’ When I collaborate with someone, I think about if their personality, content [and] community mesh with mine well. Streaming, interacting or collaborating with someone shouldn’t take things like the person’s gender into account. Collaborating on Twitch is important for growth. It’s a great way to build a stronger community for all streamers involved. Collaborate with other people you like and want to work with.
“Don’t exclude anyone because of their gender — that’s dumb.”
Adam Batchelor is relatively new to Twitch, streaming with friends, for friends, but gender inclusivity on the platform is something he thinks about often. Batchelor streams with female friends on the regular and promotes their channels. It’s his way of paying whatever success he has forward. Untouched by most gossip, he thinks to sideline half the population because of what the audience might think is a bad idea.
“Ninja’s statement sounds borderline logical from the base reading of it,” Batchelor said. “This guy’s going to have rumors coming in all the time. He’s the biggest guy on Twitch. I don’t understand why this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Why is he drawing the line here? It’s kind of just depressing. It wasn’t even necessarily unexpected. […] Twitch doesn’t necessarily reward bigotry, but it’s so prevalent.”
All the streamers who spoke to Polygon echoed Batchelor’s sentiment. Blevins should have the right to do what he wants, but having the most popular Twitch streamer acknowledge that gaming with women is an issue he’d rather not entertain does a disservice to female streamers, who may already be combating other major problems on the platform.
“I don’t consciously do it, but I think it is important to promote content that you like, especially diverse content that you like,” Hunt said, who shouts out Dragon Finis as one of “the most underrated gamers” on Twitch. “I love my friends and I understand that it’s a much more uphill battle for females […] It’s a lot easier to be a straight white dude on Twitch than it is to be anything else right now. It’s even easier to be a straight white married dude with a kid on the way.”
Sense of understanding
Blevins’ comments haven’t just been met with criticism. Several others have stood by his choice not to invite women onto his livestreams, including some of the biggest names in online gaming.
“Anyone that’s a public figure understands what he means,” Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg said in a video addressing the topic. “A lot of people also made pretty reasonable claims against this statement, saying ‘I understand, but he could still play with them and not care about the rumors’ [...] In any other job, this is true. But on the internet, what you don’t understand is that people are insane, especially when it comes to relationships. People are crazy.”
“I know for a fact that other YouTubers or streamers don’t collaborate or play with females, because they know there will just be a lot of drama and [bullshit] with it, and it’s just not worth it,” Kjellberg added. “This is really the ugly truth of the internet.”
Pokimane, one of the most popular streamers on Twitch, also defended Blevins’ views.
“It sucks that things like [Blevins’ decision] have to be made into a big deal when I don’t think they have to be,” Pokimane said.
It’s easy to pile on Blevins’ comments because they’re made in such an offhand way, said Jane, but criticizing his choices doesn’t address the bigger conversation.
“I see how it’s kind of easier to shy away from getting involved in anything that would like kind of perpetuate the drama,” Jane told Polygon. “Unfortunately, by making the comment that he did, he did the exact opposite, right? But I also think that we sometimes tend to think of people in our industry who are popular as superheroes. We tend to forget that Ninja is a dude who is terrified of public speaking. I really don’t believe the dude meant anything bad. I just think that, unfortunately, this is another example of somebody who comes from that very privileged positions, and forgets sometimes that what you say can have really big consequences.”
It goes both ways
As a woman known for her content, Jane recognizes that the focus on Blevins’ comments has amplified a conversation about men’s feelings toward streaming with women. But it doesn’t cover how women feel about streaming with men.
Cultural pressure is on the men of Twitch to openly collaborate with women. The current power dynamics make it so men are the most watched streamers, and their influence over an audience is powerful. Men like Blevins are aware of the impact streaming together can have on their romantic partners, but what about women who don’t necessarily want to stream with high-profile male streamers, because of the immense influence they do have?
Jane started streaming by herself, but found a much bigger audience after joining a successful, predominantly male streaming group. She gained more than 100,000 YouTube subscribers the day she was announced as an official member of the collective, and said it was a burst of fame she never could have anticipated.
