The very idea that playing video games competitively could be a salaried profession has long eluded common sense. Yet, today professional gamers make a decent living and, on some occasions, turn millionaires. Prize money isn't all there is as more talented esports players are signed by powerful organizations who are interested in shaping their players into the most potent force in a given competitive title.
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Much like regular sports, though, how much gamers earn will depend not just on what esports tournaments are available but also on how much prize money is allocated in annual events. Clearly, some games, much like sports, fetch much better prize purses, but then again, the competition is much higher.
Today, we take a look at esports players' earning potential, what determines the potential salary, and if a player can rely on sustainable income over the years.
How Much Can an Esports Player Earn?
Because of how fragmented the esports industry is, and especially when it comes to salaries, much of our conclusions about how much a pro gamer makes will be based on information we have garnered over the years. Many players' contracts are subject to non-disclosure agreements and cannot be freely discussed with employers or even rival organizations.
That puts a shroud of mystery around how much esports players make. However, we have been able to arrive at several numbers that seem to be founded, in fact, more so than supposition. Here is what we have found out.
- Salaried pro gamers: $4,000 – $5,000/month or $50,000 – $60,000 a year
- Tournament prize money: $50,000
- Streaming earnings: $1,500 – $2,000
These numbers are calculated based on earnings in several high-profile esports games, including Dota 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, League of Legends, Overwatch, and others. The Overwatch League (OWL) offers salaries from $50,000 up to $5 million depending on how well players perform and whether they help secure a higher chunk of the prize pool.
The NBA2K still averages salaries of around $33,000-$44,000 a year for players, but the league attracts fewer eyeballs. Times have also changed to allow more prize money in certain esports. When Dota was only starting out as a competitive title, the available rewards were only $1 million, which was a revolutionary number by the times' standards.
In contrast, the Dota 2 International in 2021 has a running prize pool of $40 million, the largest single-event prize pool and ahead of the Fortnite World Cup. So, if we were to go on based on this information, we would argue that if you play for a top-tier esports organization, your income should range from $50,000 to $75,000 a year just from being signed up on a contract.
However, tournament winnings do matter as they help you stay employed as a gamer and earn additional income. The team simply creates a beneficial environment in which you can train, live and collaborate with your fellow esports players to have a better shot at securing bigger prizes.
Can We Talk about Salaries in Esports?
Yes, we absolutely can. The early days when players participated in esports and signed over their names over to an organization for a little more than glory and the shot at making it big are now gone. Every decent esports team is looking to ensure that its players feel good on the job.
The best organizations treat esports as a job, much like athletes treat sports as a job. That is why breaking into professional esports is challenging. Earning $5,000 per month is definitely a great incentive to continue improving yourself, but getting there can be a bit of an upward struggle.
Most people who decide to become professional esports players get started very early, in their teens, when they don't have to deal with adult responsibilities, such as going to work, earning a living, and looking after a family.
Not all players make it through, but many qualify for at least some form of competitive play. Esports salaries are not a given, and they often require you to commit fully to a career in esports without any guarantees that your dedication will pay off.
Salaries, though, do beckon to gamers who want to prove that their passion for competitive gaming can have a real-world impact.
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Choosing a Game Does Matter to Secure Income in Esports
One partly unpalatable truth about earning a salary in esports is that the game you pick may determine whether you are successful or otherwise. A simple example is Heroes of the Storm. While the game was dismissed by League of Legends and Dota 2 fans as not quite worthwhile, many gamers endorsed it and worked their way towards the top.
For a while, HotS proved a viable source of income, with pro gamers averaging around $40,000 a year before Blizzard decided to no longer support it in its capacity of a competitive gaming experience. Some players at the time were miffed with the lack of engagement from Blizzard when it came to the esports scene.
Someone close to Esports Grizzly commented in private that had they competed in any other game, including CS: GO, they would have made much more money. While this is true in theory, Heroes of the Storm was a much less intense and competitive esports title, which allowed some players easier access to income.
Many players have moved on from gaming entirely, though, since Blizzard decided to shut down HotS as a competitive title in 2018. What is the point of this anecdotal story? It goes to show that your earnings as gamers may depend not only on how good you are but also on what game you end up choosing.
Some HotS players walked away with over $100,000 to their names in two years without straining themselves as much as Overwatch League players who are constantly training and the highest earners today have around $300,000 in average earnings.
Choosing the Highest Earning Esports Games
Another way to determine how much you can earn as a professional gamer is to take a look at what the highest earnings per game are. There are actually many reliable databases you can use to get what some of the top esports is in terms of pure monetary potential. Some games will end up as better sources of income than others.
The below information is based on data provided by Esports Earnings and is an approximation of what you can expect per game. There are millions of gamers around the world, and the available data is based on professional tournaments and ranked players:
#1 Dota 2
- Earnings: $234,795,551
- Players: 4059
- Tournaments: 1526
#2 Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
- Earnings: $117,125,739
- Players: 13915
- Tournaments: 5770
- Earnings: $106,481,419
- Players: 4834
- Tournaments: 734
#4 League of Legends
- Earnings: $84,189,144
- Players: 7801
- Tournaments: 2660
#5 StarCraft II
- Earnings: $35,209,629
- Players: 13915
- Tournaments: 5770
#6 PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds
- Earnings: $35,572,921
- Players: 2995
- Tournaments: 334
- Earnings: $27,225,317
- Players: 3533
- Tournaments: 740
#8 Arena of Valor
- Earnings: $26,561,485
- Players: 708
- Tournaments: 63
- Earnings: $25,244,153
- Players: 2530
- Tournaments: 929
#10 Heroes of the Storm
- Earnings: $18,193,482
- Players: 1256
- Tournaments: 476
What Do EsportsEarnings Tell Us About Salaries?
