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WITH eSports having just been announced as an official medal sport for the 2022 Asian Games in China, it is time to recognise just how established and lucrative the competitive gaming industry has become.
Far from being just a hobby indulged in during one's downtime, gaming has become a veritable profession and mainstream sport. The hours spent on Counter Strike, for example, are literally paying off.
According to listed sports betting company Unibet's latest publication, Champions of eSports, the total prize money awarded across all eSports games has more than quadrupled in the last four years - growing from US$21.4 million in 2013 to US$93.3 million in 2016.
And Unibet is projecting that the prize money could breach the US$150 million mark this year, which would mean an almost 100-fold increase from the prize money awarded in 2003.
Average tournament winnings across all eSports tournaments have grown from US$10,055 in 2013 to US$24,097 in 2016.
With that scale of payout, it is perhaps not surprising that the world's top professional gamers earn millions from their ventures - the top two players have accumulated over US$2.5 million each, with the next two taking home over US$2 million each in prize money, and the next eight players earning close to US$2 million each.
The swelling pot is thanks in part to the burgeoning viewership of eSports. The League of Legends final last year was watched by more people than the last game of the NBA (National Basketball Association) finals: 36 million viewers for the multiplayer online battle arena (Moba) video game, compared to 31 million for the premier men's professional basketball league.
The overall number of frequent and occasional eSports viewers has also steadily increased since 2012, reaching a peak of 162 million frequent viewers and 161 million occasional viewers in 2016. And, according to statistics and market research portal Statista, the number of frequent and occasional eSports viewers is expected to rise to 286 million and 303 million, respectively, by 2020.
"To put that into perspective, US male millennials already watch eSports as much as they watch baseball and ice hockey," Unibet's report said.
With the rise in popularity and prize money, the total number of eSports professionals has also grown rapidly in the last few years, going from 594 in 2003, to 5,280 in 2013, to 13,555 last year.
The US has been the best represented nation since the inception of competitive gaming. With an active player count of 2,891, the US currently has nearly three times that of the second most represented nation, China, which has 1,001. The dominance of the US has been aided by investment from celebrities like former NBA star Shaquille O'Neal, and the US college system offering eSports scholarships.
South Korea with 712 professionals and the UK with 533 are the next most represented nations. But in terms of historical earnings, China trumps the US with US$52.5 million, compared to the US's US$47.9 million. The most common age among active players is 20, and 25 has been the most lucrative age for professional gamers, according to Unibet.
The top earning players tend to be men; the top earning female player boasts total prize money of US$171,256 earned over five years, compared to the top earning male player who accumulated US$2.7 million over five years.
Along with the growth in prize money has been an increase in the number of competitions. The total number of tournaments across all eSports games has grown from just 49 in 2000, to a peak of 4,913 in 2015, before dropping to 3,874 in 2016.
Moba video games seem to offer the best payouts. Dota 2, a free-to-play Moba game, awarded US$37.3 million in prize money in 2016 alone, and US$31.0 million in 2015; its annual The International tournament is the most lucrative. Dota 2 has thus far awarded a total of US$95.0 million in prize money.
That is more than double the prize money awarded by the second-placed Moba game League of Legends, with its US$37.1 million.
Counter Strike: Global Offensive and StarCraft II are next in line, with US$29.8 million and US$21.8 million awarded, respectively.