the business of being swagg

words: joseph bien-kahn

photography: anthony blasko

This story was produced with support from Beats

 

Last March, Kris Lamberson, better known by his competitive gaming name, FaZe Swagg, posted “Swagg – One Million Subscriber Montage” to his YouTube channel. The 10-minute video opens with a clip of the late rapper Nipsey Hussle explaining what allowed him to break through: “That’s why I call my thing a marathon. I’m not gonna portray this ultimate poise like I been had it figured out. Nah, I just didn’t quit.” From there, Lamberson’s subscribers see clips of the professional gamer as a child, and then as a basketball prospect, and then as an upstart streamer finding his voice. Through it all, Lamberson, via voiceover, walks through his journey from the bottom to the top of the gaming world. Near the end, over footage of him holding his Gold YouTube Play Button, the award sent out to commemorate reaching one million subscribers, Lamberson says: “I’m a perfect example of what hard work, determination, and having the right friends — what it can lead to! I’m not anything special, man. I just wanted it more than the next guy.”

 

The video perfectly encapsulates the strange double life of gamers, existing in the liminal space between competitor and influencer. There are shots of Call of Duty gameplay, but also of Lamberson buying his mom a car, of getting a Gatorade cooler dumped on his head, and of breathlessly watching as his subscriber count ticks past the one million mark. The viewer invests in the Swagg come up as much as his kill count. They might find his channel after seeing a memorable headshot, but they’ll stick around because they want to be like Swagg.

 

For the modern sports fan, the double life of the gamer isn’t as hard to grasp. Winning is a factor in an athlete’s fame, but a blend of gameplay aesthetic, personality, and proximity to greatness is what makes a star. The NBA is a sport, sure, but it’s a multi-billion-dollar business because it’s also a TV show and a live event; a well-timed defensive rotation can win a game, but on- and off-court personality is what keeps the lights on.

 

More than any other eSports team, FaZe Clan has grasped and amplified the dual life of the modern gamer. The gaming collective competes in eSports events, but is better known for the interplay between its members, many of whom have spent time living in the mansions they’ve rented around Los Angeles since 2016. Since its inception in 2010, FaZe Clan members have streamed their gameplay, but also uploaded viral content. A prank video from November where 13-year-old FaZe H1ghSky1 is punked into believing he’s been evicted from his new $3.5 million mansion had 1.9 million streams as of March. The gaming organization also sells merch — moving $2 million in 24 hours via exclusive drops that mirror the hypest of hypebeast culture — and has endorsement deals with Verizon, Beats by Dre and G FUEL. As CEO Lee Trink explained in an interview on the Vergecast, he views the FaZe Clan as a hybrid of the Los Angeles Lakers, Supreme, and MTV.

 

Lamberson had spent years building his YouTube following independently, posting a mixture of Call of Duty highlights and explainers of the best class setups for players. In the videos, you see what Swagg sees while also seeing his face as he plays; you hear the game accented by a running dialogue of trash talk and notes on his performance. Imagine experiencing a pick and roll develop from inside Kyrie Irving’s head — you could watch to get better, or you could watch for the chance to ride shotgun with greatness.

 

A month after he hit the 1 million subscriber mark — which Data Driven Investor’s Jacob Bates estimated only about 24,000 global users had ever reached as of January — Lamberson got a DM from FaZe Apex, one of the FaZe Clan co-owners and one of the earliest members. He told Lamberson he was a fan and then asked him if he was part of any eSports team. “I was like, ‘Nah, man. Wait, why do you ask me that?’ And then he said, ‘Do you want to join FaZe?’” Lamberson says over Zoom from his house in Phoenix. “It’s almost like getting drafted. Everything just kind of skyrockets, because now your name’s out there. You’re associated with the biggest team in the world.”

 

Lamberson joined FaZe in April 2020, and by May his YouTube subscriber count had hit 1.36 million. Today, it’s up over 2.2 million. He’s also watched as his other social media followings ballooned by “triple, quadruple type shit.” He’s become the #1 subscribed to and most viewed Black gamer on the Amazon-owned streaming service Twitch. His first merch drop sold out in under two hours.

 

He started getting DMs from Odell Beckham, Devin Booker, De’Aaron Fox and many more pro athletes asking if he wanted to game. “It comes full circle because all the athletes that I looked up to when I was playing basketball now want to hit me up to play video games,” Lamberson says. “It's fucking crazy.”

 

 

II

 

Lamberson’s father William knew exactly when he realized his son had a gift for basketball: “Nine years old, nine years old!” Lamberson, his brother B.J. (he, B.J. and their sister Karolyn are triplets), and a friend were playing in a 3-on-3 tournament in their native Phoenix. The nine-year-old Lamberson stepped to the free throw line — if he hit both shots, he and his brother would get to play in the championship across the country in Orlando. “I remember him standing there hitting those free throws — because he had to hit two to win,” William says. “And, I was like, ‘Yeah, I see something there for sure.’”

