Almost everyone enjoys games in one form or another. In fact, as humans, we’ve been playing games for thousands of years. However, the concept of making money from a specific subgenre of games, namely video games, is a relatively new one.
Indeed, prior to the 1990s, the term “pro gamer” wasn’t even a thing. All of that changed though, when Dennis “Thresh” Fong became the Michael Jordan of video games. We’ll talk more about Fong and why he’s regarded as the first professional gamer later on.
Before we do that, we need to establish some ground rules and define what we mean by the term “professional gamer.”
A pro gamer is hard to define because there isn’t an application form you can fill out to become one. However, the general consensus is that a professional derives all or a significant majority of their income from playing games.
In most cases, a pro gamer takes part in competitions such as The International, ESL Gaming Tournaments and the League of Legends World Championship - either on their own or as part of a team, depending on how the game works. Competitors usually play as part of a team or organisation, like Evil Geniuses or NaVi.
But - you don’t have to be a competitive player to become a pro gamer. Yes, in the early days, only those who took part in high-level tournaments and won money were classed as professional gamers. Thanks to the internet and the growth of gaming over the years, people without world-class skills can make a living from the industry.
Take, for example, Henry and Jeannie from MxR Plays. The YouTube duo play video games, but they found fame reviewing them. So, while they aren’t necessarily competitive gamers in the traditional sense, they are pros because they’re deeply entrenched in the business.
A professional video gamer competes in tournaments and/or has a presence online because they review, promote, or have interactions with various aspects of the industry. Basically, if someone makes money from gaming and they play at any level, they can be considered a pro.
With that being said, here are some ways a pro gamer can earn money:
Now that we have a sense of gaming as a profession, we need to establish how we got where we are today. For that, let’s take a trip back through time to the early days of competitive gaming and eSports.
The first recognized eSports event took place at Stanford University in 1972. Teams of students battled it out in Spacewar!, and the winner received a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone magazine.
Stanford’s tournament was the result of a budding interest not only in games but the competitions they could spawn. This interest bubbled up into a frenzy when Atari created the Space Invaders Tournament. 10,000 players entered and Rebecca Heineman won.
She became the first recognized eSports champion and went on to have a long career as a video game developer.
Heineman may be known as the first eSports champion, but Dennis Fong is listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as the first-ever pro gamer. Fong was playing at a time when LAN connections allowed PC games to be linked.
This, in turn, caused a surge in tournaments across the US and Asia. Fong won every tournament he entered over a five-year period.
His performances made him enough money that he could earn a living playing games. His seminal moment came in 1997 when he won the infamous Red Annihilation Quake Tournament at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).
The victory cemented his position as the top gamer in the world and netted him a red Ferrari 328GTS owned by Quake co-creator John Carmack.
Buoyed by the success of the Quake Tournament, Angel Daniel Munoz created the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL). The league was only open to players aged 17+ and there was prize money up for grabs.
Indeed, within a year of launching, there were dozens of pro gamers competing for prizes worth upwards of $15,000 which, at the time, was a lot of money.
Fong’s rise to fame and the growth of the CPL caused the eSports scene to grow significantly in a short period of time. The 1998 StarCraft Tournament was another major moment for the industry.
From that initial event, the Global StarCraft 2 League (GSL) was eventually born. Starting out in South Korea, the league has become an international attraction watched by over 50 million people every year.
The World Cyber Games built on the trends started by the CPL and StarCraft. It also opened the door to another series of professional tournaments held under the banner of Major League Gaming.
The history of gaming shows a clear progression from amateur events to professional leagues. That progression has created a multi-billion-dollar industry - the average person can now find out how to become an eSports player and look at it as a viable career option. Why? Because there’s enough money within gaming for people to make a living.
For example, in 2017, the total prize money paid out to eSports players was $110.6 million. In one tournament alone the prizepool was over $24 million.
OK, so history tells us that gaming can be more than a hobby and now you want to know how to become a professional gamer. Well, if you’re aiming to make a living from eSports, you have to have the right skills. But, just as importantly, you need to know you can make money.
The top pro gamers earn millions of dollars ever year. However, they are the elite. The average pro gamer doesn’t make that much.
