Live streamer or competitive gamer—which career makes the most sense?

The two phenomena are growing quickly, but is there a group that wins out in comparison to the other?

Photo via DreamHack

Live streaming and esports are two of the most-watched phenomenons online, and 2018 looks to be yet another highlight year for those at the top.

Balancing the two at the same time, however, is a different story. On April 18, Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek officially retired from competitive Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. After four years alongside some of North America’s best players on Cloud9, Shroud instead decided to turn his full attention toward his streaming career. The 24-year-old was already one of the most popular FPS gamers on Twitch at the time, but due to attending so many international events with Cloud9, streaming took a backseat in favor of his competitive career, even though it didn’t offer him the same benefits as streaming.

So exactly how much does a streamer earn? And do streamers or esports pros come out on top in terms of earnings?

In many cases, professional gamers stream to their fans on platforms like YouTube Gaming and Twitch, although it doesn’t take precedence over their competitive career. Esports is certainly becoming more lucrative. But in contrast to even the most successful pro gamers, popular live streamers are dominating in the earnings department.

While esports is just on the precipice of becoming a billion dollar industry, live streaming sites like Twitch are among the most valuable new tech companies around. In fact, the $970 million Amazon paid to acquire Twitch in 2014 is still valued higher than the overall esports industry.

Given the explosive growth of streaming platforms, live streamers received something of a headstart on pro gamers in terms of generating stable income. Despite Twitch being intrinsically connected to the rise of esports, streamers not involved in competitive gaming started out earning more than their competitive counterparts. This was partly due to streamers having diverse sources of income, ranging from individual sponsorships to subscribers. Donations from viewers also helped spur on the earnings of streamers.

Professional gamers have been able to create extremely successful streaming careers for themselves as well. Balancing the two roles simultaneously has proven to be exceedingly tricky though, since the time players need to dedicate to competition can see them neglect streaming for a prolonged period of time. Viewers value streamers who provide consistent content, and only bonafide esports superstars are able to retain high viewer numbers despite lacking consistent output.

The growth of esports into a soon-to-be $1 billion industry, and an influx of non-endemic investment, has contributed to providing competitors with better salaries and benefits like team houses and health insurance. With minimum salaries being implemented in leagues such as the League of Legends Championship Series and the Overwatch League, and more events than ever scheduled to take place, players now have more opportunities to make considerable amounts of cash from both tournament winnings and individual sponsor deals.

But which of these two groups are winning out in earnings today?

Streaming still appears to have a higher peak than esports for its top performers

Content creators on both Twitch and YouTube have become increasingly popular in the past two to three years. With the continued growth of the video game industry, more people than ever are looking for gaming-related content. Additionally, the most popular personalities have been able to rake in substantial amounts of money in this period. To provide some perspective, donation service StreamLabs processed more than $100 million worth of donations on Twitch in 2017 alone.

Streamers on Twitch often receive the majority of their income from brand sponsorships, subscribers, and fan donations, which makes it hard to pinpoint specific figures. A basic subscription to a streamer on Twitch costs $4.99 monthly, and provides viewers with benefits such as unlocking unique emotes, receiving personal updates from the streamer, and other perks. The streamer usually receives 50 percent of all subscription payments, but popular streamers tend to receive more depending on the favorability of their partnership agreement.

In order to garner subscribers in the first place, however, streamers need to be affiliated with Twitch. This is to ensure that they live up to a basic set of standards that Twitch enforces.

Fortnite streamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins became the first streamer on the platform to surpass 200,000 subscribers on March 20. At the time, Blevins claims to have made roughly $500,000 a month. Add donations and personal sponsorships on top of that, and suddenly that figure becomes a lot higher.

Live streamers on YouTube are also able to run advertisements and receive donations during their stream, but are paid depending on how many people watch the content they curate on their channel as well. Facebook, which recently began streaming gaming content, also provides its viewers with the option of subscribing to streamers they enjoy.

Two years ago, one of the biggest League of Legends streamers, Michael “IMAQTPIE” Santana, told Dot Esports that he made an excess of $2 million per year. The majority of his revenue was generated through subscriptions, donations, and individual sponsorships. With Twitch ranked as one of the fastest growing websites in the U.S., and IMAQTPIE being as popular as he is, that figure is almost guaranteed to be much higher.

Outside of the top streamers for each respective game, streamers are obviously not making as much as Ninja or IMAQTPIE—but even less popular streamers can make a decent living off the profession. The key, however, seems to be having multiple revenue streams aside from the livestream.