 

William played the dual role of coach and father. He says he tried to turn it off when he entered the home, but often failed. Instead, basketball was all-consuming and a year-round pursuit for the Lamberson kids — Kris played AAU and for Arizona Lutheran Academy until he was 18.

 

By his teenage years, Lamberson was turning into the point guard his father knew he could be. William mentions a Reebok camp Lamberson attended when he was 15 as if it was yesterday. He wasn’t the biggest or most talented kid there — that was Zylan Cheatham — but his son stepped up and took on the Cheatham assignment. “And Kris was turning Zylan out,” William says. “He was balling!”

 

But then he came down on Cheatham’s foot, twisting his ankle and missing the rest of the camp. It was Cheatham who got the Arizona invite to the Reebok national event and now he’s playing for the New Orleans’ Pelicans G League team. “It just made me think it wasn’t his path, you know?”  

 

 

As a senior, Lamberson won 2014’s Arizona Small School Player of the Year and led his team to the Division IV state championship. When he got the scholarship offer from Arizona Christian University, it was proof that the work had paid off. Basketball had carried him to college.

 

Lamberson arrived at ACU as a 6’2" lefty guard. His whole life, the ball was his to do with what he pleased. Now he had to fight to even see the court. “One thing I realized immediately was, ‘Everyone’s just as good as me. Everyone can do the same thing as me,’” he says. “I’m like, this is kind of crazy. I thought I was cold.”

 

Maybe it was that nagging realization or maybe it was just another bit of shit luck, but during his first preseason, as everyone jockeyed for playing time, Lamberson went up for a rebound and stretched his 6’6” wingspan to its limit. He heard a pop in his shoulder. His right arm hung out of the socket. His labrum was torn.

 

“You're in this bubble thinking that your whole life is going to always revolve around this sport,” he says. “The minute I got hurt, it opened that bubble up.”

 

Basketball was his everything, but now he couldn’t so much as shoot for six months as he recovered from surgery. Instead, Lamberson escaped into Call of Duty, the first-person shooter that would become his calling card. “I was trying to find something to fill that void and gaming was there,” he says. He’d wait for his roommates to leave for class and then he’d record commentary and post the highlights from his rounds. “It was just all encompassing. By the end of the six months, by the time I was recovered, my whole passion had already changed from basketball to gaming.”

 

III

 

The scale of the gaming world is hard to wrap your arms around, especially if you’re over a certain age. But here’s a helpful metric: according to IDC data released in December 2020, the video game industry was set to make $179.7 billion last year, which was more than the global film industry and the North American sports industry combined. With the rise of streaming services in search of original content, a growing cohort of gamers have ridden the industry boom into full-fledged fame. Tyler Blevins, a gamer who goes by the pseudonym Ninja, earned $17 million in 2019, according to Forbes; less than $100,000 came from competitions. Instead, today’s most lucrative gamers are a hybrid of influencers and athletes — the endorsement deals and streaming proceeds far outstrip the prize money.

 

Lamberson quickly recognized the earning potential of his Call of Duty streaming sessions. As he sat rehabbing in his dorm room, he watched his YouTube following grow. Early on, B.J. teased him — “Oh, yeah, some nine year olds watch you; you’re so cool” — but it was becoming clear that he had a gift: for Call of Duty and, even more so, for the streaming medium.

 

But Lamberson wasn’t always good at video games. At first, he barely played at all. When Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 came out, his friends would come over and he’d struggle to compete. He’d been the star basketball player all his life, so the failure stung his teenage ego. “Man, they would tease me, telling me how trash I am. That pissed me off,” Lamberson says. So, he became “addicted” to improving at the game, waking up at 4 a.m., so he could sneak in three hours before walking to school. Before long, they couldn’t talk trash anymore. 

 

It was around then, at 17, that he started posting highlights to his YouTube channel. But at the time, basketball was still a full-time job. He was a lefty point guard tasked with marshalling his team. But a year later, as he sat rehabbing, he felt a pull towards his new passion. 

 

When his shoulder healed, he put streaming to the side and went back to the basketball grind, trying and failing to win playing time. His injury had made him a forgotten man in the eyes of the coaches. He hardly played during a disappointing sophomore season. He felt himself losing his love for the game. “I always loved basketball. I understood it. But I realized that basketball wasn't life,” he says. “For 18 years, it was really [my life]. But I learned at that point that it was just a vehicle.”

 

Right around then, Lamberson’s mother and father started the process of getting divorced. When his parents finally separated, the triplets blamed William; they didn’t talk to their father for months.

 

“I understand why they were mad. I understand why. But it was just still hard as a dad,” William says. “I felt like I let them down. As being that role model, I let them down. And I think that's what hurt them the most.”

 

Lamberson dove headfirst into his YouTube channel. Right before his junior year began, he made $1000 in a month for the first time. He pulled his mother aside to have a talk. “I was like, ‘Mom, just give me one semester. I'm not having fun. I'm not happy,’” he says. “She let me have the semester off to just give everything I could to YouTube. And then it just all played out.”

