In a lot of esports, prize money is a considerable, but not essential part of the average pro player’s income. When you play a game like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, where salaries can exceed $20K a month, that makes a lot of sense.
But for Melee pros, prize pots matter — to the point where we’ve even seen players state that they needed to win to be able to eat in the weeks following a big event.
2021 was a tough year for a lot of games, but the community also saw Melee’s largest-ever prize pot. Summit 11 benefitted from the LAN drought with a record prize pool of $155,372, which is remarkable for an event in this scene (even if Summit does rely heavily on crowdfunding to create these headlines).
But how did the pros fare over the course of the year in terms of income, and who had the most profitable appearances across the face of 2021 in Super Smash Bros Melee?
Mango is top prize earner in Melee for 2021
Unsurprisingly, the winner of the biggest prize pool in Smash history was also the top name on the list of earners for 2021, with Cloud9’s Joseph "Mango" Marquez taking home $57,242 — with a staggering $48,700 of that coming from Summit 11 alone.
Those who know how he rolls shouldn’t be surprised that the Summit Mango won happened to also be the most lucrative in Smash history. But equally, those who saw Summit 11 will attest to how incredibly epic his win was, as a moment of history in Smash esports.
It might surprise some of us to realize that second place in the yearly rankings goes to one Justin "Plup" McGrath, thanks in no small part to the $75k prize pool the Smash World Tour finals boasted, of which the Panda pro took home $20k. Plup has struggled at times to maintain his place among the elite, but the SWT win combined with his Summit earnings meant he won $37,166 in 2021.
Next in line is Zain, who took home $32,184, including a second-place finish at Summit 11 worth a cool $23k and change. This was more than Plup got for winning SWT finals, just to put in perspective how far ahead of the average event Summit 11 was for prize pool — as the aforementioned World Tour finals was actually the third biggest in Melee history by prize money alone, behind only Summits 11 and 5.
Wizzrobe and IBDW
Fourth and fifth are occupied by Justin "Wizzrobe" Hallett and Cody "iBDW" Schwab, in that order, with Envy’s man winning $28,285, including $13K for second place at SWT.
It might surprise a few people to see Panda’s main Fox and 2021’s best Fox main as low as fifth, but iBDW's payout for winning Summit 12 was only $17,085, a lot less than half of what Mango took home for winning Summit 11.
Behind those two sits Liquid’s Juan "Hungrybox" Debeidma, whose focus on Ultimate and content may have cost him a few grand in prize money, but ultimately ended up making him way more from other avenues.
Probably the most interesting name on the list was actually HBox’s Smash World Tour vanquisher Matt "Polish" Warshaw, who earned $8K of his $9,219 at the same event, which was certainly his best LAN result yet.
How does Melee prize money stack up against other games?
Smash has always been a passion esport, with relatively modest prize pools even when Melee was headlining EVO and drawing a quarter of a million viewers at an event with many sponsored prize pools. With a competent, caring developer, the game could be a real head-turner for income too, but sadly Nintendo has never cared for or understood the scene, and nothing about that changed in 2021.
Melee is the 39th most lucrative game, based on 2021’s stats, with a total prize payout of $258,784 paid out in prize money according to Esports Earnings. With at least $150K of this coming from Smash Summit 11, the scene looks very much like it’s a case of Summit and the rest. But a quick trip back shows that this was a lean year for the game. In 2018, when the scene was more LAN-centric and less affected by COVID, Melee ranked 31st in the world, with a total cash payout for the year of $365,222.
This still pales in comparison to the top games, with Dota 2 offering over $47 million in 2021 and CSGO over $21 million, with the latter having achieved that figure without needing to resort to crowdfunding.
In terms of the fighting game community, Melee was the fourth most lucrative game of 2021, behind Smash Bros Ultimate at $545K, Street Fighter 5 at $493K, and Brawhalla, which saw $296K paid out over the course of the year.
2022 should be better overall if we see a return to LAN play, which is of course a massive point of uncertainty. But the factors limiting Melee still need to be addressed if the scene is to grow again. Nintendo’s involvement with events increasing could be a good thing, but equally the history of the game shows that is also very much an unknown quantity, with the publisher just as capable of ruining a scene as they are helping it, and historically far more likely to do the former than the latter.
*All figures courtesy of Esports Earnings
*Exact payout figures for Summit 12 are unreleased officially, and based on the prize pool percentages paid out at Summit 11.
Image: Todd Gutierrez