Just 90 minutes into the first day of the inaugural Fortnite World Cup, 12-year-old H1ghSky1 has a problem. The video-game prodigy is the youngest member of the e-sports organization FaZe Clan, which is holding a pop-up at a sneaker store just off Canal Street. The event, if it had gone as planned, would have lasted all afternoon. Fans of pro gamers would meet their idols and pick up limited-edition merch. But turnout has been larger than anticipated, the kind you might see for a new line of Yeezys — if Kanye were also in attendance. Die-hards camped out overnight before the event, and police had to shut down the street to prevent the store from being mobbed. The store isn’t happy, and the manager pulls FaZe CEO Lee Trink aside to notify him that they’re kicking FaZe out.
Meanwhile, gamers are taking photos with ecstatic fans. Seated at the front of the group is H1ghSky1 (in real life, Patrick Bragaru from Seattle). This is his first-ever meet-up, and he says he’s “shaking” from nerves. He’s too young to compete in the tournament, so he’s spending the weekend meeting fans and cheering on fellow players while his older brother Cristian trails him like a paparazzo. There are 80 or so gamers in FaZe Clan, with millions of followers on Instagram, YouTube, and Twitch. In exchange for a portion of the revenue these gamers bring in, FaZe offers access to infrastructure, high-profile sponsorships, and even-greater online exposure.
Competing in e-sports tournaments can be lucrative — clan members won just over $1.5 million at the Fortnite World Cup — but the majority of FaZe’s haul comes from merchandise and sponsorships. H1ghSky1 says that when he plays Fortnite now, he’s not usually going for the win (though he has already won more than 1,000 times) but is instead trying to pull off trick shots and generate clips that would make for a good highlight reel on YouTube. Victory is almost beside the point: less Golden State Warriors and more Harlem Globetrotters.
Trink estimates that H1ghSky1 has earned between $200,000 and $300,000 since joining FaZe this past March. He made $40,000 alone from broadcasting himself playing on the livestreaming platform Twitch. Amid the chaos of the meet-up, H1ghSky1 can’t fully explain his success. He says that he started playing video games when he was “9, 10-ish” and began streaming in December 2017. His parents are “entirely supportive,” and when he told them he was getting famous, “we just all started freaking out.” He goes to school online, and he admits without any embarrassment that “I don’t really have many friends in real life. I just play with online friends.”
Many members of FaZe Clan are in their late teens or early 20s. They behave less like athletes than influencers: posing next to sports cars and private jets, doing #spon, throwing up the FaZe hand sign (hold your thumb and index finger parallel to each other and position your middle finger perpendicular to them). H1ghSky1 didn’t have an Instagram account before March; now he has 1.1 million followers. He is arguably part of a second generation of Fortnite stars. He cites Ninja, the 28-year-old pro who became the game’s first bona fide celebrity in 2017, as an inspiration. The day after we meet, FaZe signs a 13-year-old who goes by Ewok, the team’s first female member.
Until a couple of months ago, most viewers would have assumed H1ghSky1 was also 13, the minimum age for most major online platforms. It’s also the age he cites in a video from this past spring announcing his induction into FaZe. But his cover was blown in May, when the clan was sued by a former member, Turner “Tfue” Tenney, another Fortnite pro, whose court filing alleges that players sign unfair contracts that stifle their ability to pursue business opportunities. “It is also widely publicized the Faze Clan has recently signed an 11-year-old gamer/artist,” the complaint reads, alleging that FaZe knew H1ghSky1’s age, lied about it, and asked his family to do the same. (The complaint also alleged underage drinking at FaZe’s L.A. residence. FaZe countersued this month.) After his true age was revealed, FaZe had to negotiate with Twitch and Fortnite maker Epic to release the thousands of dollars H1ghSky1 had earned while playing underage.
Being drafted into FaZe Clan is an informal process that usually begins with scouts looking for talent on sites like Twitch, then determining how the gamers could fit into FaZe’s overall strategy. “What we saw is somebody from a personality side and a skill side who fit within FaZe Clan despite his age,” Trink says of H1ghSky1. “The kid is so cute, and part of it is he’s sort of like nonplussed by the magnitude of it all.” (Hanging by a display case while we chat, H1ghSky1 points at a shoe designed for a very small child and jokes with a smirk, “That’s my size.”)
“What we didn’t sort of calculate is what it did for our young fan base,” Trink adds. “We almost created a bigger problem for all those parents of 11- and 12-year-olds because here is some 11-year-old kid plucked out of obscurity who became megafamous almost immediately.” Now going pro is something any kid could theoretically do before high school.
H1ghSky1 is still young, and he’s hanging out with gamers who are almost twice his age. As the team’s bus pulls away, it abruptly stops. The roof hatch pops open as three young men work the crowd from above. The crowd loses its mind while the officers and private-security guards milling about fume over the minor recklessness. “Our guys are the rock stars of gaming,” Trink boasts afterward, having watched it all unfold. “I’m not going to tell them to be who they’re not.”
Trink and H1ghSky1 are both aware that being at the mercy of larger platforms is not the most stable ground on which to build a business, though only one of them is bothered by this. After H1ghSky1’s age was outed, his channels were shut down, and he recalls his large Twitch follower count — “I had 300,000, but I got banned” — with a laugh. He managed to get the YouTube account back, though now he has to stream with parental supervision. In retaliation against Tfue, once his idol, H1ghSky1 did what all online celebrities do when they have beef: He recorded a diss track featuring YouTuber Logan Paul. He’s otherwise taking the reveal in stride. The night before the tournament, H1ghSky1 posted a selfie on Instagram of his face run through the senior-citizen FaceApp filter, captioned “Too old to compete 😂😂.”
*This article appears in the August 5, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!