What separates professional esports players from most other gamers, aside from superior skills and experience, is the fact that they are paid by teams and organizations to play and compete. More than anything, that is what truly makes them ‘professionals.’ There are many ways by which they earn their keep as well, so let’s take a look into that, specifically among the professional esports players of Southeast Asia (SEA).
For the most part, there are three main ways by which professional esports players make money — namely, through salaries, tournament winnings, and streaming. While we can’t disclose exact salary figures or the like for players and organizations, let’s go over the ways pros earn their money one by one.
For pros who are signed with an esports team or organization, one of their main sources of steady income would be a regular salary. On average, these salaries can range from $1,000 to $5,000, depending a number of factors. These range from what esports title a player is competing in, which team they have signed with, which region or league they are in, and their skill and reputation, to name a few.
In the esports big leagues, players rake in thousands of dollars in salary. For example, in the North America League of Legends Championship Series (NA LCS) the average starting player salary is at over $320,000, with more established and successful players earning even more on multi-year contracts. For context, players in the NA LCS are averaging the same salary as those on Major League Soccer (MLS) clubs.
However, that should be treated as close to the ceiling and nowhere near the standard for esports. In Southeast Asia, where the esports scene is not as developed or well-structured as in North America or Europe, players earn considerably less from their salaries.
For example, in the Philippines’ local LoL esports league, the Philippine Pro Gaming Series, players get a salary of PHP 15,000 or only $285. While that may seem like chump change compared to what those players in the NA LCS earn, it highlights both the uneasy road to financial success in esports and the stark discrepancy in terms of development and infrastructure for esports in SEA compared to other, more affluent regions.
With that said, the differences between the esports structures of different esports titles affect how much salary a player gets as well. LoL esports employs a franchise-based system in the NA LCS, whereas other titles mostly have players signing with organizations that determine how much they will shell out for them.
Experience and reputation matter as well. Veteran and big-name players are more likely to get more lucrative contracts compared to up-and-comers, who won’t likely have the proven track records to show they’re worthy of a big contract anyway.
Winning tournaments have long been the quickest way to success in esports, especially in titles that feature tournaments with prize pools that reach millions of dollars — Dota 2 being the perfect example.
Dota has been the esport where SEA has seen the most success, and it shows in how much money players from the region got from winning Dota tournaments.
In 2018, the Malaysian player Jianwei “xNova” Yap became the region’s highest earner with $1,132,528 from tournament winnings alone, according to esportsearnings.com. The majority of that came from this year’s iteration of Dota 2’s annual premier tournament, The International 2018 (TI8), where xNova split over $4 million with his team, PSG.LGD, after they placed second.
Other big earners from the region include Zheng “MidOne” Yeik Nai and Chai “Mushi” Yee Fung, both from Malaysia and with over $1 million in total winnings, and Djardel Jicko “DJ” Mampusti from the Philippines with over $600 thousand overall winnings.
The fact that all those players are in Dota 2 speaks to how the game’s esports structure hinges on The International. Last year’s tournament alone had a record-breaking prize pool at over $25 million, which made up over half of the total amount of prize money Dota 2 gave away as a whole in 2018.
Even if tournament winnings for team games such as Dota 2 and LoL still have to be split among teammates, with their orgs taking a cut as well, those prizes still make up a big part of an esport pro’s income. Case in point, just making it to The International is already a massive win for a player financially, as TI8 gave out over $63 thousand to the last placed teams. Split five ways, that would be over $12 thousand, enough to live comfortably in SEA.
Aside from their regular salaries and tournament winnings, many esports pros nowadays use online streaming to supplement their income. For the most part, it’s quite easy for them to do so too. Regular practices aside, some pros like to stream their public matches, which many members of the community often tune in to.
Some former Dota 2 pros have even taken up streaming as a full-time job, most notably Wehsing “SingSing” Yuen and Henrik “AdmiralBulldog” Ahnberg.
Having a dedicated following on Twitch can be quite lucrative, as a streamer with 2,000 subscribers can earn an extra $5,000 a month. The owner of a Twitch channel gets half the money a subscriber pays every month, which starts at $4.99 Streamers can even top that by monetizing their streams with ads and sponsorship deals, as well as by taking donations from viewers.
With that said, the Twitch community in SEA is not as strong as those in other regions. This is mostly due to poor internet connections in most SEA countries not really giving most of the potential audience a lot of chances to tune in. Even so, streaming is a lucrative option for any player willing to grind enough hours streaming.