The Takeover of Esports

The 2024 Olympics in Paris could add a new game to the sports lineup. Not karate, skateboarding, or surfing (all are being added to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan); instead, committee officials are debating whether to include esports in one of the most recognized sporting competitions in the world.

When esports premiered, one of the first major tournaments included the "Space Invaders" Championship in 1980 that drew in over 10,000 participants. Fast forward to 2007 where the Championship Gaming Series Season broke $1 million as its total prize pool. Now, professional gaming is expected to reach revenue of $1.8 billion by 2022 and only continues to grow at an impressive rate.

So who's playing, and how much money is really up for grabs? Keep scrolling as we explore the last 20 years in professional gaming. We'll break down how many millions of dollars have been given out in prize money, which countries have embraced esports, and which games and tournaments could win you the biggest jackpots. Ready for an inside look at the esports industry today? Let's go!

Making Money Moves

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For professional athletes, titles aren't just about trophies and prestige. In almost all cases, teams that win (and, sometimes, teams that lose) take home massive paychecks for their achievements.

Each player for the New England Patriots earned $118,000 for winning the NFL championship game in 2019. In comparison, winners of the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, will take home up to $1.98 million. For another example, the NBA has a $20 million playoff pool, and in 2016, the Cleveland Cavaliers earned $2.66 million for their championship victory. Esports isn't much different. In 2018, players competing in The International, a "Dota 2" tournament, battled for a $25.5 million prize pool, including over $11 million for first place.

Professional gaming and esports may not seem as physically demanding or even as prestigious as other major sports leagues, but it certainly pays professional money to its champions. Of course, it wasn't always that way. In 1998, the average prize pool for esports tournaments was under $15,000, with a total of $132,000 across all championship games held that year. Since 1998, the average tournament winnings in esports have increased by 205%, growing from $14,633 to almost $45,000 in two decades. In 2018, the total prize money for the year eclipsed previous records (helped, in part, by Valve's bold $100 million winnings commitment to various "Fortnite" tournaments), settling in at nearly $156 million across the globe.

A Global Spectacle

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Esports and professional gaming didn't grow into a $1 billion industry by focusing its efforts in just one country. Instead, esports has become a global phenomenon, with some countries acting quickly to catch up and cash in on the popularity of video games.

While Japan may be home to some of the biggest video game developers in the world (including Nintendo, Capcom, and Konami), the country hasn't exactly been at the helm of esports. Legal complications have made it difficult for Japan to offer massive prize pools that attract international players and spectacles. While its presence in the industry has grown more than any other country (from $250 in tournament earnings in 2000 to over $2.2 million in 2018), Japan continues to lag behind the world's most powerful esports countries.

Instead, the United States (over $28 million), China (almost $17 million), South Korea (nearly $14 million), and Denmark (over $10 million) accounted for the highest total earnings in 2018. Danish players and fans take esports so seriously that the country introduced classes for students in upper-secondary establishments to help cultivate their skills. In Denmark, total earnings per player were higher than anywhere else in the world, over $27,000 on average.

Games Worth Green


Thinking about picking up the gamepad and joining in on the action? Sure, you might be able to make a few dollars playing "Tetris" or "Mario" competitively (along with several other obscure titles), but those games probably won't make you a millionaire.

Overwhelmingly, The International, the annual "Dota 2" championship tournament, remains the most profitable prize pool across esports. Since its beginnings, Valve's tournament has succeeded itself every year with bigger grand prize payouts and hype, making it a huge spectacle for both players and fans. Compared to four "Quake II" tournaments in 1998 where the 16 competitive players earned a total of $66,000, the playing field has seen a massive shift in the last two decades. In 2018, the "Dota 2" prize pool amassed $41 million across 161 tournaments and 1,093 players.

Not familiar with the game? Reaching peak professional status may not come overnight, but Valve has taken steps to help welcome new players to the game's ranks and eliminate toxic playing conditions.

A Whole New World


If being a professional athlete were easy, everyone would do it. Instead, some of the biggest names in competitive sports participate in the most intense weight training routines, cardio workouts, explosive circuit bodybuilding, and Olympic lifting to stay in shape year-round. Professional video game players may not lift as much as John Cena or run as far as Canelo Alvarez, but their daily rounds could still shock you.

One esport team, Obey, keeps a staff of nutritionists and other professionals available to make sure players stay physically and mentally fit between tournaments. Other teams participate in multiple-day boot camps designed to strengthen their team and work toward a heightened level of physical fitness. Like mainstream athletes, esports players have to watch what they eat and maintain strong physical and mental wellness to be successful in the game.

In 2018, there were nearly 19,000 esports players compared to just 34 in 1998. Like traditional athletes, all their hard work has the potential to pay off. Compared to the highest grossing esports player in 1998, Thresh, who earned $16,000, modern players can now earn millionaire status. In Finland, JerAx earned nearly $2.3 million in 2018. N0tail, 7ckngMad, Topson, and ana (all among the highest-grossing players) also earned more than $2.2 million in tournament winnings and sponsorship deals.

Play to Win

If you love playing video games, there are plenty of opportunities to turn your passion into a moneymaking hustle. You might not hit peak millionaire-prestige, but live-streaming your games, posting to YouTube, creating walkthroughs and guides, and beta testing new titles are just a few of the ways to add "professional video gamer" to your resume. Of course, though, if you want the big bucks, you better set your sights on video game tournaments. By dedicating time and energy to honing your gaming skills, you could be making millions and rising to international star status.

Methodology and Limitations

For this project, we used 1998-2018 data on total prize money, average prize pools, tournament earnings by country, active players, and tournament earnings by player from esportsearnings.com. The data were collected on Feb. 5, 2019. Data that were insufficient for 1998 and 1999 were excluded from the necessary visualizations. Additionally, we did not have access to data on all countries for 1998 to 2018, so our reporting may be limited in its inclusion. Data are also subject to change over time, as esportsearnings.com depends on data submissions and updates by members of the gaming community. We did not perform statistical testing on the data, and conclusions are based on means alone. Any further research should approach this subject in a more academic and inclusive manner.


Fair Use Statement

Who knew all those hours playing video games could be so lucrative one day. Want to help share the wealth? The results of our analysis and the associated graphics are available to be shared with your readers for any noncommercial use. Put it in co-op mode by including a link back to this page so that our creators get credit for their effort too.