The Explosive Earnings of Digital Athletes in the Era of eSports

It’s become increasingly common for people to supplement their income by engaging in activities they enjoy. More than 44 million Americans have a second job in 2017, with some earning several hundred dollars monthly. That may lead to selling crafts, tending neighbors’ pets, or other creative freelance work, but what if instead you could make real money just by playing video games professionally?

If you’re expecting a simple game of “Angry Birds” or “Words with Friends,” you’ll be disappointed; competitive gaming requires a lot of time and effort. The esports market was worth $1.5 billion last year. By 2022, analysts predict that sum will have risen to $2.3 billion. There are a lot of opportunities and money to be made in esports, thanks to games like “Madden NFL” and “FIFA” as well as “League of Legends” and “Dota (Defense of the Ancients)” and sponsors like “Amazon” and “Disney.”

The Main Event: Video Games

Emphasis on Games

Most people believe that professional athletes make a lot of money. While this may be accurate in some instances, the NFL league minimum for a rookie contract in 2017 was only $465,000. That’s a lot of money, but a competitive Madden NFL player could make twice that playing in an esport.


Indeed, some of the most prominent players have made millions of dollars during their illustrious esports careers. KuroKy has raked in roughly $3.5 million thus far, making it the top earner. KuroKy (actual name Kuro Takhasomi) has been playing video games since he was 10 years old, and he recently won The International 2017, the official “Dota 2” finals held in Seattle. KuroKy’s team, Liquid, won The International 2017 and took home $10.8 million. This blew over his previous earnings from 2012 to 2016, putting him at the top of the leaderboard. Over $24 million was awarded in total prize money during 2017’s “Dota 2” championships.


Though he may be the best, KuroKy is not the only professional gamer to earn more than $3 million from winning tournaments. Miracle is not far behind him with approximately $3.1 million in earnings throughout the course of his career. Amer Al-Barkawi, often known as Miracle- or Liquid Miracle, was a part of the 2017 Esports Industry Awards-winning KuroKy Dota 2 squad and was named PC Player of the Year.


UNiVeRsE ($2.9 million), MinD_ContRoL ($2.8 million), Matumbaman ($2.8 million), and ppd ($2.6 million) are among the other seven players who have won more than $2 million.

Many of the largest professional sports leagues in the world are actively working to expand their fan base internationally. Despite soccer’s global popularity, European leagues like the Champions League (which is home to Manchester United and Chelsea) have struggled to gain traction in the United States. However, the 32 NFL teams may be valued more than all MLB and NBA franchises combined, and their efforts are still directed toward expanding their global reach. As we saw, esports is a rapidly growing market around the world.



China may not have the most esports players (the United States takes that honor), but the country still made more than $68 million in revenue. As a whole, Chinese gamers in competitive video game tournaments made around $27,000 last year playing titles like “Dota 2” and “Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft.” Even outside of China, esports have attracted over 200 million spectators. Excluding the income of Chinese players, additional study estimates that the 2017 Chinese esports market was worth $1.26 billion.


The esports market is growing rapidly in the United States as well. In the United States, 9,600 players have earned a total of $63 million in esports, with the average player earning over $6,500. You can watch the sport as a spectator, just like in other countries. In August of 2017, fans packed the Seattle KeyArena to watch the 2017 “Dota 2” International Championship, the richest tournament in esports. Research shows that among American male millennials, esports viewership is virtually on par with that of baseball and hockey.


Players from South Korea, Sweden, and Denmark made the most money, however players from South Korea, Germany, and France also ranked highly.


Numbers Have an Advantage

So, which games have the highest prize pools in esports history? In terms of prize money, “Dota 2” is now the most popular professional gaming platform. The 2017 official championship games earned $24 million, more than any other esports tournament in history. Since the first official tournament in 2011, esports athletes have earned almost $132 million playing “Dota 2,” with 871 tournaments and 2,307 professional players. Valve’s “Dota 2” is a massively multiplayer online battle arena that anyone may play for free.


