Esports and Money: How Much Do Esports Players Earn?

Our NAVI became the first Counter-Strike 2 world champions, and we sincerely congratulate them once again (in case anyone forgot, it was Natus Vincere who became the first Dota 2 champions at the same legendary first The International in 2011 in Cologne). The prize pool of the PGL CS2 Major Copenhagen 2024 tournament, which NAVI won this time, amounted to $1.25 million, of which $500 thousand went to the winning team, i.e. five NAVI players. How much do modern esportsmen earn in general?


Professional gamer Koss, the protagonist of the first feature film by director Oleg Sentsov Gamer (2011), is disappointed in games that can give him neither popularity nor money. Interestingly, the film was partially shot during the World Cyber Games 2010 tournament, where the same NAVI team won the gold medal in Counter-Strike 1.6, and a year later another NAVI team won The International prize in Dota 2, meaning that professional eSports players who consciously chose this career already existed in Ukraine. But of course, it all started much earlier in the United States.

 

Esports. Tic-tac-toe, Space Invaders, and other games to start with

Amateur and promotional video game tournaments have been held since the very beginning of the existence of such games. During the demonstration of one of the first video games, Bertie the Brain, which took place at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1950, a long line of people lined up to play Tic-tac-toe with the huge computer. Of course, there were no cash prizes at that time. But they soon appeared.

Bertie the Brain – the first interactive electronic game in which a human competed with AI (in the classical sense)

It is believed that the first real video game competition was a Spacewar! tournament among Stanford University students, which took place on October 19, 1972. By the way, the first version of Spacewar! was released on the PDP-1 computer (not a PC!) in 1962. The main prize was symbolic, but quite desirable for students of the 1970s – a subscription to Rolling Stone music magazine. Separate individual and team competitions were held. It should be noted that Spacewar! was an exclusively multiplayer game from the very beginning.

PDP-1 computer monitor with Spacewar running!

But of course, the roots of esports are primarily in head-to-head competitions or in the top 10 in arcade halls in the United States and Japan. And it was the arcade machine manufacturers who started to create a sport out of it, of course, to increase profits from their own machines. The first tournament of this kind, All Japan TV Game Championships, was organized by Sega, which is well known to players, in 1974. Competitions were held in 300 (!) locations, of course, arcades, all over Japan with the final in the Single-elimination format at the Pacific Hotel in Tokyo. The prizes here were more substantial – TVs (even color ones!), voice recorders, and radios. Sega really drew public attention to the games, as even leading Japanese newspapers covered the competition.

The Space Invaders game, which appeared in 1978 on Taito arcade machines, maintained a constant High score for all players, and later a similar feature was added to other games, so the competition for the first lines of the record table began. That is why, when Atari decided to organize the Space Invaders Championship in 1980, there was no shortage of applicants, and more than 10 thousand players from all over the United States took part in the competition. Unexpectedly for himself, 17-year-old William Salvador Heineman (now Rebecca Ann Heineman) won the tournament. Three years later, Heineman, along with the well-known Brian Fargo, founded the legendary Interplay Entertainment company, where the former eSports player worked on The Bard’s Tale, Dragon Wars, Baldur’s Gate II, and other games.

Players at the Space Invaders Championship 1980

Later, similar tournaments for various games began to be held regularly, and there was even a separate TV show Starcade, which aired on WTBS and Syndicated during 1982-1984 (4 seasons, 127 episodes). Players in Starcade had to score more points than their opponents in a limited time, choosing from games such as Defender, Centipede, and Pac-Man. Berzerk and Asteroids Deluxe were used in the finals. In 2022, the idea of reviving the show was discussed, but it did not work out.

 

The DOOM era – fighting games, John Romero, red Ferrari, and all the rest…

The further growth in the popularity of video games as a competitive discipline is associated with fighting games, such as Street Fighter II, which allowed players to fight face-to-face rather than for an abstract place in the top 10. Since 1996, the Evolution Championship Series (EVO) tournaments have been held in the United States exclusively for fighting games. The series is now owned by Sony Interactive Entertainment and this year’s EVO will be held in July in Las Vegas. Competitive disciplines in 2024: Tekken 8, Street Fighter 6, Mortal Kombat 1, The King of Fighters XV, Guilty Gear Strive, Granblue Fantasy Versus: Rising, Under Night In-Birth II, Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike. The prize pool for each of the games is $30 thousand, or $240 thousand in total.

