The world of professional e-gaming has gone mainstream in a big way. In a sort of digital domination, the esports market is taking the world by storm and growing rapidly—forecasted to reach $1.62B by 2024. On top of that, the gamer community presents creative marketers an industry of fast-churning news cycles from gaming releases, to scandalous leaks and cheats, and rumors of the next big happenings. All of which keeps gaming enthusiasts glued to the content and buzz.
But it’s not just people dedicated to playing the games who are generating this value. It’s wider audiences tuning in to watch specific gamer personalities stream their play. And these audiences are willing to shell out big for the opportunity, meaning brands and businesses are too.
In the esports world, there are two popular ways that revenue is often earned by gamers—through taking home tournament winnings or by live-streaming games on platforms like Twitch. Here, we’ll look at the top earners in both categories and highlight gaps in the gaming industry to show how some of the best players are leaving money on the table.
Big winnings: Tournament play vs. Twitch streaming
To get a sense of how lucrative the competitive gaming landscape is today, a quick look at the 25 highest-earning gamers in the U.S. from competition wins alone shows that the three at the top brought in serious dough—each individually pulling in over $3 million.
But how do these dollar signs compare to what Twitch gamers are bringing in?
Turns out, focusing on influencer marketing can actually be more lucrative than winning tournaments. For starters, watching live-streaming video game content is on the rise worldwide.
Beyond watching tournaments (though there are millions who do just that), gaming enthusiasts are tuning in for pure entertainment.
Twitch streamers alone provide over 10.9 million unique streaming channels for viewers, according to Statista (as of Q1 2022).
It pays to play on Twitch
In 2021 an anonymous hacker leaked a list of Twitch’s highest-paid streamers based on money paid directly from the platform to users, including income earned from subscriptions and ad revenue. These figures do not account for money earned via other sources like merchandise, YouTube revenue, sponsorships, and donations.
The leak revealed that through Twitch revenue alone, 81 streamers earned more than $1 million since August 2019. For the highest earners, the payouts were even bigger.
The top 10 highest-earning e-gaming streamers on Twitch
- CriticalRole: $9.6 million
- xQcOW: $8.4 million
- summit1g: $5.8 million
- Tfue: $5.2 million
- NICKMERCS: $5 million
- ludwig: $3.2 million
- TimTheTatman: $3.2 million
- auronplay: $3 million
- LIRIK: $2.9 million
- Gaules: $2.8 million
Now for a quick comparison. Not only does the #1 Twitch earner, “CriticalRole,” rake in significantly more than the #1 tourny champ, “Bugha,” all ten of the Twitch streamer highest-earners make more than all but the top three highest-earners by tournament winnings.
And while you would think that there’d be some crossover between these two classes of gamers, these charts show otherwise. The truth is that the best gamers in the business are often so dedicated to training and competing that they just don’t have the time to invest in marketing in order to tap into other, more lucrative revenue streams.
Influencer marketing: The future of esports
Now imagine if professional players had the know-how to plug into the influencer marketing scene, or if they had agencies at their fingertips (like pro-athletes) offering to help — they’d be making millions more.
The opportunity for professional gamers to grow their brand and build a fan base is enormous. These are just some of the money-making avenues possible through Twitch:
- Ads: With Twitch selling $231.8 M annually in advertising, streamers can expect to pull in an average of $250 per month per 100 followers.
- Subscriptions: Twitch currently has three monthly subscription tiers letting qualifying streamers split the subscription income from followers 50/50 with Twitch.
- Bits: Followers can tip affiliates with virtual “bits,” which currently convert into approximately one cent per bit.
- Sponsorships and merchandise: Players can earn even more by promoting products or companies, or by creating and selling their own merch through the platform.
There are also opportunities via YouTube, Facebook, and third-party platforms.
Bridging the gap between pros and influencers
While esports tournaments will undoubtedly continue to draw huge audiences, more and more people will get their daily fix from watching gamers live-stream. For players looking to turn a grueling professional gaming career into a more sustainable vocation, live-streaming provides just the ticket.
Take “Shroud,” once a top Counter-Strike competitor, who recently hung up his tournament hat to focus exclusively on streaming, citing less intensive work demands as a major benefit.
But that’s not to say that live-streaming isn’t work.
To be successful, players must dedicate hours to honing their game and “live-stream” personality in order to build a solid viewership and attract potential advertisers and sponsors. This also requires extensive self-promotion via social media marketing and other outlets.
But for those who put in the time and build sizeable followings, live-streaming presents a more lucrative and surefire source of income than tournament play—gamers with a reasonably-sized following average around $5,000 each month. Not bad for getting paid to share your favorite game with a few thousand of your closest fans.