The world of professional gaming is one of the latest phenomena to take off in entertainment. Worldwide, there are dozens of competitive and big-name leagues, from ESL to The International to larger events like the Asian Games. From fighting games to FPS titles to brand-new mobile hits, players and their fans have unprecedented access to gaming content.
All the hype has led to highly lucrative endeavors, including player and team sponsorships, along with multi-year contract signings on eSports teams. Even gaming peripherals and retail merchandising have taken off over the last few years. With added attention from fans and analysts, the world of competitive gaming will only continue to grow.
But when it comes to pro gamers and how they make money, eSports is only one career path available. When taking a closer look at this industry, there is great diversity in opportunities. Let’s explore some of the most profitable and popular avenues available to gamers today.
Back in 1979, the inaugural World Series of Poker helped put this card game on the map worldwide. In the early 2000s, poker began to see brand new life as a virtual game—which opened the doors to thousands of new players. Today, virtual platforms that offer real money games are still a popular way for poker players to learn the ropes of Texas Hold’em, Omaha, and more.
In fact, virtual poker players are the next generation of pros. Through online qualifiers (often labeled as ‘satellite’ events), players are able to nab an invitation to larger in-person tournaments, including those hosted by WSOP or the European Poker Tour. However, just like with League of Legends or Mortal Kombat, only the truly proficient players will ever stand a chance at winning a Main Event and taking home hundreds of thousands.
Similarly, earning stable income is also reserved for the truly elite. One pro, Doug Polk, estimated back in 2016 that only high-roller poker pros were worth over $1 million.
Though it’s a card game, poker is largely played online today—but this isn’t the case with another category of card-based games: collectible card games (CCGs). A CCG is a game that requires players to collect and build a deck of cards, which they’ll use to take on other players.
While some CCGs are digital (DCCGs), most of the top tournaments are in-person events. And while they aren’t nearly as profitable as traditional eSports or poker (most prizes are ultra-rare cards), they draw in massive crowds. For context, another popular game, Magic: The Gathering, offers $50,000 in winnings to its first-place world champion.
This year’s European Yu-Gi-Oh! championship saw a whopping ten thousand fans gather to watch the event—the vast majority of whom are also players. For other large CCG events, that audience is usually around 5,000 strong.
Poker and CCGs are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to profitable and popular gaming sectors that aren’t part of traditional eSports. However, if there’s one ‘whale’ when it comes to gaming profits, it’s streaming. Through platforms like Twitch and YouTube, gamers are able to build a massive following with the hopes of commanding huge sponsorship deals.
To date, the most profitable gamers in history haven’t graced a single eSports roster. Instead, they’ve done things like pen shoe deals with Adidas (Tyler ‘Ninja’ Blevins) and helped market rival streaming platforms (Féliz ‘xQc’ Lengyel) to the tune of millions of dollars. Ninja made up to $30 million from his deal with Adidas, while xQc is reportedly earning $100 million to help kickstart a new streaming service called Kick.
Compared to these massive checks, eSports players are earning modestly. A top-tier player might expect to bring in over $300,000 in a year, while an average gamer could still rake in $!00,000. Though these aren’t modest salaries, they’re not nearly as profitable as streamers who are able to sign multiple deals and wield more creative control over their content and future.