In addition, the Nintendo World Championships tournaments, which took place in the United States from 1990 to 2017, made a great contribution to the competitive culture of video games and the formation of esports. Qualifications for the first tournament in three age groups (under 11, 12-17, 18+) were held in 29 cities of the United States. Players competed in customized versions of three games – Super Mario Bros. (1985), Rad Racer (1987), and Tetris (1989). The winner in each category received $10 thousand (in bonds, because they were kids), a 1990 Geo Metro Convertible, a 40-inch projection TV, and a gold Mario statue.

A customized cartridge from the 1990 Nintendo World Championships. Now it’s not a cheap collector’s item

Without detracting from the merits of the Evolution Championship Series and Nintendo World Championships, we believe that the development of the Internet and the emergence of online shooters, namely the Deathmatch mode in DOOM (1993), was much more important for the birth of esports. And here we must pay tribute to John Romero, who not only coined the term Deathmatch, but also created and ignited a whole community of players who wanted to win with his own perseverance, impudence, and aggressiveness. Yes, thanks to Romero, it turned out to be a bit too aggressive and toxic, but this only fed the spirit of competition.

«Sure, it was fun to shoot monsters, but in the end, they were soulless creatures controlled by a computer. Now, players could play against spontaneous humans – opponents who could think, develop their own strategy, and yell “We can kill each other!” If we can do this, it will be the coolest game the planet Earth has ever seen in its history!” recalls John Romero of those days.

By the way, Romero himself says that the creators of DOOM Deathmatch were inspired by fighting games – Street Fighter II, Fatal Fury, and Art of Fighting. DOOM and later Quake (1996) tournaments became regular events. At first, Romero personally took part in competitions, encouraging players.

In 1996, QuakeCon began to be held annually, where new id Software games were presented and, of course, people competed for prizes in previous games. At first, it was just T-shirts :).

QuakeCon 1996 looks like an ordinary gaming club in Ukraine in the late 1990s

One of the strangest and most valuable prizes in the history of esports is associated with id Software and Quake. During the Red Annihilation tournament in 1997, John Carmack, CTO and creator of the engines of all id games, put up his customized red Ferrari 328 as the main prize (Carmack was a fan of car modernization). By the way, Romero had the same Ferrari, only yellow, but by that time Romero had already quarreled with Carmack and left the company to make his own Daikatana.

The Ferrari was given to the famous player Dennis Tresh Fong, who is considered the first professional esportsman because he literally lived off tournaments, winning more than $100 thousand annually in various competitions. By the way, it was Tresh who popularized the WASD keyboard shortcut that is now used in shooters by default.

The same red Ferrari 328, Dennis Tresh Fong and John Carmack

In 1997, the Cyberathlete Professional League, one of the first professional esports associations to organize major tournaments, was established.

It was with DOOM, Quake, and the emergence of the first computer clubs that esports in Ukraine was born. And then big money came to esports.

Trailer for the film “Gamer” (2011), directed by Oleg Sentsov

 

Games that bring in money

The 2000s saw the rapid growth of esports, especially in East Asia. The tone was set by South Korea, where everyone went absolutely crazy for video games, especially real-time strategies such as StarCraft, WarCraft III, and Dota. Players became nationally known celebrities, numerous esports shows were broadcasted, and there were even separate gaming TV channels. For a long time, Asian players were considered almost invincible in RTS/MOBA.

The final of the World Cyber Games 2006 was held at the legendary Monza racetrack near Milan

Manufacturers of computer hardware, especially gaming hardware, began to pay attention to esports. Samsung has been organizing its own World Cyber Games since 2000. By the way, they still exist, but without Samsung and as small regional competitions. Intel had the Intel Extreme Masters, which, by the way, are still being held, Intel Extreme Masters 2024 in Counter-Strike 2 will be held on April 8-14, 2024 in China, with a prize pool of $250 thousand. Call of Duty tournaments: Major League Gaming, which is now owned by Activision Blizzard, i.e. Microsoft, held them.

There were many tournaments, prizes increased, and esports competitions began to gather large arenas and a large online audience. In the 2000s and 2010s, every game developer dreamed of having an esports component in their project. Even World of Tanks added a competitive mode, but it didn’t take off.

NAVI winners of Intel Extreme Masters Katowice 2020

Despite the fact that almost all AAA video games now have competitive modes, only a few of them are esports. And their popularity can be easily ranked by the size of the prize pool. The more money there is, the more players there are. For many years, Esports Earnings has been carefully collecting statistics on individual players, teams, and games, so let’s see what they have to say about the top esports games.

