The esports space saw a huge contraction in prize money in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, halting the eye-popping purse numbers that were starting to catch mainstream attention.
After a nearly 30% jump from 2018 to 2019 that left last year’s prize money totaled at $211M USD, this year came in at a relatively paltry $65.5M. That is a drop of about 69% in one year.
The depressed payouts will likely continue in 2021 because the world is not expected to be back to a sense of normalcy till the middle part of the year, foreclosing many events that could have happened in Q1 and Q2.
No. 10 – Rocket League: $2.63M
Newly onto the list this year is Psyonix Studios title Rocket League, which doled out $2.63M in prize money over the course of the year through its Rocket League Championship Series. The car soccer game, which paid out $3.040M in prize money last year, is seen as a title with good growth potential.
Psyonix committed $4.5M to the most recent RLCS season, which will conclude in 2021. With more prize money than ever flowing into a revamped, open ecosystem, Rocket League is poised to rise up the rankings next year.
No. 9 – Hearthstone: $3.73M
Activision Blizzard’s digital collectible card game makes it onto this year’s list following a conspicuous absence last year. Hearthstone, which came in at $3.73M, is the only game in the digital collectible card category to make it onto the list, though it has new competition to watch out for from Riot Games’ Legends of Runeterra.
While Activision Blizzard continues to focus most of its energy and resources on its franchised leagues, Riot Games is steadily and meticulously ramping up esports investment in its newer titles, including LoR. That coupled with the rise of other competition such as Magic Arena (which made the list last year) means that Hearthstone’s status as the undisputed king of card games is now more in question than ever before.
No. 8 – PUBG: $4M
There was a time when PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS had the potential to become a leader in the esports space. However, after multiple restructurings of its esports infrastructure and the departure of several prominent esports teams from the space, the game appears to have settled into a lower rung. 2020 was intended to be a new opportunity for PUBG to focus on international competition, but the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into that plan before it could get off the ground.
The game only paid out about a third in 2020 from what it did in 2019, dropping in the rankings four slots year over year from No. 4 in 2019.
No. 7 – Overwatch: $4.36M
The Overwatch League had to shift to online-only play this year due to the pandemic, torpedoing its home-team model aspirations that were supposed to take off in full force this year. The sport still had a solid prize payout, but the money was less than half of last year’s haul, which came in at $9.59M, and it has dropped from the rank of No. 5 last year as a result.
While Activision Blizzard distributed a similar sum of over $3M for its season-ending tournament, the necessary shift to online play impacted the games stage-based competition cycle, reducing the number of league-wide competitions which had previously culminated in large payouts themselves.
No. 6 – Rainbow Six Siege: $5.02M
Rainbow Six Siege was one of the few titles to pay out more in the pandemic-plagued year than it did last year, with $5.02M in 2020 versus $4.1M in 2019. This was due in large part to the game’s world championship, the Six Invitational, being held in early February prior to the majority of the world’s COVID lockdown. That event alone paid out $3M, up from $2M in the previous year.
Rainbow Six was one of the only games in all of 2020 to host its biggest tournament in person, and therefore enjoyed the results of its continued year over year growth more than most titles.
No. 5 – Call of Duty: $6.27M
With the debut of the newly geo-located and franchised Call of Duty League in 2020, the game largely held its own in this year’s ranking as compared to last, with a jump of three slots and only a slight downtick in prize payout. Unlike the Overwatch League, the Call of Duty League committed early on to retaining a tournament-style structure similar to its pre-franchise model.
This meant that each week of competition needed to pay out its own prize pool in addition to the $4.6M Activision Blizzard doled out for the inaugural CDL championship. In another break from the OWL, Activision Blizzard also committed significant resources to an open semi-pro ecosystem for Call of Duty to run parallel to the CDL. The largest of these tournaments paid out $250K.
No. 4 – Fortnite: $7.87M
Epic Games’ popular battle royale title dropped from last year’s top slot to No. 4 this year in large part because it had no Fortnite World Cup in 2020 due to the pandemic. The event in 2019 gained, well, epic media attention after giving $3 million to then 16-year-old winner Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf.
But Epic has always had what’s perceived in the industry to be a finnicky relationship with esports, and now the company is continuing to back off of its previously dominating position. Epic has already announced there will be no offline tournaments for Fortnite in 2021, meaning no World Cup once again. While the publisher has the resources to boost Fortnite back to the top at any point, without a significant reinvestment in 2022 the game is likely to continue falling down and out of esports relevancy.
No. 3 – League of Legends: $8.00M
The world’s most popular esport by viewership metrics was able to largely persevere through the pandemic – albeit through mostly online-only matches – and League of Legends thus jumped from No. 6 last year to the third slot this year because it didn’t see a major drop-off in prize money. After paying out $9M last year, League only saw a slight drop to $8M this year.
League of Legends is one of the few esports where, despite the large totals distributed, prize money generally takes a back seat to the prestige of competition. Gone are the days of the most important trophy awarded at an event being the novelty giant check worth thousands. Instead, the highly coveted Summoner’s Cup trophy takes center stage at the World Championship while its recipients quietly rake in over $100K each after the confetti has finished falling.
No. 2 – Dota 2: $8.87M
With the pandemic forcing the delay of this year’s The International, Dota 2 saw a massive drop-off from last year as expected. After doling out a massive haul last year that nearly reached $50M, this year came in at a relatively paltry $8.87M.
2020 revealed just how reliant Dota’s esports relevancy is without that record-breaking TI prize pool each year. Without significant community pressure and third party organizers stepping up, Dota would have fallen much further down the list.
The big question facing this title in 2021 is what will happen to that over-large championship purse. Valve still raised over $40M for the 2020 TI before postponing to August 2021 and has not stated what will happen with that money. There could be a scenario where that money gets rolled into next year’s crowdfunding effort and we see a single-event prize pool surpass $80M.
No. 1 – Counter-Strike: Global Offensive: $14.75M
The longtime OG of FPS games takes the top slot this year despite having a dropoff in prize money from 2019. CS:GO’s open, third-party-fueled ecosystem was arguably best suited to adapting to the online-only, fractured nature of 2020 esports competition. There was no league infrastructure to wrangle into place outside of the newly-launched Flashpoint, which did not have the OWL’s challenges of trying to navigate a league with teams operating across four continents.
CS:GO tournament organizers quickly shifted their events to a regional competition system and continued pumping out content all year long. The only thing missing for the game’s ecosystem were the million-dollar payouts from Valve’s Major system, which will no doubt return the moment live events can safely resume.
Trent Murray contributed to this article.
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