The world’s most talented gamers earned a combined US$234 million ($308 million) in prize money by competing at 5,186 esports tournaments in 2022. The top earners were the five members of Tundra Esports, who powered their way to victory at The International, the world’s leading Dota 2 event.
American and Asian gamers were the highest earners, but Canadian CS:GO player Russell “Twistzz” Van Dulken netted a cool US$358,000 (C$472,000). That took his career earnings past the US$1.5 million mark, showing that video gaming can be a very lucrative profession.
It was encouraging to see the prize money rebound after falling to a mere US$144 million (C$190 million) in 2021, when the pandemic forced many events to be abandoned. However, it was still below the peak of US$254 million (C$335 million) set in 2019, before Covid-19 wrought havoc on the professional gaming sector. Can 2023 set a new record for esports earnings?
The Current Situation
As things currently stand, professional gamers have shared US$65.5 million in prize money at 1,478 tournaments in 2023 (all subsequent figures are quoted in USD). However, the biggest tournaments – including The International – typically take place in the second half of the year, so there is still plenty of time for the sector to set a new record.
The highest paying games thus far are CS:GO and PUBG, but Dota 2 should resume its usual position at the top of the table by the end of the year. The schedule at esports betting sites shows that there are lots of major tournaments on the horizon.
Can the Saudis Drive the Esports Sector to New Heights?
Saudi Arabia is splashing the cash in a bid to improve its image on the world stage under the leadership of Mohammed bin Salman. The government has routinely been accused of sport washing, but its investment continues apace, and it has already upended many traditional sports.
The Saudis turned the genteel sport of its head by launching LIV Golf, a rival to the PGA Tour, while they have also launched the world’s richest horse race, hosted heavyweight boxing title fights, purchased Premier League club Newcastle United and brought the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kante to the Saudi Pro League.
They are also muscling their way into esports. Last year saw gamers head to the Middle Eastern nation for events such as the $4 million Dota 2 Riyadh Masters and a US$2 million Rocket League competition. This time around, the Saudis have doubled down on their investment, stumping up a total of $45 million for an eight-week esports festival named Gamers8.
The showpiece event is a $15 million Dota 2 Riyad Masters tournament, but there will also be a $2 million Rocket League event, a $2 million Fortnite tournament, a $2 million Rainbow Six Siege event, several $1 million tournaments and much more, which could help the total prize money for the esports sector hit new heights in 2023.
Fortnite is Back with a Vengeance
Fortnite quickly became the most lucrative esport in the world when developer Epic Games stumped up $30 million in prize money for the Fortnite World Cup in 2019. It led to teenagers becoming overnight millionaires, generating a great deal of buzz across the world.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic then swept across the globe. Prize money for Fortnite tournaments fell from $79.1 million in 2019 to just $13.2 million the following year. It rallied slightly to $22.4 million in 2021, but then slumped again to $17.3 million last year, suggesting that the glory days were over for Fortnite players.
However, the competitive Fortnite scene is back in business this year, with the launch of the Fortnite Champion Series Global Championship, which features total prize money of $10 million. That could also contribute to a record year for esports prize money.
Can The International Survive the Death of The Dota 2 Battle Pass?
The International holds the top seven places in the list of the most lucrative esports events of all time. The Fortnite World Cup in 2019 was divided into a $15.3 million solo event and a $15.1 million duo event, so they are eighth and ninth respectively, ahead of The International 2014, which had a purse of $10.9 million.
Until 2021, the prize pool for The International had been steadily climbing on a year-by-year basis. It reached $25.5 million in 2018 and $34.3 million in 2019. The 2020 event was cancelled due to the pandemic, but prize money then hit a remarkable $40 million in 2021.
However, that figure dipped to just $18.9 million at The International 2022. Prize money has always been generated by fans purchasing combat passes from developer Valve, so they essentially dictate how much the tournament will be worth. Sales fell by more than 50% last year, so the prize money declined.
Earlier this month, Valve announced that it has abandoned the battle pass model, which jeopardizes The International. However, it assured fans that the crowdfunding element will not be eradicated, as there will be a T1-themed update in September, which will contribute to the prize pool. Yet it remains to be seen how much this will generate and whether The International will hold onto its status as the most lucrative esports event.
Live Esports Events Can Drive Growth
Last month, the World Health Organization declared an end to the Covid-19 pandemic. In-person esports events are now back to the levels seen pre-pandemic, with fans packing out dedicated arenas to watch their heroes in action.
This should drive further growth to prize pools. It is a welcome development for professional gamers. After all, $1 in 2019 is equal in buying power to $1.18 today as a result of rampant inflation around the world, so they need to earn record prize money just to match their pre-pandemic earnings in real terms. As such, many industry insiders will be keeping a close eye on the purse generated by The International and several other key tournaments in the second half of the year.