Professional gaming has come a long way in the past decade. What started out as a string of hobbies has developed into the billion-dollar esports industry. It is now possible to earn an honest living playing a variety of different video games.
There are popular titles in every genre, and many feature developer-backed competition circuits with huge corporate partnerships. The world’s top gamers are now celebrities, icons, and household names. There are plenty of ways to make money in gaming, but skills are the best ways to pay the bills. Check out the ten most lucrative games in esports in today’s landscape.
10) Rocket League
Image source: Psyonix
Highest Earning Teams: NRG Esports, Team Vitality, G2 Esports
Notable High-Earning Players: Kaydop (Vitality), GarrettG (NRG), Turbopolsa (Envy)
Top Prize Pools: $400K-$500K
Rocket League, which can be best described as “soccer with cars,” has come a long way from being a free-to-play experimental party game. It is now one of the world’s most popular esports and arguably today’s top competitive sports game.
Individual tournament prize pools are not as high as other games on this list, so why is it here? What makes Rocket League so lucrative is the sheer number of events in a given year. Teams can compete every weekend in series like the developer-sponsored Championship Series (RLCS), Dreamhack, and Intel Extreme Masters. The best Rocket League players net over $100,000 annually.
Rocket League’s stable online network also keeps things convenient in the modern age of gaming. Open tournament formats give unknown players and teams plenty of opportunities to prove themselves. Rocket League also has one of the best amateur circuits in esports and is very popular amongst major college programs in the US. This gives young players plenty of experience to hone their skills before turning pro.
9) League of Legends
Image source: Riot Games
Developer/Publisher: Riot Games
Highest Earning Teams: T1, Samsung, Invictus Gaming
Notable High-Earning Players: Faker (T1), Duke (Invictus), JackeyLove (Top Esports)
Top Prize Pools: $2 million+
In terms of total prize money given, Riot Games’ long-running MOBA title is consistently top five in all of esports. Over $8 million was awarded in 2020, but the highest-earning players only earned around $150,000 individually.
It was once possible for the best League players to earn close to $500,000 in a year’s work. Korean legend Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok has earned over $1.2 million during his career. Unfortunately, prize pools have been steadily declining in recent years and are currently at their lowest ever.
A significant drop-off occurred in 2020, with another following in 2021. This may indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic caused this and that prize pools could go back up in the coming years. The best payday for players is at the World Championships, dwarfing that of any other event. This keeps the big money in League exclusive for the world’s elite teams and players.
Read more: A beginners guide to the World Championships
Image source: Blizzard Entertainment
Developer/Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Highest Earning Teams: San Francisco Shock (NRG Esports), Shanghai Dragons
Notable High-Earning Players: smurf (Shock), Moth (Gladiators), super (Shock)
Top Prize Pools: $3 million+
No esports title has seen an evolution quite like Overwatch. This fast-paced, tactical team shooter went from having Wild West-like open tournaments to forming the most structured league in esports.
The Overwatch League (OWL) has adopted many traditions of professional sports, including a season-long standings format and unique franchises assigned to cities. Players also rake in yearly salaries on top of prize money. Top players were paid more than ever in 2021, with some earning nearly $200,000.
Teams often split the pay amongst their roster based on tiers. This has created a noticeable discrepancy between the highest-paid players and those at the bottom of the payroll. With only 20 teams in the league typically fielding less than ten players, it is tough to make the OWL. The Overwatch Contenders Series gives amateur teams opportunities in open-entry tournaments. Many players from the Contenders Series have gone on to star in the OWL.
7) Rainbow Six Siege
Image source: Ubisoft
Highest Earning Teams: Ninjas in Pyjamas, G2 Esports, Spacestation Gaming
Notable High Earning Players: Pengu (G2), Psycho (NIP), Canadien (DarkZero Esports)
Top Prize Pools: $2-3 million
Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six series has been an esports staple since Rainbow Six: Vegas was added to MLG in 2007. Still, the success of Siege has taken Rainbow Six esports to new heights. It has developed into one of the fastest-growing esports since its debut over five years ago.
More than $5.8 million in prize money was rewarded in 2020, the highest ever. Top players can earn over $200,000 annually. The game is most popular in Europe, the United States, and Latin America. Brazilian players have dominated competition and prize pools in 2021.
The next installment of the series, Rainbow Six Extraction, is scheduled for January 2022. This likely means that Rainbow Six Siege’s competitive lifespan is nearing its end. If trends are any indication, Extraction will continue advancing the franchise’s prosperity.
Looking to play competitively? You'll need to know the 6 proven methods for reducing latency in Rainbow Six Siege.
Developer/Publisher: Epic Games
Genre: Battle Royale
Notable High-Earning Players: Bugha (Sentinels), Aqua (Cooler), TaySon (Falcons Esports)
Highest Earning Teams: Lazarus, Cooler Esport, Sentinels
Top Prize Pools: $15 million+
The only thing holding Fortnite back from being the world’s top esport is structure. Arguably the most popular game available today, the money potential appears to be limitless. However, a lack of consistent events has slowed its growth just a bit.
The Fortnite World Cup debuted in 2019 with a $15 million prize pool. It has yet to return, but this may be due to the global pandemic preventing an offline format. The online Fortnite Championship Series debuted in 2021, popularizing team competitions for the game.
Fortnite is a very versatile esport because it can be played individually or as a team. This creates the potential for a variety of events and for numerous players to become stars. The game’s unique gameplay creates challenges to establish rules and regulations for competitive play. If that can get sorted out, the sky's the limit for Fortnite in esports.
