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The Rise of eSports: A Look at Digital Athletes and Their Explosive Earnings

Many people are finding new and creative ways to turn passions and hobbies into side hustles. In 2017, more than 44 million Americans worked a side gig, some earning hundreds of dollars (or more) a month. While that work may translate into selling crafts, walking neighbors’ dogs, or even creative freelance work, what if you could earn some serious cash just by professionally playing video games?

So as not to be confused with a casual round of “Angry Birds” or “Words With Friends,” competitive gaming takes a serious level of dedication. In 2017, the esports industry earned $1.5 billion in revenue. Experts project that number will rise to $2.3 billion by 2022. From big-name game titles such as “Madden NFL” and “FIFA” to “League of Legends” and “Dota (Defense of the Ancients)” and even bigger sponsors (Amazon and Disney), there are plenty of opportunities and money in esports to be had.

To learn more, we’ve profiled some of the biggest names in the industry, the games they’re playing, and just how much cash they’re really pulling in. Want to know how old some of the most successful players are and if the industry really is growing as fast as some analysts predict? Read on to find out.

In the Gaming Spotlight

Gaming Spotlight

In professional sports, most people assume being a pro athlete means big bucks. In some cases that might be true, but in 2017, the NFL league minimum for a first-year contract was just $465,000. That’s no small sum, but in esports, a competitive Madden NFL player could earn twice as much with their digital field skills.

In fact, some of the biggest and most well-known names in the game have earned millions of dollars over the course of their esports careers. Leading the pack with nearly $3.5 million in earnings to date is KuroKy. As the winner of The International 2017, the official “Dota 2” championships held in Seattle, KuroKy (whose real name is Kuro Takhasomi) has been playing video games since the age of 10. With modest earnings between 2012 and 2016, The International 2017 earned KuroKy’s team, Liquid, a cool $10.8 million for their victory, catapulting him to the top of the charts. In total, the “Dota 2” championships awarded over $24 million in prize money to the various winners in 2017.

KuroKy might be No. 1, but he isn’t the only esports player picking up over $3 million playing video games competitively. Following close behind is Miracle with nearly $3.1 million in career earnings. Sometimes referred to as Miracle- or Liquid Miracle, Amer Al-Barkawi was a member of KuroKy’s championship-winning Dota 2 team and earned the title of PC Player of the Year at the Esports Industry Awards in 2017.

Another seven players have earned over $2 million, including UNiVeRsE ($2.9 million), MinD_ContRoL ($2.8 million), Matumbaman ($2.8 million), and ppd ($2.6 million).

Global Gaming Events

Global Gaming Events

When it comes to professional sports, many of the biggest leagues in the world have set their sights on acquiring a global audience. Soccer may be one of the biggest sports in the world, but organizations like the Champions League (home to Manchester United and Chelsea) have yet to break through the U.S. market fully. In contrast, the 32 NFL teams might be worth as much as every MLB and NBA team combined, but they’re still focused on building an international presence . As we learned, the esports industry is booming all around the world.

China might not have the highest number of esports players (that nod goes to the U.S.), but total earnings there amounted to over $68 million. On average, Chinese esports players earned nearly $27,000 for their efforts in games like “Dota 2” and “Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft.” Esports isn’t just popular in China either – they’ve drawn in over 200 million fans . Additional research suggests the esports market in China was worth $1.26 billion in 2017, excluding money earned by Chinese players themselves.

In America, the esports industry is also booming. With over 9,600 players and $63 million in combined earnings, the average esports player in the U.S. has earned more than $6,500 with their skills behind the screen. As with other nations, you don’t have to participate to enjoy the spectacle of the sport. The International 2017 “Dota 2” Championship sold out the Seattle KeyArena in August 2017 as fans gathered to watch the richest tournament in esports play out. Studies have shown nearly as many male millennials in America watch esports as tune into baseball and hockey.

While other nations like South Korea, Germany, and France also led the world with professional esports athletes, players in South Korea, Sweden, and Denmark earned the most overall.

Strength in Numbers

Strength in Numbers

So which games have handed out the biggest prizes in esports over the years? “Dota 2” currently leads the ranks of professional gaming platforms concerning cash prizes. In 2017, the official championship games posted the highest winnings of any esports tournament in history: $24 million. With 871 tournaments since the first official tournament in 2011 and 2,307 professional players, esports athletes have earned nearly $132 million playing “Dota 2.” Developed by Valve, “Dota 2” is a free-to-play massive multiplayer arena.

