Ever since the 1997 Red Annihilation tournament, when professional Quake player Dennis “Thresh” Fong won id Software CEO John Carmack’s Ferrari 328 GTS(!), gamers have tried to learn to play games and get paid for it.
Thresh: Where it all began
Thresh made upwards of $100,000 a year at his peak but was a significant outlier at a time when the esports community was small and had few names that were close to recognizable. He won nearly every tournament he entered and came away with nearly every sponsorship deal. Surprisingly, he followed this up by retiring.
Thresh was said to have “ESP” in competition. He had an innate ability to know what other players were doing and where they would be next. If that ability to lob grenades around corners and dodge rockets carried over to business, he foresaw more moneymaking opportunities in the gaming community itself than in the unreliable income inherent to being a professional athlete. He co-founded numerous companies based around the gaming community and journalism and in 2003 helped create a social hub and messenger app for gamers called Xfire.
The Xfire chat app integrated with games and its website to provide live chat, server browsing, and the ability to see what your friends and strangers were playing. At its peak before shutdown in 2015, Xfire had over 24 million registered users, mostly World of Warcraft and League of Legends. It gradually introduced new features like screenshots, video recording, and something they called “Mogulus,” which quickly found a more marketable name and is known these days as Vimeo Livestream.
The esports movement
In 2019, esports athletes recorded total winnings of $228,946,227, and the esports community is expected to top $1.11 billion in revenue by the end of 2020, even accounting for market slowdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Companies with franchise competitions like Blizzard pay their athletes a very competitive base salary that even includes health insurance. Due to the growth of the gaming industry sponsorships have also become common.
We are far from the days of Thresh being an outlier. It has finally become viable to be a professional esports athlete and be paid to play games. But this is hardly news to professional streamers, who have been able to make a living from their mix of gameplay and commentary for around a decade now. Way back in 2014, Twitch accounted for about one-eighth of the bandwidth of the entire Internet.
Professional gaming or streaming?
Now that the tables have leveled off a bit, which is the easier way to make a living as a professional gamer, streaming or competition – or maybe both?
Just like anything else in life, it depends on what you like and what you’re good at. If you have the skills, time, and wrist muscles for competition along with a drive to be the very best then become a professional athlete, but streaming could still be a much more lucrative path, especially if you dominate a niche. For example, online casinos alone pay streamers up to $1,000 per new customer they signup, and it’s not that hard to get going.
All you need to stream is a microphone and a webcam, and you don’t even really need the webcam. After all, your viewers (probably) aren’t as interested in staring at you as they are in your cross-arena headshot on Fortnite last week or whatever you were doing in Minecraft all last night, but, especially in games like Minecraft, if you want them to stick around you do have to keep the witty repertoire up on the mic. If you do want to stream with a webcam, then you’ll also have to have a clean and well-lit space. Put some fancy stuff on your walls.
Marketing, marketing, marketing
Just like online dating, there is another skill besides good looks and good conversation that you’ll need to get started as a streamer. You’ll need good marketing too. As an esports athlete, your platform is provided for you by the franchise or competition you enter, but as a streamer you’ll need to select your platform (Twitch, YouTube, Mixer, Facebook) and attract your own viewers. You’ll eventually make money through a mixture of subscriptions, ads, donations, and professional sponsorships. Unlike athletes, streamers have no real cap to their income, so the harder you hustle the more cash that can flow.
It is technically possible to be both an athlete and a streamer, but it’s a lot of work. Just like Michael Jordan couldn’t play both baseball and basketball, even Thresh couldn’t play both sides. And neither of them had to keep up with constant nerfs and changes to the meta.
This also ties into the most important decision you’ll have to make in either career path: finding your niche. As an athlete, you need to stay on top in your game of choice. Being distracted from Mortal Kombat 11 practice because you’re suddenly into Pokémon Go could be a career killer. But as a streamer, you can make anything your niche as long as you keep your viewers watching.
Featured Image by Martin Garcia/ESPAT Media