Read more: A beginners' guide to Fortnite
5) PUBG BATTLEGROUNDS
Image source: PUBG Corporation
Developer/Publisher: PUBG Corporation
Genre: Battle Royale
Notable High-Earning Players: Loki (DAMWON Gaming), hwinn (Soniqs), fuzzface (FaZe)
Highest-Earning Teams: Gen.G Esports, FaZe Clan, Soniqs
PUBG might be the world’s fastest-growing esport. Prize pools have steadily increased year by year, with the exception of the pandemic-hampered 2020. This year, nearly $8 million has been awarded in prize money, close to $3 million more than last year.
During its launch year in 2017, the best players were lucky to earn $25,000 from competing. By 2019 they were earning over $500,000. A good number of players earn six figures annually playing PUBG.
Similar to Fortnite, PUBG lacks consistent events with high paydays. The PUBG Global Invitational is the game’s most prestigious tournament but is not open-entry. The 2021 PGI Main Event featured a $7 million prize pool with over $1 million each going to first and second place.
Why is PUBG so popular? Find out how an ARMA 3 mod took over the world.
4) Call of Duty
Image source: Activision
Developer/Publisher: Treyarch, Infinity Ward/Activision
Notable High Earning Players: C6 (Empire), Clayster (Subliners), Arcitys (Faze)
Highest Earning Teams: Atlanta Faze (FaZe Clan), Dallas Empire (Team Envy), Toronto Ultra
Top Prize Pools: $4 million+
The Call of Duty franchise is no stranger to esports. It has kept a steady presence in pro gaming since 2006 across a number of iterations. Competitions range from grassroots tournaments to a full-fledged league with city-based franchises and corporate sponsors.
The Call of Duty League (CDL) was formed after the success of the Overwatch League. It currently fields 12 teams based in North America and Europe. The League has been a huge success after two seasons and will likely expand in the near future.
The best Call of Duty players can earn over $400,000 a year. The Call of Duty Challengers series gives amateurs healthy competition and a chance to audition for the CDL. There are also several standalone events like Twitch Rivals, as well as a number of tournaments hosted by CDL franchises.
3) Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
Image source: Valve
Notable High-Earning Players: dupreeh (Astralis), dev1ce (NIP), s1mple (NaVi)
Highest Earning Teams: Astralis, Natus Vincere, Team Liquid
Top Prize Pools: $1.5 million
In many people’s eyes, Counter-Strike is the essential esports title. The series has been at the top of competitive gaming since the early 2000s and continues that run today. Counter-Strike spawned some of the first stars in gaming and helped popularize esports in the Western world.
Counter-Strike tournaments are held nearly every weekend on a year-round basis and there are numerous prestigious event circuits offering high prize pools that any team can enter. These include Intel Extreme Masters, ESL Pro League, Dreamhack, ELEAGUE, Blast Premier, and StarSeries, just to name a few.
Today’s top Counter-Strike: Global Offensive players earn over $450,000 a year. Players are known for enjoying long careers, allowing them to maximize their earning potential. More than a dozen players have earned over $1 million in CS: GO. Former stars such as Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek have also built lucrative streaming careers off their competitive success.
Want to go pro? We asked a CS:GO coach, what life lessons you can learn from playing competitively?
2) Arena of Valor
Image source: Tencent Games
Developer/Publisher: TiMi Studio Group/Tencent Games
Notable High-Earning Players: Fly (Wolves), HuaHai (eStar), Adou (Weibo Gaming)
Highest Earning Teams: Qiao Gu Reapers, eStar Gaming, Turnso Gaming
Top Prize Pools: $7 million+
Arena of Valor has come from out of nowhere to become one of the world’s premier esports. TiMi Studio Group’s MOBA is now an industry juggernaut after humble beginnings.
The game started exceeding expectations in 2018. That year, the total prize money awarded increased by nearly $5 million from 2017. Each year since, that figure has increased by another $2 million. Over $11 million has been awarded for Arena of Valor in 2021.
Today, the best Arena of Valor players have started bringing in over $600,000 a year. It is dominated by the Chinese and is overwhelmingly more popular in Asian countries. Dozens are on track to earn six figures in 2021, and that number will likely increase in years to come as the game continues to grow. Act of Valor offers pro MOBA players an alternative to DOTA or League of Legends without sacrificing their earning potential.
1) DOTA 2
Image source: Valve
Notable High-Earning Players: JerAx (OG), ana (OG), Puppey (Team Secret)
Highest Earning Teams: OG, Team Liquid, Evil Geniuses
Top Prize Pools: $20-40 million
Simply put, no other esport has prize pools that come close to that of DOTA 2. Valve’s hugely popular MOBA title has seen over $275 million in total prize money during its lifespan. Annual earnings for top players are high enough to make some professional athletes envious.
From 2014-2018, DOTA 2 featured the highest prize money totals of any esport. Some years these numbers would actually double that of the second-highest earning game. DOTA 2 was second behind Fortnite in 2019 and third behind CS: GO and Arena of Valor in 2020. So far in 2021, the game has regained its top spot, having awarded more than $45 million in prize money so far.
The world’s best DOTA 2 players earn millions of dollars in a year, with many more earning six-figure salaries. They also typically enjoy longer careers than they would in other MOBA games. According to esportsearnings.com, 74 players have become millionaires playing DOTA 2. Paydays for the game seem to only be getting bigger, as The International 2021 tournament featured a $40 million prize pool, the largest ever for DOTA 2.
So those are the top esports to make a career in. But what if becoming a pro player isn't for you? Here are 4 esports careers you might not have considered.
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