1 in 4 Americans Prefer eSports to Traditional Sports

20 years of eSports: payouts, players, and games.

2021 eSports Report
Trevor Wheelwright
TV, Streaming, & Internet Expert
Read More
February 01, 2021
5 min read

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eSports could shape up to be a 1.5 billion-dollar industry by 2023—even with the effects of the pandemic at play.1 (Ad revenue is one thing, broadcasting and gathering for tournaments is another—more on that later.)

Through YouTube, Twitch, and other streaming services, gamers and fans watch eSports to keep a pulse on their favorite games, players, and tournaments. Like traditional sports, eSports features leagues, teams, play-by-play broadcasters, and big prize money.

We surveyed players and viewers to dig into the details of the digital sports phenomenon. And then we used data from esportsearnings.com to analyze tournament payouts in eSports over the past 20 years.

What did we learn about the eSports industry’s explosive growth?

76% of Americans report they play video games; 70% watch

Gaming covers many bases: players can take the form of cars shooting rockets, dark elf mages, commanders of intergalactic armies—or they can build up a cute little village full of animal friends. It should be no surprise that most Americans (76%) play video games.2

But did you know that almost as many people (70%) watch other people playing games?

eSports Survey Responses

Whether you watch gameplay previews, replays to learn better strategies, or want to get dazzled by the display of skill from the top players, you can find a lot of entertainment in watching eSports. In fact, over a quarter of America is more interested in eSports than either traditional sports or streaming films and TV.

According to our survey results, we learned the following:

  • 2 in 5 (40%) of Americans say they watched an eSporting event (such as a tournament) in the past year.
  • 1 in 4 Americans (26%) say they are more interested in eSports than traditional sporting events.
  • 1 in 4 (25%) say they frequently watch eSports events.
  • 30% of Americans say they’re more interested in streaming video game footage such as eSports tournaments, livestreams, and “let’s play” videos than streaming films and TV.

With the online world open wide to opportunity, where is the best place for players to make some cash?

eSports payouts in the US stand tall above the rest of the world

In 2020, the US led the charts in eSports for both payout and players, followed by China and the Republic of Korea.3 The $20 million payout of the US beats both China's and South Korea’s totals combined.

However, the US has more players than the next six countries combined. Tournaments typically pay only the top-ranking players, and usually, after first place, the prize money is considerably less.

Are you a gamer living in the US?
Megaphone

If you’re experiencing lag, you may need to upgrade your speeds and data. And even if your speeds are top-notch, you may be able to get a better deal with a different internet provider. We rounded up the best internet providers for gaming to help.

With so many potential opponents, competitors sitting at the top never know who will rise to make their winnings dwindle. Luckily, we’re likely to see even more tournaments as the years come—that is, once eSports can navigate the pandemic at full steam.

eSports tournament payouts exploded before COVID-19

In 2001, the total payouts for eSports reached nearly $900,000. By 2003, eSports broke the million-dollar mark and increased by millions over the next ten years.

By the time 2011 ended, gaming tournaments racked up over $10 million in payouts and increased dramatically over the decade. In 2019, the payouts reached nearly $250 million but then the pandemic hit cleaved out over half of the tournament payouts in 2020.

Ad revenue for eSports reached almost $200 million in 2020, but players weren’t profiting from tournaments like earlier years.4 Due to COVID-19’s outbreak, tournament payouts from 2019 to 2020 decreased by 56%. But if most games are played online, why was eSports so affected?

Unfortunately, the pandemic meant fewer players and fans traveling, gathering, buying merch, and spreading the word through excitement.

On top of that, playing with high ping and latency on international servers reduces a player’s ability to play properly, affecting matches in decisive ways. If every football game were played in the snow, even the most talented players and teams would slip at some point. And while those disruptions may shake things up, it doesn’t allow for consistent competitive aspects to shine through.

