The Unique, Unlikely Celebrity Of Tfue

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Would you rather meet LeBron James or Tfue?

The question was posed in December to 9-year-old Guy Dadon. He was sitting with his mother after playing basketball in Los Angeles — just a few miles from Staples Center where James, the world’s most famous basketball player, leads the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the most storied NBA franchises.

“LeBr …” the mother began.

“Tfue!” the son interjected with a big smile.

The mother’s unfinished answer gave way to a look of confusion.

“Tfue?” she asked.

(Video/Jhaan Elker; Photo/Eve Edelheit)

Given the global celebrity of James, who has graced athletic arenas and Hollywood screens while racking up millions in endorsements, her surprise was understandable.

But among the younger generation, there is a strong pull to a new type of celebrity, one that exists in a world undiscoverable by those who don’t actively seek it out. At the center of this world — or certainly near it — sits Turner Tenney, better known by to his fans as Tfue (pronounced T-foo), the most watched gamer and entertainer on the video game streaming platform Twitch.

An unlikely star, the 22-year-old Floridian is one of the most talented players of Fortnite, a game that draws tens of millions of players per month. Fans tune in regularly for both his skill level and brash attitude, marking him as one of the chief personalities riding the growing popularity of live-streamed video game entertainment to unimaginable heights.

Tenney’s videos have been watched 1.3 billion times and he has won more than $600,000 in prizes. Major game publishing companies have offered him six-figure paychecks to show off their titles. His net worth has been estimated in the seven figures, still peanuts compared with someone like James, but astounding to those who never would have considered playing video games could provide a lucrative career path. Some of Tenney’s elite peers have secured their own sponsorship deals, a few going so far as to sign exclusively with a specific streaming platform in exchange for sums of money believed to reach into eight figures.

Richard Tenney, father of Turner Tenney, rides on the front of a school bus in the annual Holiday Street Parade in Indian Rocks Beach. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)

Merrick Westlund and Edwin Meza stand on top of a school bus while children pose in front of mock-up battle bus. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)

Merrick Westlund throws stickers during the parade. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)

Fans line the street hoping for swag and a glimpse of the Tenneys. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)

And his importance extends beyond the Internet. Tenney decided last year to sue the esports organization that helped develop his audience over what he considered a predatory contract. The move triggered a nationwide reassessment of fair business agreements in a nebulous profession still establishing its best practices. In the years to come, his family’s vision could further help shape the future for streamers around the globe by introducing a facility in Florida dedicated to help content creators build their image, and an audience.

Esports and video game streamer celebrity culture is not really new. But it has been easy to miss for older generations unaccustomed to spending hours on sites such as Twitch, YouTube or Mixer, preferring instead to be entertained by Hollywood on TV and at the cinema, or by traditional sports leagues. [Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose CEO, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.]

“Gamer, esports athlete, social media influencer, there’s so many different labels that you could label yourself as, so I don’t know. I’m just me, dude.”

Turney “Tfue” Tenney, on his video game stardom

As such, Tenney stands as an example of an increasingly stark bifurcation of fame between generations that has arisen with a more siloed media landscape and the ability of digital-first platforms to amplify video game players.

To those less Internet-savvy, his importance in the evolving world of entertainment is a complete mystery. But to a certain younger audience Tenney’s renown rivals, and sometimes even exceeds, that of the most famous celebrities — even if his trappings don’t mirror those of a superstar like LeBron James.

“Gamer, esports athlete, social media influencer,” Tenney said in an interview with The Washington Post while sitting on the roof of his childhood home. “There’s so many different labels that you could label yourself as, so I don’t know. I’m just me, dude.”

Tenney prepares to stream Fortnite. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)

The starting point of a streaming star

The Tenney family home is situated in Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., a small, mostly middle class community of a few thousand framed by Clearwater to the north, St. Petersburg to the south and Tampa to the east. Perhaps the only indication that the single-story, beachfront house might be of note is the constant presence of a sheriff patrol vehicle parked in an adjacent lot — and a 20-foot plastic dolphin, perched in a tree on their property.

Just hours before participating in a Fortnite tournament featuring $187,000 for the winning squad, the world’s most-watched esports player sauntered out bleary-eyed from his house and into the winter sun. Dressed in a tattered T-shirt, shorts, Gucci flip-flops and championship-sized diamond ring, Tenney leered at his father, Richard, who was standing in front of a school bus spray-painted blue with the white letters of “Fortnite” stenciled on the side.

“Who’s the f—— a—— that scheduled this interview?” he asked his father, straight-faced and monotone. A second passed, then came a smile directed toward his dad/PR agent.

The deadpan sarcasm from Tfue is the first indication of how close the super streamer is with his family and how large a role they play in his unorthodox life.

Tfue, a name Turner picked randomly after searching for an available gamer tag with four letters, was born the third of four siblings. His parents separated during his childhood. Asked about his school experience, he laughed, “What experience?”

“I went to middle school for a week. It sucked. I dipped,” Tfue said. “I never really went to school, technically I was home-schooled.”

His father, Richard, who was elected city commissioner in Clearwater in his early 20s, said the 1988 school shooting in Winnetka, Ill., where he attended middle and high school in the 1960s, made him wary about their safety. He also shared that his experience in Florida schools as a child was lacking.

“I went to middle school for a week.
It sucked. I dipped.”

Turner “Tfue” Tenney

“There was nothing for me to do there,” Richard said in his Johnny Cash-sounding, John Wayne-cadenced rasp. “I sat my youngest son down at 14 years old with [online educational software] Khan Academy and he worked his way through high school in a month.” Only the oldest Tenney sibling, Alex, a former model, had formal schooling among the children. Turner’s older brother Jack, 25, has his own multimillion online following as a YouTuber.

“The ocean was their school, they learned to pay attention out there,” Richard said, adding that the boys worked very hard from a young age. “Eighty-hour weeks, 100-hour weeks. I had them selling TV antennas at flea markets. They sold them all!”

In their younger days, the Tenney boys pursued two distinct interests: filmmaking and action sports.

“Anything crazy, adrenaline-related, I loved doing. Anything on the beach, anything with a board pretty much,” said Turner, who won surfing contests and was competitive as a downhill skateboarder. Jack is a professional skimboarder.

“Turner could’ve have been a pro surfer, no problem. Jack, too,” said Richard, dressed in his signature slip-on beach shoes, shorts, baseball cap, and a T-shirt featuring Ice Cube.

The two Tenney boys have benefited from this kind of support from their father, and from each other, since they began shooting videos at the ages of 12 (Jack) and 8 (Turner). That experience helped put the Tenneys ahead of the curve when it came to the current era of Internet video content as a commodity. The world’s top esports streamer got his start as a bit player in his brother’s videos, which smack of Rob Dyrdeck and “Jackass,” even though they weren’t allowed to watch the MTV show when they were growing up.

“It’s a group of friends trying have as much fun as possib