If any game has the steam to outpace the popularity of “Dota 2” in the world of esports, it might just be “League of Legends.” With more than twice as many players and tournaments, “League of Legends” (which is especially popular among South Korean players) has handed out over $49 million in prize money – a far cry from the profits “Dota 2” players might be enjoying. As one of the most popular video games in the world, the only thing that might be missing from “League of Legends” is the massive profit from “Dota 2”.

If fantasy isn’t your genre of choice, there’s another option with thousands of tournaments and millions of dollars in prize money: “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.” Prominent among Swedish players, this team-based multiplayer first-person shooter has amassed nearly 3,000 tournaments, over 9,000 players, and over $46 million in prize money.

Trending to the Top

Average Earnings

Even if this is the first time you’re hearing about the wide world of professional gaming, the global phenomenon that is esports isn’t new. While video games have been around for decades, the first gaming tournament was hosted by Atari for “Space Invaders” and drew 10,000 players in 1980. Still, the launching point for esports is often traced back to 1998 with Blizzard Entertainment (the industry titan behind “World of Warcraft”) and the launch of “StarCraft.”

As a game that requires players to make hundreds of in-game decisions every minute, “StarCraft” rose to epic levels of popularity among gamers in South Korea, and in less than two years, matches were being aired on Korean television as a professional sports league. Since then, the world has caught on to professional gaming, bolstering the sport to thousands of players around the globe and billions of dollars in profit. But is there still room to grow?

At its inception, the average esports player earned nearly $3,900 in 1998, and tournament pool prizes were nearly $15,000. Those numbers have fluctuated over the years, with prize pools falling to an average of roughly $6,000 between 2008 and 2010 (during the economic recession ). Since hitting record lows less than a decade ago, average earnings and tournament prizes in esports have grown to record highs in 2017 and 2018. In 2017, the average earning for players amounted to over $6,800 while tournament prize pools in 2018 were over $38,000.

Young Earners

Young Earners

Who says millennials aren’t motivated to succeed? As with some other professional sports, esports might be a young man’s game (although women play too, of course). Successful esports athletes are largely comprised of players between 18 and 25 years old, with 22-year-old players earning the most overall (over $30 million) and players between 24 and 25 years old earning the most per tournament (over $27,000).

The prevalence of younger players could be owed, in part, to the rigors of the game. If you’ve never played video games competitively, it can be hard to imagine just how much work goes into reaching peak performance levels. As with other sports, it’s even possible to sustain injuries that might sideline you permanently if you aren’t careful. If the average casual gamer plays between five and six hours a week, professional gamers put in eight to 12 hours every day. In each of those hours, a player can log hundreds of actions per minute (meaning clicks or strokes with a keyboard, controller, or mouse), occasionally putting too much stress on the body and arms.

No “I” in Team

Highest Paying Tournaments

The professional players who make up esports might be good at what they do, but it’s when they come together as a team that the real magic happens. On their own, a handful of players managed to crest above the $2 million and $3 million marks for career earnings, but together, their winnings were much higher. The combined overall earnings for Team Liquid (with players like KuroKy and Miracle) were over $18 million. Evil Geniuses, who also play “Dota 2” in addition to games like “StarCraft,” “Halo,” and “Counter-Strike,” have earned nearly $17 million.

For many of these teams, “Dota 2” represents the bread and butter of their esports earnings. Of the $16.6 million Evil Geniuses have earned over the years, only $1.9 million has come from other games. Newbee, who’ve earned over $12 million total and more than $106,000 per tournament, owe nearly $12 million of that intake to “Dota 2” tournaments. Still, some teams (including SK Telecom T1, Samsung, and EDward Gaming) have made millions off “League of Legends” as their primary purse.

Ready to Play

Professional gaming and esports are nothing new, but they may be on the verge of becoming much more popular. Asian conglomerate Alibaba is working with the Olympic Council to make esports a medal-awarded sport. According to some analysts, this could be the first step in bringing esports and competitive video gaming to China’s Olympic Games in 2022. While there may be other ways to make money playing video games, nothing compares to the tournaments and prizes available in competitions for some of the sport’s most recognized titles including “Dota 2,” “League of Legends,” and “Counter-Strike.” It might not be worth considering if you don’t have the time, though; becoming a professional athlete isn’t easy, and esports isn’t entirely different from other sports people play.


We collected data from esportsearnings.com about a competitive esports player’s overall monetary earnings and the top paying video games. Additional data gathered include team-specific information, such as money earned over time, tournament results, and earnings by country and age.


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