After all, these players train like traditional athletes in many ways; they’re experts with precision, technique, and skills developed over years, if not decades, of playing. If the last five years indicate anything, it’s that the pandemic might’ve halted progress temporarily, but eSports is set to come back in a big way.

eSports stats for the last five years

The last 5 years of eSports

Top eSports players made millions in the past five years

Topping the eSports pay leaderboards in 2020 for his genius chess play, Sven Magnus Carlsen of Norway raked in over half a million dollars from 39 tournaments. How much more could he (or someone else) have won if it weren’t for the pandemic shutdowns? (And how much did he benefit from the chess hype surrounding The Queen’s Gambit?)

Highest-Earning Player by Year
Year
Highest-Earning Player of the Year
How Much $ They Won
Their Top Game

2020

Sven Magnus Carlsen

$510,587

Chess24

2019

Jesse Vainikka

$3,163,536

Dota 2

2018

Jesse Vainikka

$2,290,632

Dota 2

2017

Kuro Takhasomi

$2,436,772

Dota 2

2016

Zhang Yiping

$1,923,676

Dota 2

While everyone knows what chess is, Dota 2 is probably more of a mystery to those outside the eSports world. It's short for Defense of the Ancients, a Warcraft offshoot, and as you can see, it pays well.

Taking home the most money for two years straight, Dota 2 star Jesse "JerAx" Vainikka of Finland earned over $5 million from 2018 through 2019. Dota 2 players, including Kuro "KuroKy" Takhasomi (Germany) and Zhang "y`" Yiping (China), dominated the last five years of earnings.

What does it take to be the highest-paid player in eSports?
Light Bulb

Beyond having the time, talent, and dedication to training, you also need a solid computer setup. A fast processor, graphics card, mice, keyboards, chairs, and headsets may come to mind. Playing on subpar equipment isn’t ideal, but nothing will kill your game faster than slow internet.

Do you have enough speed for gaming online?

Battle for the biggest purses: Counter-Strike, Fortnite, and Dota 2

Aiming for the headshot, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (or CS: GO) paid the most prize money out of any game in 2020. Released in 2012, the first-person shooter game has doled out $108.6 million from 5,439 eSports tournaments.

Fortnite, the Battle Royale game from Epic Studios, pulled in $99.4 million from 673 tournaments since 2018. The multiplayer online battle arena game earned the top spot in 2019 with $71.5 million in prize money and 2,907 players.

Game with the Highest-Payout by Year
Year
Game with Highest Payout that Year
Prize Money (Total) For that Game
Number of Players

2020

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

$15,808,057

2,862

2019

Fortnite

$71,598,129

2,907

2018

Dota 2

$41,457,369

1,153

2017

Dota 2

$38,074,599

1,059

2016

Dota 2

$37,464,420

896

Dota 2 pits two teams of five heroes against each other in a battle arena attacking and defending “Ancient” structures for victory. As we saw from the player payouts, Dota 2 dominated the charts for the highest payouts for three years, with $117 million paid out from 2016 through 2018.

While the pandemic continues, we’re not likely to see a major return for in-person tournaments, but eSports isn’t going away any time soon. Players will still be able to make careers out of gaming, and fans will be there to watch and support.

Methodology

We surveyed Americans aged 18 and older to determine their interest in eSports and professional video game content. The survey has a sample error of ± 4.5% and a 95% level of confidence.

To create our eSports report, we analyzed game, tournament, payout, and player data from esportearnings.com from 2001–2020.

Sources

Trevor Wheelwright
Written by
Trevor Wheelwright
Trevor’s written about YMYL (your money, your life) topics for over six years across editorial publications and retail/eCommerce sites. His work’s been featured on Forbes, RealSimple, USA Today, MSN, BusinessInsider, Entrepreneur, PCMag, and CNN. When he’s not researching and writing, you can find him around Salt Lake City, Utah, snapping photos of mountains and architecture or seeking out some good tunes and friendly faces.

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