Anthony Kongphan and his “ninjas” are taking over Twitch

The broadcaster discusses how to go from “sucking” to having over 200,000 followers.

Stacked on a white, portable round table is a pile of at least 100 Anthony Kongphan Kappa cards. If you know Kongphan, the likeness is uncanny: That signature big smile and floppy yet stylish black hair all tied together into a cartoonish ninja persona.

Signing the Kappa cards (Twitch’s collectable trading cards based on popular broadcasters) is Kongphan himself. He’s sitting in the makeshift Twitch employee room next to Streamer Alley at TwitchCon in San Diego, California, where he’s just finished his meet-and-greet. It’s Sunday afternoon, and after an hour or so of meeting fans, he’s now spending another hour signing cards for Twitch. For streamers, the work never stops, he says, then laughs.

This month, Kongphan will have been streaming on Twitch for five years. A variety broadcaster, he’s amassed more than 200,000 followers on the platform and over 7 million total views. He’s on a trajectory to join the Jerichos and Sodapoppins of the world, each of whom has more than 1 million followers, bringing them to the next level of celebrity status within the gaming world. That might seem like an arbitrary metric, but it’s not. The biggest streamers on Twitch are a different tier of celebrity, helping them to break out into other types of media and make bigger sponsorship deals.

For streamers, the work never stops.

What really sets Kongphan apart, however, is his community. The Ninjas—named for his childhood obsession, which started with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and his love of martial arts—adore him with a passion. A typical Anthony Kongphan stream will see a continual wall of text in the chat, filled with banter and Kongphan’s ninja emoji. Depending on the stream, Kongphan either replies to chat effortlessly while playing the game or, if he’s playing with friends, will occasionally reply to messages.

Chatting with his audience while also concentrating on the game wasn’t always easy for Kongphan. He started streaming after a friend told him he was “a funny ass dude” and that he should try his hand at broadcasting. In fact, he says his first time streaming was “horrible.”

“I’m a really immersive gamer, so I wasn’t really engaged in chat,” he says. “I was shy… I sucked at the beginning. People would say something bad in my chat, they’d be like, ‘Oh Anthony, you’re really good at the game but you’re boring as shit,’ but now when people say that kind of thing I’ll laugh, or don’t worry at all.”

After a year of streaming, Kongphan knew he wanted to go full time, so he started saving up and working three jobs to try to pay the bills. His job list is impressive, and on top of acting and modeling it includes “random sporadic jobs” that friends would recommend him for, or that he would find from asking around—everything from delivering pizzas, barbering (which he did for many years), working for FedEx, and selling security systems door-to-door. The best of all? Debt collection. He eventually saved enough to stream full time and have a set schedule, and after around two years of streaming, he was partnered in April 2014.

For Kongphan, a typical day includes eating breakfast, a few hours dedicated to doing errands, going to the gym, getting food, then streaming. He usually starts at 5pm, because he loves to sleep, and ends around 2am. “My biggest fear in life is going back to a nine-to-five job, just because I hate waking up in the morning,” he says. Since he wings his streaming time he can be live anywhere from a few hours up to around 11—“I don’t notice it, I’m like ‘Oh my goodness, it’s time to stop,’” Kongphan says.

It was after one of these particularly long streams—his longest, in fact—that it all became a bit too much. It was a charity stream for Children’s Mercy, a pediatric medical center for patients up to 21 years old, and towards the end of the stream his viewers were donating thousands of dollars.

“I just broke down,” he says. “I just started crying. I couldn’t even stay in front of the screen, I had to go upstairs. That was pretty emotional for me.”

Streaming on a full-time schedule can really take its toll, since you’re switched on all the time, playing and interacting with chat, so it’s important to occasionally take some time off. Kongphan says he doesn’t really go out much, but sometimes goes to the movies by himself to unwind.

What gets him through the long days, and the unrelenting schedule of streaming and attending events, is the Ninja community.

“Seeing them at events, and also them coming back to chat is the most rewarding thing,” Kongphan says. “I’ve had a couple of people tell me that they’ve been depressed or suicidal, they’re like ‘I watch your stream and it makes me happy,’ and I’m just like, ‘Wow, that’s insane.’ It’s a great feeling to know that you’re helping people. It’s me being me.”

So what does the rest of the year hold for Kongphan? Well, aside from trying to beat his charity donations record from last year, there’s TwitchCon, visiting the Twitch headquarters in San Francisco—something he’s never done—and maybe a personal vacation.

“I really want to visit Rome,” he says. “I love art. I just love the art out there. I love everything about Rome.”

He even has angel tattoos on his arm. They’re copies of the ones on the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, which is, unsurprisingly, immortalized in a video game.