Sunday, June 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

This Tampa Bay Lightning wing rides the newest wave of fan interaction

TAMPA — There are photos of Lightning fan Shaun Egger as a toddler at center ice at the then-Thunderome, aka Tropicana Field. He's played in the Lightning's high school hockey league for Palm Harbor University. But his closest personal encounter with players had been waving through a crowd after a training camp practice.

That all changed three weeks ago when he became virtual teammates with Lightning forwards J.T. Brown and Tyler Johnson.

Egger, sitting at his desk in his Fort Myers apartment, joined Brown and Johnson in a live stream of Xbox One video game Battlefield. Through streaming site Twitch.tv, Egger competed and chatted with Brown from 5 p.m.-11 p.m.

"They're the players on a pedestal and I'm a lowly fan, but it was like a connection between friends," Egger said. "It made my day, my week, my month. I kept bragging about it."

Welcome to the newest wave of fan interaction. Instead of waiting in line at malls for autograph signings, you can play against Brown in NHL 2017. Join forces with him in combat games like Battlefield 1. Not a gamer? All you need to do to watch his streams is a Twitch account, which is free. Brown has amassed about 2,000 followers on his Twitch live stream since he began a month ago, some watching for hours from as far as Australia.

Brown, 26, is pumped to use his passion, video games, to connect with fans. And he plans to raise money for local charities, partnering with Twitch to donate any of his proceeds from ad revenue and subscriptions, which start at $4.99 a month. Brown isn't the only athlete to stream his video games. Several pro wrestlers do, as well as San Franciso Giants outfielder Hunter Pence (@hunterpence). But Brown said he was told by Twitch he was the first hockey player to try it.

"I'd be playing this anyways," Brown said. "This is just a fun way to interact with the fans. And it kind of shows we are normal. I want to be able to relate with fans beyond just the hockey player."

Dirk Shadd | Times

Lightning player J.T. Brown interacts with fans through video game systems as he streams the games live on Twitch with plans for the proceeds to go to charity.

• • •

Take one step into Brown's elaborate man cave in his south Tampa home and you'll quickly realize just how video games are far from just a hobby.

There are two plush, black leather recliners you'd normally see in a movie theater. In between is a figurine of a Star Wars Storm Trooper (the movie series is another passion). There are three monitors, including a 40-inch flat screen mounted against the wall, enough for Brown's gaming and streaming. There's a photo of J.T. Brown in a fight, the 5-foot-10 feisty forward led the Lightning with a career-high seven bouts last season. There are also posters of Brown's childhood team, the Minnesota Vikings, a team his father, Ted, played running back for.

A nursery is across the hall, Brown and his wife Lexi, expecting their first child, Lily, June 17.

But this is the real kid's room.

Brown spends a good chunk of his free time here, and even brings the Xbox with him on Lightning road trips. He and his brother, Sieed, a singer, were playing Battlefield a month ago when they wondered what it'd be like if they streamed it. It's not unusual, some serious gamers' making a living with their streams drawing tens of thousands of viewers.

On Brown's first night, he got 75.

"And it's taken off from there," Brown said. "I had no idea how big it would get."

Dirk Shadd | Times

DIRK SHADD | Times Tampa Bay Lightning player J.T. Brown with his game controller in his game room at his home in south Tampa. "This is just a fun way to interact with the fans. And it kind of shows we are normal."

• • •

A few weeks ago, Dave Jud saw on Reddit that Brown was live streaming his video games.

While Jud, 22, is a Capitals fan who grew up in Connecticut, he was intrigued. So he followed Brown on Twitter, enabling notifications to his phone, just in case. On May 17, it paid off.

Brown tweeted that afternoon: "Going to do a mid day NHL game looking for someone to play in next 10 min. Xbox one!"

Jud said he was lucky to be home. He was packing his Columbia, S.C. house in preparations for a move back to the Northeast. Jud replied to Brown's tweet, and within minutes, they exchanged direct messages and Xbox One gamer tags (Brown's is XtwigX TRICORE). Once Brown accepted Jud's request, they played a game of NHL 2017. Jud was the Capitals. Brown the Lightning.

"I've never seen any professional player do anything like this," Jud said. "It was cool to see him connect with Average Joe's."

Dirk Shadd | Times

With Tampa Bay Lightning player J.T. Brown pictured in the bottom right corner, he faces off with a hockey fan while they play against each other on line in an XBOX NHL video game in Brown's game room at his home in south Tampa.

Brown used a headset and microphone, talked through his computer with Jud during the intense, 20-minute game. Jud told Brown he was happy the Lightning missed the playoffs, knowing how dangerous they would be against his Capitals in the first round. Jud asked Brown what it was like to play himself in a video game.

"Just a fair warning, I'm probably not going to pass the puck when I have it as myself," Brown told him.

A few minutes later, Brown — as himself — passed on a 2-on-1 to set up a goal.

"I just set you up," Brown quipped. "Got to play some mind games."

Jud recalls later: "He was a little bit sneaky there."

Brown narrated the entire game, with comments on his teammates. "Stammer's got to have that one." "(Ryan Callahan) doesn't get knocked off the puck that easy." Jud actually held a 3-1 lead before Brown rallied for a 4-3 win. Brown has lost before, even on a stream, but not this time. "I was really nervous," Brown said. "Great game!"

Dirk Shadd | Times

Tampa Bay Lightning player J.T. Brown wears his anti-UV glasses as he talks over the headset with a hockey fan while they play against each other online in an XBOX NHL video game in Brown's game room at his home in south Tampa. The fan chose to be the Washington Capitals and Brown, of course, was the Tampa Bay Lightning.

• • •

While there are many, like Egger and Jud, who have played with — or against — Brown, the majority of fan interaction involves watching his live stream. Malia Maningo, 18, got a kick out of seeing her boyfriend, Kyle, playing Battlefield with Brown, enjoying the chat more. "It's cool to talk about stuff other than hockey," she said. Graham Romett, a 42-year-old retired Navy man, watched for three hours one night, even though he doesn't play video games. "What drew me into it was that J.T. was there," he said. "He's inviting you into his personal enjoyment, really."

Brown will usually tweet out a day in advance of his next stream, all you need to do is look up his channel ( JTBrown 23). You don't need a Twitch.TV account to watch, only if you want to comment/chat. Brown often invites some in the stream to join his game. Otherwise, he'll answer questions as he plays. Fans will ask Brown everything from what team he wants to win the Stanley Cup, to his favorite video games and Tampa restaurants.

"The question I get the most is, 'Is (coach Jon) Cooper as calm and cool as he seems when he's doing interviews?" Brown said. What's his answer? "Always yes," Brown says, laughing.

Dirk Shadd | Times

Lightning player J.T. Brown competes against fans from the comfort of his rather elaborate man cave.

Brown will offer giveaways, like a T-shirt or custom Lightning controller, through his live streams, picked at random by the computer. For Brown, this is just another unique way Brown has tried to connect with the Tampa Bay community. Brown, one of 30 African American players in the NHL, also participates in the Lightning's "Build the Thunder" program, mentoring at-risk kids at local elementary schools.

Brown has more free time this summer — at least until Lily comes, with the Lightning surprisingly missing the playoffs. He's streamed about once a week since late April, usually on Wednesdays, as many as 350 watching live. And it's a growing crowd, beyond the Lightning die-hards.

Said Jud: "He definitely made a fan out of me."

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] [email protected]

     
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