Turning on his headset, Green Bay Packers linebacker Blake Martinez surveys the field before him. In seconds, he must assess his opponents’ strategy and spring into action to thwart it. Whether Martinez is wearing the defensive headset on the field for the Packers or playing online battle-arena game Dota 2 on his Twitch channel, it’s the same process: As the main point of communication for his team, his job is to make sure every player is on the same page. And, just as he’s made his mark in the NFL, tying for the league lead in tackles in 2017, Martinez is also making a name for himself in the world of esports.
But success on the football field didn’t come instantly. Martinez, 24, started nine games for the Packers in 2016, finishing with 69 tackles, a sack, an interception and four passes defended. It was a respectable rookie campaign, but film shows a hesitant young player whose brain tends to override instinct. A sprained knee ligament also caused him to cede starting duties and miss three games in 2016, stunting the course of his development.
What a difference a sophomore season makes, as the jump in Martinez’s play has won over Packers fans and confounded his opponents. Starting all 16 games, Martinez added a sack, eight passes defended, an interception and a forced fumble to his league-leading 144 tackles. He turned in his most impactful performance in a Week 12 clash with the Pittsburgh Steelers, intercepting Ben Roethlisberger and tipping a pass to teammate Damarious Randall for another pick.
“Going into this second year, I earned the respect of my teammates for my play style and my work habits,” Martinez tells OZY. “At a certain point those guys told me, ‘Hey, this is your defense; we’re gonna follow your lead and whatever you say, goes.’”
So what changed? “Looking back, I figured out … I was trying to be [Carolina Panthers linebacker] Luke Kuechly or [former Chicago Bears linebacker] Brian Urlacher,” Martinez says. “I was trying to be somebody besides Blake Martinez.”
Allowing his instincts and play style to be the starting point unlocked the next level in Martinez’s game, and his coaches are singing his praises. “You always talk about the leap from year one to two, and that’s what you’re looking for,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said in a press conference.
I cheer louder for Blake because watching Twitch makes me feel connected to him.
Jeff Bear, Green Bay Packers fan
But Martinez’s communication skills will be tested in 2018, as the Packers recently parted ways with defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Soon, Martinez will have a new voice in his headset and will need to be the conduit between Capers’ replacement and his teammates — a little like learning to speak and translate a new language at the same time.
Martinez and his three siblings grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where mom is a real estate agent and dad owns a construction company. He picked up both football and video games at age 6. As a high school freshman, Martinez weighed 265 pounds and played on the defensive line. Then he met the trainer he still works with who got him to focus on nutrition and drop 40 pounds. To this day, he doesn’t consume soda, caffeine or alcohol.
With a degree in management from Stanford — earned in three and a half years — Martinez planned to open a nutrition-based business after football. That changed after he was introduced to esports following his rookie year.
Far from being a distraction to his NFL career, Martinez says, esports helps hone his leadership skills. Dota 2 is a game of strategy in which players are placed on teams, and the objective is to destroy the other team’s base. “Without pure communication in the game, you’re not going to get anywhere,” Martinez says. “It works the same way in football.”
Martinez estimates 60 percent of people who hang out on his Twitch channel have football questions and the other 40 percent want to talk about Dota 2. It’s a laid-back atmosphere that stands in stark contrast to the sterile interactions fans are typically permitted with NFL players.
“I cheer louder for Blake because watching Twitch makes me feel connected to him,” says Packers fan Jeff Bear. “He uses the same mouse I do, he plays the same games I do, and he trash talks his friends like I do.”
Martinez’s Twitch goes quiet during the football season as he focuses on his game; in the offseason, however, gamers and Packers fans connect on the linebacker’s channel. And Martinez isn’t just indulging a hobby. Since he started streaming in 2016, he has used Twitch to raise thousands of dollars for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital — a cause closer to his heart than most people realize.
As a third-grader, Martinez met Richard Blau and the two became best friends. Three years later, playing basketball at recess, Blau went up for a layup and his knee gave out. Martinez would soon learn that his friend had been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. Treatment appeared successful, and Blau went into remission. “We had a huge party for him; we thought everything was going to be fine,” Martinez recalls. But Blau passed away during their freshman year of high school.
“That’s why it means so much to me to do anything I can to help that cause in any way,” Martinez tells OZY, “whether it’s playing video games, donating my cleats, anything that can save one person from having to go through that or lose their opportunity to just be a kid.” Martinez uses his Twitch platform to donate $ 25 for every 100 followers he receives, along with all the money generated by channel subscriptions and bits (emoticons that Twitch users buy to support streamers). In 2016 alone, it was estimated that Twitch users spent more than $ 7 million on bits.
When it’s time to exit the NFL, Martinez hopes to own a Tier 1 esports team and compete in the International, the annual Dota 2 tournament where the prize pool has swelled past $ 20 million. He knows some of his teammates don’t understand esports. “They’ll ask me, ‘Why are you watching a video game and not playing it?’” He laughs and then says: “Just like a fan watches the NFL, I watch esports. When I dive into how much players make at the International, they’re like, ‘Oh, this is the real deal.’”
As it turns out, so is Martinez.