Esports disciplines by the size of the prize pool
1. Dota 2 (2012, Valve) – $345 million
2. Fortnite (2017, Epic Games) – $180 million
3. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (2012, Valve) – $162 million
4. League of Legends (2009, Tencent Games) – $108 million
5. Arena of Valor (2016, Tencent Games) – $89 million
6. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds Mobile (2018, Tencent Games) – $80 million
7. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (2017, Tencent Games) – $60 million
8. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege (2015, Ubisoft) – $44 million
9. StarCraft II (2010, Blizzard Entertainment) – $41 million
10. Rocket League (2015, Epic Games) – $37 million

Other major eSports games include: Overwatch, Hearthstone, Valorant, Apex Legends, CrossFire, Heroes of the Storm, Call of Duty: Warzone, etc. It is easy to see that the esports market is currently dominated by only a few companies that earn much more from these games than they spend on prize money. These are Valve, Epic Games, and Tencent Games. Microsoft, Ubisoft, and EA are playing catch-up.

It is clear that the largest tournaments are also related to the above-mentioned games. And here it is very difficult for someone to compete with Valve, which literally finances tournaments at the expense of viewers/players.

Esports tournaments with the largest prize pool
1. The International 2021 (Dota 2) – $40 million
2. The International 2019 (Dota 2) – $34 million
3. The International 2018 (Dota 2) – $25 million
4. The International 2017 (Dota 2) – $24 million
5. The International 2016 (Dota 2) – $20 million
6. The International 2022 (Dota 2) – $19 million
7. The International 2015 (Dota 2) – $18 million
8. Fortnite World Cup Finals 2019 (Fortnite – Solo) – $15 million
9. Riyadh Masters 2023 (Dota 2) – $15 million
10. Fortnite World Cup Finals 2019 (Fortnite – Duo) – $15 million

 

How much do the best esportsmen earn

Of course, the earnings of esportsmen are still far from those of professional footballers, basketball players, or Formula 1 drivers. If we compare the prize money of esportsmen with the money earned by players in sports that are similar in terms of the principle of calculating cash awards, such as golfers and tennis players, it seems that things are still bad here.

For example, the best esports players are only in the top 300 golfers in terms of career earnings. What can we say about Tiger Woods with his $120 million in prize money? It’s almost the same amount of money in tennis: Novak Djokovic – $181 million, Rafael Nadal – $134 million, Roger Federer – $130 million, Serena Williams – $94 million.

The world’s best cyberathlete Johan N0tail Sundstein

However, if we take players outside the top ten, the gap does not look so great, especially if we take into account the young age of esports itself compared to professional golf or tennis. For example, the 100th place on the PGA Tour is already $18 million. The best Ukrainian tennis player Elina Svitolina earned $23 million in her career. Yes, this is still significantly higher than the $7 million of prize money of the best esports player Johan N0tail Sundstein (two-time champion of The International in Dota 2), but the difference is not so striking. By the way, Sundstein is a Faroese, a representative of a tiny nation (about 70 thousand people) living on the Faroe Islands, the founding country of the Kingdom of Denmark.

Let’s take a look at the list of the world’s top esports players in terms of prize money. Again, according to Esports Earnings.

The best cyber tournaments by prize money (all Dota 2)
1. Йохан N0tail Сундштайн (Данія) – $7.1 million
2. Джессі JerAx Вайнікка (Фінляндія) – $6.5 million
3. Анатан ana Фам (Австралія) – $6 million
4. Себастьян Ceb Дебс (Франція) – $5.9 million
5. Топіас Topson Таавіцайнен (Фінляндія) – $5.7 million
6. Ярослав Miposhka Найденов (Росія) – $5.6 million
7. Ілля Yatoro Мулярчук (Україна) – $5.4 million
8. Магомед Collapse Халілов (Росія) – $5.4 million
9. Мірослав Mira Колпаков (Україна) – $5.4 million
10. Куро KuroKy Такхасомі (Німеччина) $5.3 million

It would seem that there are two Ukrainians in the top 10 best players on the planet, which is something to be proud of… but there is a nuance. Ilya Mulyarchuk and Miroslav Kolpakov earned this money playing alongside Russians as part of the Russian esports team Team Spirit. At the same time, they joined the team in 2020 and 2021, i.e. in the 6th and 7th year of the war. This looks especially cynical if we remember that Ilya Mulyarchuk was born and spent his childhood in Bucha.

