Like most teenagers in the 1990s, Aleksey Krupnyk spent much of his free time playing computer games. Unlike the other teenagers though this Ukrainian gamer eventually made a living shooting virtual bad guys. By 2003, when he was 23, he had won his first big electronic sports tournament. The prize? A laptop, which he promptly sold for $1,430 — that was a lot of Ukrainian hryvnia at the time. “That’s crazy money,” he said. “I could buy a car here.”

When Krupnyk first started competing for money, the electronic sports industry — video gamers competing against other video gamers — was still in its infancy. He made a decent living, earning $33,500 from tournament wins and collecting about $2,000 a month from sponsors at his peak in 2011.

Four players made more than $1.73m in 2015.

As the popularity of “eSports” has grown, so too has the prize and sponsorship money plus the job opportunities. According to E-Sports Earnings, four players made more than $1.73m in 2015, while many others earned more than $100,000 in income.

While eSports still has a long way to go before it becomes as mainstream as basketball or football, SuperData Research, a New York-based company that tracks the sector, said that the global eSports market will grow from from $748m today to $1.9bn by the end of 2018. In 2015 some 188 million people watched games being played online and on TV, up from 71.5 million in 2013.

The global eSports market will grow from $748m today to $1.9bn by the end of 2018.

The market’s booming for several reasons: there are more people playing games than ever before (worldwide games sales reached $114bn in 2015);  gamers can compete against each other over the Internet; and advertisers, eager to target the coveted 18-to-35-year old demographic, have started funding competitions, said Joost van Dreunen, SuperData’s CEO.

Going pro

There are hundreds of gamers who consider themselves to be professional players and that number will only grow, said Ralf Reichert based in Cologne, a managing director with Turtle Entertainment, a company that runs and promotes major eSports competitions and leagues.

Like in other sports, many players only make a small sum — 300 of 500 players listed on the E-Sports Earnings website made less than $50,000 in tournament winnings in 2015 — but as the industry matures there will be more opportunities to earn a higher income, he said.

The average person completes about 100 actions per minute during a game, but professionals average between 350 and 500.

Going from playing in your bedroom to tournament success takes many hours of practice, immense skill and fast fingers, said van Dreunen. The average person completes about 100 actions per minute during a game, but professionals average between 350 and 500. Winning the games themselves — League of Legends, StarCraft II, Dota 2­, mostly multiplayer action adventure games — requires quick thinking and well-thought-out strategies.

It’s not unlike chess, albeit with a lot more speed. “It’s like if ice hockey and chess had a baby,” said van Dreunen. “It’s fast, it’s twitchy, but it’s also about the bigger picture — you see an opponent do something and you have to provide a response to that.”

Climbing the ladder

There’s one route to making money in this sport: win, win and win some more. In the Ukraine, Krupnyk didn’t have a computer at home so he joined a PC club in his home town. As he got better at his game — StarCraft Broodwar, the predecessor to StarCraft II —he began beating other club members. He’d then get invited to play people from different clubs and he’d beat them too. He then started competing online against players in South Korea, considered the birthplace of eSports, and won those games as well.

To really make it to the top, though, you need to join a team. Similar to other sports, managers and scouts look for top players to sign contracts and then they fly them out to all of the biggest tournaments. Krupnyk signed his first deal in 2004. He only earned about $100 a month at the time, but eventually joined another team where he made $24,000 a year, not including tournament winnings.

The appeal of eSports is that it’s a global industry so anyone from anywhere can make it.

The appeal of eSports is that it’s a global industry so anyone from anywhere can make it. However, while South Korea is still a hotbed of gaming, it’s America, Europe and Asia that are growing the most, said van Dreunen. He points out that eSports-related investments topped $321m in Asia in 2015, about $100m more than North America. 

More than just gaming

Professional gaming isn’t a long-term career. The popularity of games often changes and when that happens your income can drop dramatically. The long hours aren’t conducive to having a family, said Krupnyk, who competes much less since he’s had a child.  

Fortunately, there are other gaming-related jobs to be had. Krupnyk now works for Twitch.TV, an online community for gamers, as partnership manager.

Reichert’s company has 400 employees around the world and it currently has about 40 job openings. He needs everything a typical media company would need — marketers, TV hosts and production professionals, league operators, accountants, finance people.

Even though competing itself has a shelf-life, those who start gaming never really quit. “Once you become pro-gamer,” said Krupnyk, “you stay pro-gamer all of your life.

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