How Fortnite star Ninja became a rabid Detroit Lions fan

Fortnite star and Lions fan Ninja took in a portion of the opener at Ford Field from the sideline. Michael Rothstein/ESPN

DETROIT -- Ninja might live in Chicago and his father might be a Chicago Bears fan, but the world’s most prominent Fortnite player -- and one of the better known esports competitors in the world -- has stuck by his original hometown.

And with it, the Detroit Lions.

Ninja even attended the Lions’ season opener against the New York Jets, and when he was on the field before the game, receivers Marvin Jones Jr., Golden Tate and TJ Jones all stopped by to say hi. So did his favorite player of all time, Barry Sanders.

In between meeting the players he has in fantasy football (yes, he plays) and taking photo after photo with Lions fans screaming to meet him (there were a lot, and it was constant), he stopped for a few minutes to chat with ESPN about how, exactly, he became a Lions fan.

Q: Just to start, how did you become a Lions fan?

Ninja: So my dad, we were born in Detroit, my entire family and my dad was a Lions fan long enough for my oldest brother, Jon, to become a Lions fans. And then when my dad switched allegiances over to the Bears, my brother Jon stayed a Lions fan. Then when I got into football, fast forward eight years later, yeah, he brought me to my first game ever at Ford Field and then brought me to a game at Lambeau as well, and I just became a Lions fan.

Q: What was that first game like?

Ninja: I was 19 years old. First game ever was at Lambeau against the Packers. The Lions were away and we got absolutely demolished. But it was such a cool experience. We parked at a house outside of the field that he usually parked at. It was a Packers house, too, but they let us park there anyways even though we were Lions fans. They were super nice. It was a super-amazing experience.

Q: Were you really into football at that point or did that push you in?

Ninja: I was already into football. My brother already made me fall in love with the Lions and the NFL. That kind of solidified it. Then after that, every Sunday we were at the bar watching the game.

Q: So who is your favorite Lions player of all time?

Ninja: My favorite Lions player of all time is Barry Sanders. Barry Sanders, if I ever want to get pumped up, I watch a highlight video of him on YouTube. He’s an absolute monster. Him and Calvin Johnson are fantastic. I’m also a [Matthew] Stafford fan. Hoping for a W tonight. [That did not happen. The Lions lost to the Jets 48-17.]

Q: When you were growing up and when you started gaming, did you ever think you’d be on an NFL sideline, meeting NFL players?

Ninja: Absolutely not. I didn’t think it would bleed over. It’s just fantastic. I just don’t think you ever expect gaming to bleed over into other sports and stuff like that. Being realistic, I’m older than some of the players. I’m 27. This is awesome, dude. I don’t even know what to say.

Q: Did you play Madden?

Ninja: I actually did. I was really good. I fell in love with the training. I think it was ’09, Madden ’09. I fell in love with the training. I would literally make custom teams, always do the Lions, and I would just train, just do the training simulation over and over again because I loved throwing the ball through the hoops and stuff like that and getting their value up and stuff like that, their overall score. It was so much fun.

Q: So what was this like? Marvin Jones comes over and hugs you. TJ Jones comes over and hugs you. Golden Tate.

Ninja: I have half of them on my fantasy team, man. It’s amazing. I’ve been a fan of them for such a long time. Been watching the Lions for like the last five years, so it’s just amazing. It’s humbling, I guess.

Q: So you never thought this would happen?

Ninja: Of course not, man. I don’t think anyone expected gaming to get anyone this far. But it’s broken through the threshold, everyone’s a gamer and they just don’t talk about it. But now they are.

Q: Have you reached out to any Lions to play?

Ninja: Eric Ebron and Golden Tate were the first two Lions I reached out to back in the day, two years ago, a year-and-a-half ago. I followed them. I tweeted at them, tell them like, "Hey man, I love you guys, come to your games." They would reply and favorite and stuff like that. Now it’s just come full circle.

Q: Do they play Fortnite with you?

Ninja: I’ve been trying to get games with Ebron for a while, but he just had his new kid and he’s been super busy. Ebron is not even on the Lions anymore. I’m so sad. I don’t even want to talk to you about that. I was so triggered when they were like, "Yo, they let Ebron go." I’m like, "He has the best second half of the season of his career. He’s catching a touchdown a game and you let him go?" That’s a classic Lions play right there. It really is, dude. I was triggered, man. I really was upset.

Q: [He had just met Barry Sanders] Have you ever met Barry before? Did he know who you were?

Ninja: I never met Barry before. Are you kidding me? It just blends together, too. I’m blessed, man. He said, "Oh, Ninja, the Fortnite guy." "It’s me! It’s me!"