From appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated and playing Call of Duty with NBA players to live-casting NFL games and interviewing Daniel Craig, FaZe Clan's Kris Lamberson is leading a class of gaming content creators redefining modern youth culture.
F ew moments say more about gaming's ascension in the current cultural hierarchy than actor Daniel Craig's appearance on an October 12 Twitch livestream hosted by Kris "Swagg" Lamberson. Clad in James Bond-esque tuxedos, the streamer and three of his teammates from esports and entertainment organization FaZe Clan interviewed Craig as they broadcast from their respective bedrooms in their multimillion-dollar content house.
Craig seemed as impressed by their Call of Duty prowess as they were by his status as 007. "I've just been watching you play," Craig said with genuine admiration. "You play so fast, it's crazy."
When pop superstar Billie Eilish, who wrote and sang the title song of new Bond flick No Time To Die , made a surprise appearance mid-interview, Lamberson curled his fingers at his temples and mushroomed them outward in a "mind blown" gesture. Still, the value of capturing Lamberson's audience as the pair promoted their blockbuster movie was clear.
"I think you're going to see a lot more of the traditional media trying to tap into [gaming]," Lamberson tells Forbes . "If you want to try to reach out to new audiences, especially a younger generation, that's literally perfect."
Lamberson, an honoree on this year’s Forbes 30 Under 30 Games list , is part of a broader class of gaming content creators who are redefining modern youth culture. He's appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and in Call of Duty commercials, played Call of Duty: Warzone with NBA stars like Devin Booker and De'Aaron Fox, interviewed Michael B. Jordan and live-casted Thursday Night Football games on his stream.
That has made him one of the most subscribed and viewed Black creators on livestreaming platform Twitch, and brought in over 2.7 million followers to his YouTube channels. With income from those platforms, plus sponsorships from brands like Beats and McDonald's, merchandising and tournament winnings, Forbes estimates the 25-year-old gamer earned $2.5 million over the last 12 months.
"We’re trying to take a gaming team to a place it’s never been before."
Lamberson's success is representative of a broader trend: The audience for online video gaming content exploded during the pandemic, increasing 18% to 1.2 billion people in 2020 and generating more than $9 billion in revenue, according to Nielsen . And thanks to streaming platforms such as YouTube and Twitch, it's never been easier for creators to monetize their content.
"Streamers are recognizing the demand for unique personalities in the space, and they're filling it," says Tim Derdenger, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business. "If a company wants to engage in this industry in the world and reach these consumers, now's the time."
Other industries are taking notice. Star rapper Lil Nas X drew 33 million viewers to a series of virtual concerts on online gaming platform Roblox last year. The NFL's Detroit Lions announced their 2020 schedule using the social simulation game Animal Crossing: New Horizons . In the lead-up to last November's presidential election, U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar streamed collaborative mystery game Among Us with a group of high-profile content creators to promote voter participation. Almost 700,000 total viewers tuned in .
The most successful content creators aren't necessarily the most talented professional gamers, though, and that's a reflection of the preferences of Gen-Z and Millennial audiences, two groups highly coveted by advertisers. Adrian Montgomery, CEO of esports and media company Enthusiast Gaming, says these groups are much more interested in being entertained and "want gaming as a lifestyle to encompass much more than competitive play and being really good at something."
But there's more to it, Montgomery says. Underpinning the popularity of content creators is the accessibility they provide and the unscripted intimacy of the streams. A pro esports event, like traditional sports, provides only a sliver of a view into the world of gamers. Streaming opens a whole world.
"If you wanted to, you could watch [popular streamer] xQc 50 hours a week," Montgomery says. "You can't get that with Tom Brady. You can get a couple interviews here and there and watch him play on Sunday."
Lamberson has been regularly broadcasting his Call of Duty gameplay since 2013, when he started making YouTube videos as a way to brag to his friends around his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona. He soon found a passion and eventually enough success to pursue content creation full time, leaving behind school and a basketball career at Arizona Christian University. His ex-jock personality adds a layer of aspirational cool to the relatable, down-to-earth attitude that attracts people to his videos.
"I think there's that relatability [in video game content] that you don't quite have as much in football, basketball, ice hockey, baseball and some other traditional sports that are very difficult for the common person to play," says Mark Nagel, a sports management professor at the University of South Carolina. "Now people have a chance to not only play, but consume content and watch competitions of the esports that they play."
Lamberson's popularity skyrocketed throughout 2020 as the hype of Call of Duty' s battle royale mode Warzone met the pandemic-induced gaming craze. In March, he announced an exclusive streaming deal with Twitch, parodying LeBron James in the announcement . A month later, he joined powerhouse gaming organization FaZe Clan.
FaZe itself has been a barometer for the booming nature of the business. In October, the organization announced it was going public in a SPAC deal that would make it the first-ever esports company valued at $1 billion. FaZe's ambitions continue to grow, beyond esports and even gaming altogether, as it positions itself as a social media and lifestyle brand in partnership with companies like McDonald's, Doritos and DC Comics. But that lifestyle, shared by its millions of followers, will invariably include gaming.
"I told them when I joined, I said, 'I'm down to do whatever, but I always want to be gaming-focused,'" Lamberson says. "People just got to understand that it's always evolving. And like I said, we're trying to take a gaming team to a place it's never been before."
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