Money in esports is always a hot topic, and the most universally discussed numbers tend to be prize money. Different games have different approaches to this of course, from Valve’s supercharged crowdfunding for The International (TI) to Riot’s more subtle, sustainable model, to Smash Summit’s "let’s get the players to do stuff on stream so fans donate to our prize pool" scheme, which has often come in for criticism.
Today, we’re going to have a look at the top earners across the esports space, which means that is the last mention of Smash esports you’re likely to see, although we’ll be bringing you a more detailed look at that scene very soon. We’ll add our qualifiers further down the page, but first off let’s just have a quick peek at some raw data, starting with the twenty names that took home the largest sums in winnings across 2021.
Highest prize-winning players in 2021
The first, and most obvious point to make, is that once again TI dominates the prize money lists, just as it has for so long. Outside of a brief period where it looked like Fortnite might push its way to the top of the prize pool lists, TI has long been the king of payouts, and Team Spirit’s win of $18.2M in 2021 ensures they head the list. What is crazier about their spot is the fact that for the winners at least, TI2021 represents a minimum of 90% of all the money they’ve won in their careers.
The next five names are, as you would expect, the runners up from TI, and even for storied veterans like Wang "Ame" Chunyu or Zhang "y`" Yiping, the payout event represented nearly a third of their career winnings. When you make the finals of an event with a $40M prize pool, you are probably going to do decently in financial terms at least, although that will only be so much consolation for a team that has lost two TI finals since 2018.
CSGO… and the rest
Given the incredible viewing numbers League of Legends claims each year for Worlds, you’d expect their players to be rolling in the cash, but the winners of the biggest event in the "biggest esport" only took home $157K in prize money across 2021. For many people, the "only" will seem out of place, but when you consider the fact that League Worlds had a peak audience over 4M, and 174M hours watched, it’s surprising in some ways that they only offer $2.25M as the total prize pool for the event.
There isn’t actually a single League of Legends player in the top 100 list on Esports Earnings, with games like Arena of Valor, Rainbow Six Siege, and PUBG all having paid out more in prize money than Riot’s MOBA. There are multiple reasons for this, and it’s fair to say that top pros playing in places like China or the States are very, very well paid, but you might not have expected
In fact, it was CSGO that paid out the second-best in 2021, with Na’Vi’s Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev basically doubling his career winnings by taking home the delayed Major and a swathe of other titles. For newer players to tier 1 CSGO, like Valerii "b1t" Vakhovskyi or Ilya "Perfecto" Zalutskiy, their 2021 winnings were more like the 90% of career winnings that Team Spirit were able to achieve in Dota, which shows the incredible talent of those guys to go from basically tier 2 to playing on the greatest team in the world.
Part of the reason CSGO was so lucrative in 2021 was Valve’s decision to roll over the prize money from the previous canceled major into the PGL event held in Sweden, meaning there was $2M to be divided between the teams that made top 8. There is also the fact that CSGO, for all its poor management and slightly dodgy governance, is arguably the one esport that brings fans together more than any other, as evidenced by record viewing figures for PGL’s show and universal acclaim for the event in the face of many technical issues.
PUBG, Rainbow Six among notable mentions
As we’ve already said, other games that paid out well include PUBG, which has multiple players in the $200k+ range for prize money in 2021, and Ubisoft’s tactical shooter Rainbow Six Siege, which relies on crowdfunding for some events. Given the state of the game though, the most shocking is probably found at number 31 on the list, where Atlanta’s FaZe’s Call of Duty player Tyler "aBeZy" Pharris sits, with an incredible $515K prize money in 2021 alone.
Overall, prize money is just one part of the equation when it comes to player earnings, but with esports not yet at the level professional football has reached it matters more than many would care to admit. On the other hand, when you compare 75% of the top 20 coming from Dota 2 to the overall state of Dota 2 esports, it’s also fair to say that a game needs a lot more than just headline-making prize pools to thrive, as Valve will hopefully realise before it’s too late.