With every Olympics comes a renewed focus on how little money most Olympians actually make throughout their athletic lives. While a few newly made superstars (such as US gymnast Simone Biles) will strike it lucky by attracting the attention of sponsors, the vast majority of competitors at Rio will struggle to break even—let alone make a living off their talents. Nearly 150 athletes from the US team had to set up GoFundMe pages to cover their costs this year, and when it’s not Olympics season, many professional athletes in sports such as rowing, swimming, and javelin live on or below the poverty line.
Maybe they should try running around in virtual worlds instead of real ones. If athletes played video games such as Call of Duty, League of Legends, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, or StarCraft II instead of pushing the limits of their physical bodies, they’d be making bank. While names like Sebastian Engwall and Min-Liang Tan might be even less recognizable to the public than a country’s table tennis squad in a non-Olympics year, professional gaming (or “eSports”) offers far more opportunities to make a steady buck than the Olympics and many other major sporting tournaments.
For example, The International 2016 is a five-day Defence of the Ancients 2 (often abbreviated to Dota) championship tournament currently underway in Seattle’s 17,000-seat KeyArena. With a roster of 90 players and coaches from 22 countries, it’s dwarfed by the Olympics in every respect save one: the prize money. Based on their performance and ranking, the 16 teams competing will share in a gargantuan prize pool of over $20 million, which is largely derived from the proceeds of in-game sales from Dota’s millions of casual online players. The eventual champions will pocket almost $9 million split between the team of five (or six, if they have a coach) players, and even the lowest-placing teams will still take home $101,395 in consolation prize money.
Placed side by side, the disparity between how much Olympic champions and eSports tournament winners earn for their victories is stark. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) doesn’t actually pay anyone who competes in the Games, leaving the winners’ countries to set their own monetary benchmarks. It’s true that there are several countries that lavish extravagant cash prizes on their rare medal winners, including Singapore, Azerbaijan, and Indonesia, and the United States. But even the US—by far the most prolific medal collector of any nation—only offers $25,000 for winning gold, $15,000 for silver, and $10,000 for bronze.
This means that Simone Manuel, who just took home the gold in the women’s 100-meter freestyle, will be awarded $25,000 by the US Olympic Committee. But at Blizzard Entertainment’s annual BlizzCon event last November, Swedish eSports player Sebastian “Ostkaka” Engwall took home $100,000 for winning the Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft World Championship. So did Korean gamer Kim “sOs” Yoo Jin after winning the Starcraft II World Championship Series. And the same goes for Olympics teams: The US women’s 4×200-meter freestyle relay team, which also won gold this week, will take home $100,000 between them, whereas the team of five who clinched first prize at the Epicenter Dota 2 tournament in Moscow back in May won $250,000.
Like the road to Olympic glory, the path to championships like The International can also be long and expensive. Most competitors at top-tier eSports tournaments have to win regional qualifiers in the Americas, China, Europe, Southeast Asia, or the Pacific before advancing. This process can consume months at a time and involve significant costs with no prize money offered to the losers.
But unlike athletes, some of whom may only get one Olympic shot every four years, eSports players have many more opportunities to compete. Tournaments of The International’s size come around far more often than the Olympics. Valve, the company that makes the Dota franchise, recently rolled out three more major annual Dota 2 championships in Manila, Frankfurt, and Shanghai, all with prize pools of $3 million. And that’s to say nothing of the myriad lower-tier tournaments hosted by organizations like DreamLeague, ESL One, America’s Major League Gaming, DreamHack, Blizzard, Activision, and others that routinely offer up prize pools in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
While gaming has long had the reputation as an individual pastime, the social aspect is becoming more and more prevalent. Many of the best pro gamers sign with pro gaming teams such as OpTic Gaming, FaZe Clan, Fnatic, and Enemy. These kinds of squads sign players to contracts in much the same way as pro football and baseball teams.
For pros reluctant to sign with a team (or simply looking to bolster their income in tournament offseasons), there’s always another option: going it alone as “streamers” (short for “live-streamers”). High-profile eSports personalities such as summit1g and Mohamed “mOE” Assad have built huge standalone followings using nothing but social media and livestreams of them playing their games with running commentary. YouTube and streaming platform Twitch, whose staggering growth over the last few years has matched that of eSports, have provided pro gamers with an easy and effective means of gathering millions of followers. This enables them to build a brand, solicit donations, sponsorships and paid subscriptions, and sell their own merchandise and ad space.
Like IRL athletes, the biggest and most entertaining gaming teams also attract lucrative sponsorship deals with the likes of Coca-Cola, Intel, Nissan, and Doritos. Teams also have their own clothing and accessory lines and can make celebrities out of their most successful and charismatic signees—or trade them away at will. In January, FaZe Clan signed a five-person lineup of Counter-Strike players from rival team G2 Esports for $700,000, potentially the largest such deal in the game’s history.
But unlike Olympic athletes, who often have to foot their own bill as they bounce from qualifier to qualifier, most professional eSports players have their travel, accommodation, entry fees, and hardware costs covered by their teams or sponsors. While it’s still quite rare, some of the biggest organizations also pay their players a salary. Members of North American-based team Ember, for example, earn between $57,500 and $65,000 in base salary, with up to $27,000 in performance and signing bonuses on top. Riot Games, which owns League of Legends, pays players in its Championship Series a base salary that amounts to roughly $12,500 for three month’s worth of work.
None of this is to say that the pro eSports circuit isn’t beset by the same problems facing other lucrative sports. Numerous events and teams have been fined and banned from major tournaments for refusing to honor contracts or pay players on time, while other teams have disbanded in protest at underpayment. Some events have been censured for failing to pay prize money, and America’s infamous vulture capitalist Martin Shkreli—the guy who’s made headlines for everything from price-gouging lifesaving HIV and cancer medications to being arrested on securities fraud charges —still owes around $75,000 to players and coaches ensnared in his short-lived and ill-fated foray into the pro League of Legends scene last year.
There is also one huge caveat to all the moneymaking: gender. While women in pro sports frequently score less prize money than their male counterparts, in competitive eSports, they barely get a foot in the door in the first place—especially at the top level.
Many eSports tournaments and championships are still segregated by gender, which is a policy the International e-Sports Federation claims is necessary to “improve female representation” in the professional scene and combat the boys-club mentality that pervades the heavily male-skewed industry. Some high-profile female pro gamers accept that rationale as a temporary means towards creating a more welcoming culture, which is currently filled with abuse, sexual harassment, and the general filth that is routinely hurled at female streamers and gamers.
Outside of the co-ed sphere, however, all-female tournaments only attract only a fraction of the coverage and industry dollars of male championships. For example, the all-female Intel Challenge in Katowice, Poland offered a total prize pool of just $30,000 for its 2016 championship—a sum “never before seen” on the female circuit.
How (or even if) the eSports industry deals with these issues over the next few years will be interesting to watch. But with the pro gaming scene set to continue its explosive growth, the players who make it so profitable are probably better placed financially than the athletes sweating it out in Rio right now. When the Olympics come to an end, thousands of world-class athletes will recede from the spotlight—and any real chance of making serious money for another lengthy period of time. The 16th-placed team at The International, meanwhile, can shrug, pocket their cool $20,000 each, and start prepping for the next major tournament in a few months’ time.