The e-sports industry is a billion-dollar business that’s growing rapidly. Once confined to dimly lit basements, competitive gaming, in which video-game players battle in front of stadium-sized audiences, has made its way into Super Bowl commercials and network television shows. And though e-sports leagues are still figuring out how to turn a profit, they are a marketing bonanza for their video-game-developer owners, such as Activision Blizzard, which reported net revenues of $7.5 billion in 2018. Thanks to record-breaking game sales driven by the rise of e-sports, the corporation’s executives earned tens of millions of dollars last year.
But this corporate success obscures the industry’s dark side: a massive underclass of underpaid freelance workers and independent contractors. The seven- and eight-figure salaries of Activision Blizzard executives are possible only because hordes of young freelancers, dazzled by the opportunity to make money working with video games, routinely perform indispensable tasks for minimal pay and nonexistent benefits. With few e-sports companies paying freelance workers a true living wage, it’s nearly impossible for individuals without some form of economic privilege to break into the industry.
Running e-sports tournaments has been Ryan Mejia’s main job since 2016. As a tournament organizer, he’s worked for some of the industry’s largest events, including the Evolution Championship Series, where thousands of competitors compete in arcade classics such as Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat for a total prize pool of over $200,000. “I’m very privileged to be able to do this,” said Mejia. “I was doing all of this while I was living with my parents.”
Alongside his work organizing smaller local events in Miami, Mejia typically freelances for six large tournaments every year. For running tournament brackets at Evolution Championship Series, he was paid several hundred dollars per day of the weekend-long event. Meanwhile, the tournament drew gross revenues of at least $810,000 last year—registration fees were $90 or more, with over 9,000 entrants in attendance—and that’s without accounting for its lucrative partnerships with companies such as Samsung and PlayStation.
With experience working for the Evolution Championship Series and ESL, one of the world’s largest e-sports companies, Mejia is, by most metrics, a successful tournament organizer. But even after moving out from his parents’ home, he relies on his girlfriend’s income to pay rent. “I do this, like, semiprofessionally,” said Mejia, “because this stuff doesn’t pay the bills.”
In the world of e-sports, it’s commonplace for important freelancers like Mejia to work for rates far below the living wage. This is prevalent even in the most popular esport, League of Legends, a “multiplayer online battle arena” title in which teams of players coordinate cartoonish “champions” to destroy the bases of opposing teams. Last year, League brought in $1.5 billion for its developer, Riot Games; viewership of its larger tournaments has exceeded that of the Super Bowl. But while executive salaries at Riot Games easily clear six figures, many workers in the League of Legends Championship Series (the game’s North American league, commonly known as the LCS) are paid exploitative wages and often work unpaid overtime.
One former LCS analyst, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, was 18 years old and living with his parents when he signed on as an independent contractor for one of the league’s teams. Working remotely for $2,000 a month, he felt like he was constantly on the clock. “It wouldn’t have been possible if I wasn’t living with my parents,” said the analyst. “At the time, I saw it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things in the industry.”
It wasn’t. After working with multiple LCS teams, the analyst exited e-sports when it became clear that his lifestyle was untenable. “It was a pretty isolating environment.”
Tournament organizers and data analysts are far from the only essential workers who struggle to survive within the e-sports ecosystem. Astoundingly, players—the group that creates the fundamental value of e-sports—form one of the industry’s most frequently exploited cohorts. Though competitors in top-tier titles such as League of Legends receive salaries and benefits, their counterparts in less prominent e-sports are often relegated to independent contractor status.
Nobody knows this better than Avery Wilson, the 21st-best Super Smash Bros. Melee player in the world. He has competed in Melee—a 2001 GameCube title that pits popular Nintendo characters against each other in fast-paced combat—full-time for the last two-and-a-half years. Unlike salaried players in traditional sports, Wilson is an independent contractor who is always on the hunt for the next opportunity.
With team contracts running as short as four months, much of Wilson’s income is instead derived from the monthly subscriptions he receives from fans of his livestreams on Twitch. “My streaming revenue is generally more than I’m making playing Smash,” said Wilson.
This dependence on freelance income makes competing in smaller e-sports like Melee an exhausting and stressful endeavor. Traditional athletes practice to improve at their sport, to win; e-sports competitors practice, at least in part, to attract subscribers and pay the bills.
For placing seventh at Genesis 6, the largest Melee tournament of 2019, Wilson earned less than $300. “It’s a little difficult to know where I’m headed in the future,” said the Melee player, “being involved in an industry that seems so fickle.”
Esports is far from the only fickle industry, and freelancers obviously tend to get the short end of the stick no matter where they work. But the e-sports industry currently benefits from a deep pool of young freelancers who are willing to work for non-livable wages. Most are in their late teens or early 20s and live under their parents’ roofs—and health insurance. As the key e-sports demographic of 18-to-34-year-olds loses access to these privileges, these workers pivot to more sustainable jobs in other industries in order to pay the bills.
Taylor Cocke, a former e-sports journalist, has seen generations of freelance workers enter and exit the industry. “When you see most e-sports production companies, most e-sports journalists, most e-sports players, the average age is like 24 to 25,” said Cocke. “It’s because not everybody is able to survive in the space for that long. I mean, I’m five years in, and I’m an e-sports old-timer now. What happened here?”
In an industry that has been trumpeted as the next great frontier of marketing and entertainment, there is a de facto age limit for workers looking to build a sustainable freelance career. As more experienced workers leave e-sports, they drain years of institutional memory from the industry. And eager newcomers, too, will eventually age out of e-sports unless circumstances change.
The companies behind e-sports certainly have the means to increase their freelance wages. Over the last two years, investors have pumped nearly $6.5 billion into the industry, with Forbes recently valuing the 10 largest e-sports teams at a mind-boggling $2.4 billion. The number of paid gigs posted on Hitmarker, an e-sports job board, more than doubled in 2019. With numbers like these, it’s no surprise that young freelancers perceive e-sports as an industry in which they can ease into fruitful and lucrative careers. But this simply isn’t the reality. The only people who are making big money from e-sports are investors, executives, and a select group of lucky players.
While these higher-ups make millions off of competitive gaming, the freelancers who form the nuts and bolts of the e-sports machine are forced to move in with their parents and work unpaid overtime just to keep the dream alive. As the industry continues to expand, something must be done to provide benefits and living wages to crucial individuals like Mejia and Wilson. If this doesn’t happen, then there will eventually be no players or tournament organizers left to entertain e-sports’ stadium-filling audiences—and thus funnel wealth into far-removed boardrooms.
The attraction of working with video games, enticing as it is, is not enough to distract these freelancers from the realities of their industry forever.
“I think plenty of people are jealous about my work,” said the former LCS analyst, speaking to me anonymously for fear of retribution from his erstwhile employers. “But I also think that if they knew—if they did it for a month or two—they probably would not want to go back.”