 

To give up the sport he’d invested two decades in was frightening; it felt like he was giving up his and his father’s shared hoop dream. “My dad was the one who was all about basketball. But I wasn't living with him; I was living with my mom. So, it was a lot easier,” he says. “My dad didn’t even find out until three months into the semester. He checked up on me, and I said, ‘Pops, I’m not even going to school. I’ve been doing YouTube for the last two months.’ And by that point I was making such good money, it was like, what could you really say?”

 

“It was a shock to me. For a minute, I was stunned. But then I was like, it’s his life decision,” William says. “These are consequences of me making some mistakes. It turned out well, but yeah, it did hurt. At that point, it was like, ‘Okay, that dream is gone.’ You know what I mean? It's gone."

 

 

IV

 

Lamberson is the first to admit he’s not the best Call of Duty player on the planet. And yet, he has a magnetism and a story that people relate to. He and his closest friends play for hours and hours every day, broadcasting live on Twitch. He explains the viewing experience as something between First Take and a sitcom. “When they come to the stream, they know they're going to get good gameplay, but they know they’re going to also hear those funny conversations that they would have with their boys,” he says. “I don’t see anyone on Twitch really doing it like us. There’s not a lot of groups of people who play together and they’re talking about hip-hop culture. Or this album that just dropped. You see that game last night? You see Bron had that? It's just a way to connect all different worlds, man. It's like one big TV show.”

 

With the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 in 2018, Lamberson saw his following begin to spike. He posted daily, eventually uploading 2,500 YouTube videos on his way to reaching that 1 million subscriber mark. “When you're playing basketball, there's a lot of factors you can't control. I can't control that I wasn't given a god-given ability to fucking jump a 44" vertical, you know?” he says. “But in gaming, you can really work on becoming a better content creator. You have full control over that. And you're just more yourself, man. You know what I mean? It's all organic.”

 

Earlier this month, his three-man team won the Toronto Ultra $100K Warzone Tournament, bringing home the $100,000 purse. But Lamberson — who compares his aggressive Call of Duty game to another lefty hooper, Zion Williamson — knows his job at FaZe is about more than winning tournaments. “There's a lot of guys who are pretty popular streamers just simply because they're good. They don't really have personality, they're not that funny,” he says. “For me, a lot of it's just having fun, bro. I'm a good player, but also I try to be entertaining.”

 

FaZe Clan has 75 members and 39 are Pro Players who are meant to focus on eSports. Lamberson is one of the 24 Content Creators who compete, but are on the team for their content first and foremost. He’s watched as FaZe has added athletes (Bronny James and Ben Simmons) and a rapper (Offset) — he hopes that can help change the way gaming is viewed. What does he see as his role as one of the most prominent Black gamers? “Just continuing to inspire the younger generation minorities to understand that, yo, you can be a gamer,” Lamberson says. “You don't gotta be a nerd with glasses. You can be a cool dude with style and make this a career.”

 

Lamberson grew up wanting to play in the NBA — in his neighborhood, no one thought gaming was a ticket to anywhere, because when he was a kid, it wasn’t. William felt the same way: their shared basketball dream was about getting from South Phoenix to college to the league. It’s taken a few years, but Lamberson can see his father is excited about the new path. “He’s no longer a coach. He’s like one of the positive parents in the stands who just cheers you on. Now he’s just my own personal cheerleader, man,” he tells me. “He always wants to see me do great and loves when I’m either succeeding or not succeeding, you know? He’s always happy for me.”

 

William says that watching his son’s rise is like watching big wave surfing. He and Lamberson’s mom pulled him out on the jet ski, but now his son has let go of the rope and is up on the wave. “And he’s not riding a little one,” William says through a grin. “He’s on one of the ones in Australia or Hawaii, you know what I mean?”

 

On March 2nd, seven hours into Lamberson’s Twitch stream of the Toronto tournament, he and his teammates DiazBiffle and Booya anxiously watched the final round. Halfway through, they realized the second place team needed every remaining kill to catch them. They talked out worst case scenarios, but then, as they watched the closest competitor get shot, it started to sink in that they’d won the $100,000 prize. A flood of “W”s began to fill the chat and Lamberson and his friends started to scream and talk shit. Lamberson shouted for his Nuke Squad teammate JSmooth (a friend from Phoenix who he’s known for a decade) to “Turn me the fuck up!” and then hit play on the Young Money song “Trophies.” It was a celebration, live and unfiltered in front of a million viewers; Lamberson gave five random subscribers $1,000 a piece.

 

After the tournament, Lamberson went to a steakhouse with B.J., a few friends and his dad. William knows the job of rebuilding their relationship isn’t over, but he’s starting to see the bridge to the other side. At dinner, the champagne flowed and there was round after round of shots. It felt amazing to see his son so happy; it felt like he was just one of the guys. “To see him feeling good and be able to let loose in front of his dad, instead of, you know…” He trails off rather than articulating the painful alternative. Then, finally, he begins again: “It was pretty cool, man.”