As you can see, Dota 2 is without a doubt the highest-grossing game when you see how much esports players have earned playing it. However, it's one of the esports with the highest competitive level. Now, 4300 is certainly not too many players, but unlike League of Legends, professional gamers in Dota require a lot of raw skill to advance in the Matchmaking Rating (MMR).
That is not to suggest that League of Legends doesn't require a lot of skill. It very well does, but Dota 2 has a much steeper learning curve. Arena of Valor has only 26 tourneys, but the prize pool already exceeds $26 million.
Not only that, but you only have 708 other professional gamers to vie against. StarCraft II is incredibly difficult to get into, but once you do, you will have access to many competitions that provide you with a good stream of revenue.
Naturally, the top-earning players in esports are Dota 2 players. According to Esports Earnings, the top 31 earners bar one are all Dota players. Johan Sundstein, better known by his moniker, N0tail has amassed $6,983,817.80 in total winnings, an outstanding record. The only exception in the list is Fortnite World Cup winner Kyle Giersdorf who bagged $3,173,461.
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Where Should You Aim: Niche or Established Esports?
If you want to be a salaried professional gamer, you will need to focus on joining good esports teams. To distinguish yourself, though, you will need to leverage skills in a particular game of your choosing so that you can get drafted.
In light of the above information about esports, you have two options – to pick a niche game or try to follow the mainstream in order to make money as a professional gamer. There is another consideration, though. What esports are you truly good at?
Many of the esports players who have made it to the top have done so not just through rigorous practice but also love for gaming and one particular title. When trying to determine which esports title can prove a good stream of earnings, you must consider this as well.
Niche esports are only good as long as you have a real affinity for the chosen career path. Players often have the same considerations, and those who are in to earn a quick buck are usually not prepared to compete on a top or even paid level. Therefore the choice of title is just as important as developing the right skill set to join a great esports team.
Successful Examples of Niche Esports and Earnings
Some games such as Age of Empires and Warcraft III have been around for years. While support from developers has not been too great, games that are over 12 years old have been able to create and maintain a steady competitive community around them, making for a very significant impact.
If you were playing Age of Empires in the 2000s and still do in 2020, the chances are that you are either winning most of the prize money out there or have a Twitch channel and generate revenue, or both. Another great example is Dmitry “Happy” Kostin, a Warcraft III player who has done exactly that.
He has $150,000 in tourney earnings and is considered the best pro gamer in Warcraft for Europe, and frankly, North America. While his earnings may appear little to you, he is also very popular and engages in streaming and other opportunities, such as sponsorships, building him a steady income.
“Happy” is also insanely good at what he does. His professionalism doesn't stem from a lack of competition. He is the reason why many gamers have actually tried beating him at Warcraft III in the first place.
Yet, if you are in his shoes, his Warcraft III has been nothing but a raging success, and that is one fantastic example of how niche esports works.
Can You Really Make Money Being an Esports Pro?
The short answer is definitely. Players earn anything from a few thousand a year to millions depending on how good they are. Popular games are often a reward in themselves because apart from competing in tier one tourneys, a player can participate in streaming platforms like Twitch, for example, which can fetch significant earnings independent of any standing in the competitive gaming world.
Once you leverage your name, you are able to enjoy other benefits that don't necessarily have to do with gaming. As a famous streamer, you can reach out to new audiences and secure new opportunities. Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, a famous Fortnite player, may not be the highest-paid gamer, but he surely is one of the highest-paid Twitch streamers, and he earned his reputation playing Epic Games' battle royale.
The truth is that the more focused and committed you are to a game you enjoy, the easier it becomes to make money. Whether you make a million dollars or more depends on no small degree of chance and how far you want to take your hobby. Are you going to be a dedicated gamer like Johan Sundstein or more of a dedicated entertainer like Tyler Blevins? The choice rests with you and you alone.
How much does a pro gamer make?
It varies. The standard right now for a mid-to-high tier professional is $50,000 – $75,000 annually from salary only. Earnings from tournament winnings, sponsorships, and streaming are added and calculated based on how popular an individual player is.
How do esports players make money?
Esports players make money by being paid salaries, competing in tournaments with prize pools, branding rights, streaming, and other sponsorships.
Who is the highest-paid gamer?
Johan Sunstein. Dota 2 player Johan “N0tail” Sundstein has earned over $6.6 million playing Dota, and he is considered to be the world's best-paid gamer to date.
Is esports a good career financially?
It can be. Esports is a career that requires a very difficult skill set that is narrowly focused and cannot be applied outside of a given game that may or may not be around in years. Thousands of people worldwide become esports professionals successfully, but there are never any guarantees.