The lion’s share of the top 100 eSports players play Dota 2, thanks to the crazy prizes of The International. The first non-Dota player on this list is Peter dupreeh Rasmussen (Denmark, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive), who is only 41st with $2.2 million in prize money.

 

And what about Ukraine?

As in the rest of the world, Dota 2 and Counter-Strike of various versions are the most popular games in Ukraine. Once upon a time, our own Oleksii White-Ra Krupnyk from Odesa was a great StarCraft player, and he even became a celebrity in South Korea and China. By the way, StarCraft II tournaments are still being held today, even with prize pools of $500 thousand. In addition, Ukrainians played World of Tanks (when tournaments for this game were still held), PUBG, Hearthstone, Fortnite, etc.

Famous Ukrainian starcrafter Oleksiy White-Ra Krupnyk (right)

Here is the data Esports Earnings has on the games popular among Ukrainian players.

The most popular esports disciplines among Ukrainians in terms of winnings
1. Dota 2 – $21.8 million
2. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive – $6 million
3. PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS – $946 thousand
4. World of Tanks – $884 thousand
5. Hearthstone – $825 thousand
6. Counter-Strike – $719 thousand
7. Fortnite – $685 thousand
8. Counter-Strike 2 – $585 thousand
9. League of Legends – $471 thousand
10. StarCraft II – $415 thousand

Legendary Ukrainian doter Danylo Dendi Ishutin

Of course, there is the same rating of Ukrainian players in terms of prize money. The nicknames in it are as well known to fans as the names of famous footballers. But, as mentioned above, some of the Ukrainian players in it are only nominally Ukrainian.

Ranking of Ukrainian cyberathletes by prize money
1. Ilya Yatoro Mulyarchuk (Dota 2) – $5.4 million
2. Miroslav Mira Kolpakov (Dota 2) – $5.4 million
3. Roman Resolut1on Fominok (Dota 2) – $2.1 million
4. Oleksandr s1mple Kostylev (Counter-Strike: Global Offensive) – $1.7 million
5. Volodymyr Noone Minenko (Dota 2) – $1.7 million
6. Valery B1t Vakhovsky (CS: GO, Counter-Strike 2) – $1.2 million
7. Ilya Lil Ilyuk – $936 thousand
8. Danylo Dendi Ishutin (Dota 2) – $827 thousand
9. Danylo Zeus Teslenko (CS 1.6, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive) – $793 thousand
10. John Edward Sukharev (CS 1.6, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive) – $722 thousand

 

How much do teams earn

A separate rating is also kept for teams that now usually compete in several disciplines at once. And here our NAVI is on top.

The best esports teams by prize money

1. Team Liquid (Netherlands) – $48.6 million
2. OG (Denmark) – $38 million
3. Team Spirit (Russia) – $29.7 million
4. Evil Geniuses (USA) – $28.6 million
5. Natus Vincere (Ukraine) – $21.7 million
6. Team Secret (USA) – $20 million
7. Fnatic (UK) – $20 million
8. Virtus.pro (Russia) – $19.9 million
9. FaZe Clan (USA) – $19.5 million
10. Paris Saint-Germain Esports (France) – $19 million

Modern esports teams, just like teams of other sports, such as football or basketball, are powerful commercial organizations that have influential sponsors, produce their own branding, uniforms, game controllers, video cards, etc. And they don’t make money from prize money.

Among the sponsors of the top teams are such world-famous brands as: NVIDIA, Red Bull, Honda, L’Oréal, SAP SE, Twitch, BMW, Corsair Gaming, Alienware, HyperX, Marvel Entertainment, Monster Energy, SteelSeries, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, LG UltraGear, Puma, Logitech, Nissan, Philips, and others. The set is no worse than in some Formula 1.

Moreover, well-known sports clubs are starting to create esports teams, such as the French Paris Saint-Germain Esports, which is known primarily for its football club. Well, now PSG is also known for Dota 2, and it is likely that modern youth will pay attention to the esports team first, and then to the football team.

Three-time Formula 1 world champion Max Verstappen is a big fan of simracing

Even three-time Formula 1 world champion Max Verstappen has his own eSports team, of course, based on racing, and he dreams of one day bringing eSports players to real races.

Therefore, doubts that esports is not really a sport can be left in the past. These teams and competitions already have big money, big tournaments, big sponsors, and big audiences. And this is just the beginning.

Finally, we congratulate NAVI once again on their victory. And we look forward to new achievements from our players.

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