When you hear how much you can make playing video games these days, you might be tempted to pick up a controller – or devote more of your time to the pursuit in the event you’re already a gamer. In just a few short years of playing, esports athletes are growing net worths equivalent to those in traditional sports. Teams are earning nearly $5 million in a single competition, and all you need is a controller and a game to get started.
If temptation has gotten the best of you, you’re not alone: There’s no end in sight for more players and more money entering the industry. Using data from existing esports players’ stats and demographics, we were able to see what typically happens once a person gets started in the sport. Your age, your country, and even what types of games you think you’d like to play can factor into whether you have a shot. Keep reading to find out more.
Rise of the Digital Athlete
We weren’t kidding when we said esports is exploding. The graph above denotes the rise of esports in terms of annual total active players as well as the total prize money in esports over time. Using the number of tournaments reported for each year, we were also able to calculate the average earnings per tournament as the years progress.
Some say the earliest video game competition dates back to 1972 – Stanford University students competed in a Spacewars tournament, and the prize was a one-year subscription to Rolling Stone. By the 1980s, Atari had popularized gaming competitions, while classics like Pacman, Pong, and Space Invaders gained worldwide notoriety. Later, 2002 saw the release of Xbox Live, which brought online play to all of its console owners. Fast forward to 2019, and over $227 million was awarded in esports prize money. Per tournament, this averaged to $44,152 last year alone.
Over the last decade, esports has become one of the fastest-growing industries in the world. As recently as 2000, there were only 258 active esports players competing. Today, there are more than 25,000. And there’s more money to be made – beyond competition earnings, sponsors have made room for many lucrative careers. Major networks like ESPN are getting increasingly invested in video games’ top players, but there are also livestreaming sites like Twitch that offer less hardcore gamers the chance to earn paychecks.
Aging Into Esports
Next, we wondered how age factors into esports success. Video games may sound like a young person’s sport, but the lack of physical exertion in video games (as compared to typical athletics) could theoretically give older players a fighting chance.
Only one player among the top 20 lifetime highest-earning players is under the age of 20. His name is Kyle Giersdorf, and he’s a 17-year-old from the United States. In just three short years of playing esports, he’s already earned over $3 million. More often, the top earners skewed slightly older: 53% of the top 500 players are between the ages of 25 and 29, and this age group, along with those in their early 20s, were those with the highest median earnings. Only 1.5% of top players are 35 or older.
To break this down as your hypothetical “salary,” let’s take a look at top earner Johan Sundstein from Denmark. He’s 26 years old and has earned nearly $7 million in his career. But that’s the very top earner globally, and it’s taken him 11 years to accumulate his fortune. That works out to roughly a $630,000 annual salary. Of course that’s a great salary, but it is significantly lower than the earnings of some top athletes in traditional sports – Lebron James made nearly $89 million last year. However, esports is relatively young compared to traditional sports leagues, so it’s possible salaries like that will come to esports athletes in time.
Your country also can impact your odds of making it to the top. The next part of our study looked at the percentage of players from different countries ranked in the top 500 players overall. The five most lucrative games over time were also compared by country.
The top three countries for esports champions were the United States (21.3%), Korea (16.6%), and China (14.1%). That said, certain games proved much more lucrative in some countries than others. South Korea has a particular passion for video game culture, and playing is considered a primary form of social activity. Similar things can be said of both the U.S. and China as well, where more players connect with one another this way.
The most lucrative game overall – Dota 2 – is what’s known as a multiplayer online battle arena- or MOBA-style game, and it has become incredibly successful in China. Thus far, Dota 2 has earned players in the country $64.6 million. Recently, though, China had to ban the team Newbee from competitions after they were caught fixing Dota 2 matches.
Fortnite, whose franchise is worth an estimated $2 billion on its own, has already earned American players over $31 million. This is a battle royale-style game, where 100 players attempt to out-survive one another. And the world’s second most lucrative game, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, is dominated by Denmark, with the country’s players garnering $14.7 million in winnings. Counter-Strike is a multiplayer first person shooter where teams of terrorists fight against counter-terrorists.
The final portion of our study analyzed player earnings by their preferred genres and games. It also looks at which games would have the most competition as well as the most prize money to be won. These two numbers were used to calculate the games with the highest potential earnings per player.
The kinds of games that brought home the biggest paychecks also had the most players – or the most competition. First person shooter was the top genre of choice with 39.1% of players, followed by MOBA games (16.9% of players). These two games earned players $210.5 million and $346.7 million, respectively.
Dota 2, a particularly lucrative choice for a MOBA game, also had the highest potential earnings per player. With 3,681 players playing the game and $224.5 million in lifetime prize money, each gamer has an average potential earning of $61,007. The biggest competition may have been for players choosing Counter Strike, however: Nearly 13,000 competitors are vying for $96.5 million in total prizes.
Follow the Money
The potential to make the most esports money depends on a number of factors. As the data showed, the top video game players tended to be in their early-to-mid 20s and often lived in the U.S., Korea, and Denmark. Dota 2 was helping players earn more than any other game, but particularly for those in China.
If you’re interested in getting involved, there couldn’t be a better time. The competition may be getting fiercer, but jackpots and financing of the sport are also increasing. That said, your chances of success are likely improved if you start before hitting 30, though there are successful older gamers. Regardless of age, be ready to put in the work: Current players have noted the sleepless nights and endless hours of practice it takes to make it to the top. And you certainly don’t have to wait to become the world’s best player to start having fun. While we can’t guarantee the odds are in your favor, there are certainly more opportunities to get involved in the sport than there previously were. And the sooner you get started, the better.
Using data from Esportsearnings.com, we sought to explore the rise of esports and the feasibility of becoming an athlete within the sport.
When examining the age of esports players, we confined our analysis to players ranked in the global top 500 players by overall earnings. Age data were not available for some players. The same was true of country data for a small percentage of players in the top 500.
We also looked at countries’ dominance across different games. We looked at the top five games for overall prize money awarded. It should be noted that for all prize money data, totals are based both on game release dates and the date range of available data, which can fluctuate across different games and genres.
The Esportsearnings.com site classifies games into 10 genres. Looking at data across all genres, we sought to find the total number of players in each genre. Prize money totals by genre are across the entire available time frame, rather than for a specific year.
Finally, when we assessed the specific games with the highest potential earnings per player, we divided the total lifetime prize money awarded in a game and divided it by the number of players for that specific game. We confined our analysis to games with at least 50 players. Again, these should be considered potential lifetime earnings, rather than potential earnings in a single calendar year.
As is clearly stated on the Esportsearnings.com website, the site relies on user contributions of information and publicly available data sources. Therefore, the completeness and timeliness of the data can be hard to estimate. This project is purely exploratory.
Fair Use Statement
While esports has steadily risen in popularity over the years, becoming a pro in the sport is by no means easy. If someone you know would benefit from the information in this project, you are free to share for noncommercial reuse. We ask that you link back here so the project can be viewed in its entirety and the methodology can be reviewed. This also gives credit to our contributors who make this work possible.