Streaming with the group, which consisted of men she considers close friends, was a positive experience except for the times when it wasn’t — after joining the team, Jane experienced some of the worst harassment of her career. She knows women who would stream with Blevins, whose large audience consists mostly of young men, would endure the same.
“The same way that Ninja doesn’t play with females to avoid controversies, women ... we’ll just not talk about the subject because we don’t want to deal with controversy either,” Jane said. “What you don’t hear are the silent voices of people who avoid controversy by not playing with men.”
When Jane joined her group, the reaction was mixed. Some people were happy that an all-male group finally invited a woman to join their organization. Others, however, were angry. They were concerned the streaming collaboration wouldn’t be able to make the same jokes because there was a woman hanging out.
“If you do play with men, you deal with the toxicity and you stream and then you turn off your stream and you cry,” Jane said. “Because somebody called you a gold digger, they called you a slut, they called you a whore, or they made all kinds of sexual references about what you had to have done to get that opportunity. It’s gross. Yeah, it’s an opportunity to play with a larger broadcaster, to get yourself out there and get the exposure for your channel and potentially find some new followers from it, but at what cost?”
Jane eventually left the group, and today she streams with her own friends or by herself. Although it’s a different dynamic: Jane’s happy.
Solo streaming for women is something that Tiffany thinks about often, too.
Tiffany started her streaming career as part of a duo with Jared. That’s how their fans discovered them, and that’s what both Jared and Tiffany are comfortable with performing. Tiffany willl still stream on her own, but she harbors insecurities, a fear that people will only want to watch her stream if she’s with Jared.
“There are times where like I’ll stream by myself, and I just feel like maybe the chat doesn’t care as much as it does when we’re duoing,” Tiffany said. “I get that on my Wednesday streams. But it’s these conversations and these topics that that make me doubt myself when I do this. I was like, ‘Am I only valuable because I’m next to Jared?’ I know other female streamers who are like that, too. Do I have to present myself a certain way in order to get a following? Just hearing these conversations is hard, but at the end of the day it’s, I’m focused on my stream when I stream and I focus on our stream when we stream.”
Jane understands that mentality. She experienced similar thoughts when she first joined her own streaming group. It took building up the level of confidence that comes from streaming professionally for years to finally get to a place where she didn’t need to put her own success on being involved in a group dynamic with men.
“Part of me felt like, ‘Wow, those people subscribed to me because I’m part of the group and they wanted to support me,’” Jane said. “And without them would I have it? An age-old thing that people used to say all the time was, ‘You can encourage people to follow, but you can’t make them watch.’ The only reason people watch something is because they’re actively interested in what you’re doing or what you have to say or content that you put out. I definitely gained followers with this group and visibility, but they weren’t able to force people to watch. People were actually clicking and following and coming back time after time because they liked me. I think that’s something that people, especially younger creators and especially creators who are subject to a lot of harassment, forget. They forget because they let those voices kind of get into their head.
“It’s important to have that mindset — somebody may have given me the platform to become visible, but nobody sat there and made those people watch.”
“It’s all of us”
Everyone Polygon spoke to said they wanted to contribute to the piece because they wanted to try and move the conversation forward in a healthy way.
Most streamers want the same thing: a place for diverse groups of people to hang out, play games, talk with their fans and connect with people over the internet. It all comes down to creating a space where everyone feels welcome. Everyone acknowledged that it will take time to reach that point; there are so many issues that need to be addressed before that happens. Having a healthy conversation where no one is necessarily yelled at for having an opinion on a challenging, but important subject, is a much needed first step.
“It’s not up to Ninja alone to fix the problem,” Jane said. “It’s a group of creators. It’s a band of people that are doing it, and it’s not down to one person to solve. My question for Ninja would be, ‘How do you think the community can help female creators to prevent these things from happening, and how can other creatures join you so that people in the future don’t have to make the same decisions that you have to?’ As females and males and content creators and viewers, let’s start the conversation of support so that he doesn’t have to go through that alone. Let’s stop having the conversation that he’s the one that’s going to fix it.
“He’s not Twitch Jesus. He can’t solve it by himself. It’s not up to him alone. It’s all of us.”