As a general guide, a professional eSports gamer that’s paid to be part of a team can earn between $1,000 and $5,000 a month. This is a basic salary. From there, winning teams split any prize money they win.
Therefore, it’s possible to make significantly more than the base salary if you’re a successful player. But, as we know, some people win, and some lose. Therefore, you may not earn the biggest paychecks.
Still, with that in mind, even at the lowest levels, it’s possible to make over $60,000 as a pro gamer.
Gamers are modern-day celebrities. In fact, many of the original stars were celebrities in South Korea and other parts of Asia long before the internet gave everyone a chance to be famous.
For example, Frenchman Bertrand Grospellier, aka ElkY, was such a hit in Korea that he moved there during his professional gaming days. He subsequently moved back to France when he became an equally famous face in the poker industry.
Today, it’s a lot easier for pro gamers to get noticed and gain a following. Twitch, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram are all public networks through which people can become “famous” in their own right.
In fact, mastering the art of self-promotion is an important part of learning how to become a pro gamer. The image you portray is a great part of this self-promotion. Create something that reflects your style with this gaming logo maker. If you can sell yourself on social media, you’ve got a chance of making money from this industry.
Indeed, there are many gamers out there who couldn’t win a professional tournament. However, because they’re engaging and have something certain people are interested in, they’re making money online. In essence, these people are internet celebrities who enjoy playing video games.
Therefore, if you’re interested in exploring the life of a pro gamer, you need to identify your niche. Are you skilled enough to become a top-class competitor? Or are you someone that loves gaming and knows how to entertain people?
If you’re the former, you should be looking at how to become an eSports player. If you’re the latter, you should be looking at how to become a professional gamer. This is a subtle yet important distinction. Some people are made to be elite competitors, others are made to be entertaining.
Both types of people can be gamers who operate on a professional level (i.e., make a living from it). However, those that compete are best referred to as eSports players, while those who entertain are best referred to as pro gamers.
Due to the dynamic nature of online gaming, the top-ranked pro gamer in the world depends greatly on the period of time and how it is calculated - by games won? Money earned? Prizes won?
Among the top players of 2021 are Johan “N0tail” Sundstein (who also made Forbes' list of 30 under 30 in 2019) with over $7 million in prize money. Does that mean he’s the best gamer in the world? Perhaps.
However, there are plenty of other fantastic players out there who are immensely skilled. Some other elite eSports pros to look out for are Tyson "TenZ" Ngo, Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf, and Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok.
We’ve discussed the nuances of pro gaming, how people make a living, what separates competitors from entertainers, and the industry’s evolution. This leaves just one question: how do you become a professional gamer?
It’s a question that many enthusiasts want a simple answer to but, unfortunately, there are no direct routes to the top. The good news, though, is that there are multiple paths you can take.
As we’ve said, being a pro gamer can mean many different things. You could be part of a team that competes in professional eSports tournaments. Alternatively, you could be an internet celebrity and play games as part of what you do to entertain people.
Becoming a success in the former often leads to the latter. However, you don’t need to be a winning eSports pro to become an internet celebrity.
As long as you love gaming, have something interesting to say, and find your niche, you could build up enough of a following to earn money from the industry. That’s probably easier than trying to become a world-class competitor. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. But, if you’re choosing one of two paths, it’s certainly the less arduous one.
To help become a professional eSports competitor, here are steps you can take towards that goal:
Everyone has a favorite game. Some people are FPS fans, others prefer real-time strategy (RTS) games. You need to find the subgenre you enjoy the most and, in turn, have a natural talent for it.
The same way you need to find your ideal game, you also need to find your ideal platform. Maybe you’re a PC pro in the making. Maybe you’re an Xbox hero.
There is no substitute for hard work. Games might be enjoyable, but this is a job. Many of the top pro gamers spend up to 10 hours a day practicing. As well as playing, you need to review your sessions, use simulators to test out strategies, and, finally, put your skills into practice.
The final step to becoming a professional eSports gamer is winning. Enter as many tournaments as you can. Start on the local amateur circuit, get some wins under your belt and build up from there. The more wins you bank, the bigger your profile will get.
Basically, it’s hard to ignore a winner and, if you can prove you’re a top player, teams and sponsors will soon find you. Other than that, remember to enjoy yourself!