If there’s any game that can catch up to “Dota 2” in esports popularity, it’s “League of Legends.” Although “Dota 2” players may be reaping financial rewards, “League of Legends” (which is especially popular among South Korean gamers) has paid out over $49 million in prize money, despite having significantly fewer participants and tournaments. One thing “Dota 2” has going for it that “League of Legends” might not be able to match is the tremendous profit it generates.


If you’re not into fantasy, there are plenty of other games out there with hundreds of tournaments and millions of dollars in prize money. One such game is “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.” Popular among Swedish gamers, this multiplayer first-person shooter features teams and has attracted over 9,000 participants across nearly 3,000 events with a total prize pool of over $46 million.


Increasingly High Median Wages

If you’re only now learning about esports, it doesn’t mean it’s a recent development everywhere in the world. Video games have been available for a long time, but in 1980, Atari held the inaugural gaming competition for “Space Invaders” and attracted 10,000 participants. However, the release of “StarCraft” by Blizzard Entertainment (the industry giant behind “World of Warcraft”) in 1998 is often regarded as the beginning of the esports industry.


Since “StarCraft” is a game that demands hundreds of decisions every minute, it quickly gained massive popularity among South Korean gamers, and in less than two years, matches were being broadcast on Korean television as a professional sports league. Since then, the popularity of professional gaming has spread over the globe, resulting in thousands of players and billions in revenue. But is there any more room for expansion?


Nearly $15,000 was awarded in 1998 event prize pools, with the average participant earning nearly $3,900. There has been some variation in those figures over time, with the prize pool averaging around $6,000 between 2008 and 2010 (during the recession). Average earnings and tournament prizes in esports reached all-time highs in 2017 and 2018 after having touched record lows less than a decade earlier. In 2018, the average player earned over $38,000, while in 2017 the average was over $6,800.


Youthful Gainers

Who says millennials lack ambition? To some extent, esports may appeal more to young men than women (though women do participate). Players between the ages of 24 and 25 make the most each event, averaging over $27,000, while those between the ages of 22 and 24 make the most altogether (over $30 million).


The demands of the game may contribute to the disproportionately large number of young participants. If you’ve never competed in a video game before, it may be difficult to grasp how much time and effort is required to achieve the highest levels of play. Just as in any other sport, there is always the risk of getting hurt badly enough to have to give it up for good. Professional gamers put in twice as much time each day, playing anywhere from eight to twelve hours, as the ordinary player does. Each of those hours can involve hundreds of actions per minute (i.e., clicks or strokes with a keyboard, gamepad, or mouse), which can be physically taxing.


Highest Paying Team Tournaments Don’t Have a “I”

In esports, individual players may be skilled at their craft, but it is only when they work together that true brilliance can be achieved. Individually, a few players have broken the $2 million and $3 million lifetime earnings thresholds, but when added together, their total haul is significantly larger. Over $18 million was earned by Team Liquid as a whole, thanks to the efforts of players like KuroKy and Miracle. Nearly $17 million has been amassed by Evil Geniuses, who compete in “Dota 2” in addition to “StarCraft,” “Halo,” and “Counter-Strike,” among other titles.


For many of these squads, “Dota 2” is the game that brings in the most money for their esports organization. Only $1.9 million of Evil Geniuses’ total earnings of $16.6 million came from sources other than video games. Nearly $12 million of Newbee’s total revenue, or over $106,000 each tournament, has come from “Dota 2” competitions. However, many teams have relied on “League of Legends” as their primary source of revenue, with some making millions.


Totally Game

The concept of professional gamers and esports is not new, but it has the potential to explode in popularity. Alibaba Group, an Asian corporation, is collaborating with the International Olympic Committee to add esports to the Olympic program. Some experts believe this is a positive start toward including competitive video gaming into the 2022 Olympic Games in China. It’s true that there are other ways to make money playing video games, but none of them come close to the tournaments and rewards offered for some of the most popular games in esports, such as “Dota 2,” “League of Legends,” and “Counter-Strike.” It’s not simple to make it as a professional athlete, and esports isn’t drastically different from other sports people play, so it might not be worth considering if you don’t have the time.




We compiled information from regarding the average annual income of professional esports players and the highest-paying video games. There is also information collected about individual teams, such as their earnings history, tournament performance, and income distribution across country and age groups.

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