Players in franchised esports leagues are closing in

Nowadays, the $30,000 salary IMAQTPIE told Dot Esports that he earned as a professional player in 2014 is on the lower side of the LCS payscale. Instead, following massive investment from non-endemic sponsors and investors, the average salary in franchised esports has exploded for top competitors.

OpTic Gaming’s League team manager Romain Bigeard told news site Liquid Legends that the average salary in the NA LCS has ballooned past $320,000 annually. That’s roughly three times the amount North American players were earning in 2016. Prior to the league becoming franchised and investments from major non-endemic brands, the average player salary was reportedly $105,000 for North American players and $80,000 for Europeans—meaning the average salary in the league grew more than 100 percent in less than a year.

Similarly, Blizzard’s Overwatch League implemented a baseline salary of at least $50,000, as well as healthcare for its players. Some players in the league do make more than this on average, however, depending on their contract.

These are recent developments for competitive gamers, though. Historically, competitors have had little in the way of leverage in negotiating salaries, and have often been shortchanged. This was primarily rooted in a lack of overall oversight of Western esports since both tournaments and teams could simply disappear overnight.

A prime example would be that of Counter-Strike legend Emil “HeatoN” Cristen, who, despite ending his esports career in 2008, is still a household name to fans of CS. In his 2017 autobiography HeatoN – Med Livet på Spel (HeatoN – Gambling With Your Life), the now 34-year-old star recounts multiple instances of having his likeness used without his permission by organizations and having his winnings either withheld or stolen outright. Contracts, he described, didn’t seem to be worth more than the paper they were written on.

There are now multiple law firms that specialize in providing legal representation to competitive gamers to ensure that they’re compensated for their labor. Additionally, teams in CS:GO, Overwatch, and League are attempting to set up independent unions to establish guidelines for its players.

Non-franchised esports also receive big payouts

Are esports as healthy outside of the Overwatch League and the LCS? To some extent, they are. While the leagues are both franchised and held in one specific location, at least this year, other esports such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Dota 2, and StarCraft 2 are centered primarily around third-party events. As such, prize money factors into how much players earn in these games, and players are therefore expected to compete in multiple tournaments and leagues. Outside of salaries, players can easily earn upwards of $200,000 in a single year of competition from prize money alone.

This is an area in esports that’s grown considerably. The amount of prize money awarded reached $112 million in 2017—a tremendous rise from the $22 million that was given out in 2013.

But even in regards to salaries, players in non-franchised esports are earning considerably more than they were just a couple of years ago.

One of the main increases in overall prize pools is due to crowdfunding becoming one of the core features of the Dota 2 world championships, The International. Since 2013, Dota 2 developer Valve began selling in-game items to its users called “the Compendium.” A total of 25 percent of all Compendium sales are funneled into the overall prize pool of The International, and that has caused the winnings for the event to increase for each consecutive year since its implementation. The International 7 is the biggest so far at $24 million.

The strongest teams in these games can enjoy incredible payouts. Dota 2 is a particularly interesting case study since it simultaneously has the richest players in terms of prize money won, but also some of the poorest by the same metric. The reason for this divide is primarily centered around the crowdfunding aspect of The International. The prize money was distributed unevenly among the 16 teams that attended the tournament until The International 5. At The International 4, in fact, the disparity between eighth and ninth place teams was roughly $500,000—and it wasn’t until The International 5 where last-place finishers were compensated at all.

Nowadays, The International offers a sum of money to all teams that make it to the playoffs. And with multiple $1 million events being part of the Dota 2 Professional Circuit, even smaller teams have the chance to make a decent amount of money from competing.

The most successful competitive gamers and streamers are now in a powerful position when it comes to both income and reputation. They’re at the precipice of what is soon to be a billion dollar industry, and prove that either field can foster a sustainable career.

Someone like Ninja, however, clearly puts things into perspective. Earning a total of $500,000 a month off of subscribers alone would equal roughly $6 million per year. That’s almost three times more than what Lee “Faker” Sang-Hyeok, the most successful League player in history, reportedly makes annually.

With an ever-growing audience, streamers enjoy more success in terms of earnings than even the most famous competitive gamers overall. But with such a large audience, competition is fierce, and attention is scarce. Not everyone can make it like Ninja has.

Either option is still far away from being a guaranteed money-maker. But for the top streamers, the payday can be far more lucrative than their competitive counterparts.