Esports celebs, influencers could push prize pools to new heights

Turner "Tfue" Tenney competes during the final of the solo division at the 2019 Fortnite World Cup at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, New York. EPA/JASON SZENES

NEW YORK -- In 2009, South Korea's Lee "Jaedong" Jae-dong was the highest earner of prize money in esports, collecting $86,265 over the calendar year as one of the faces of StarCraft: Brood War.

A decade later, 16-year-old American Kyle "Bugha" Giersdorf earned $3 million in a single day by winning the Fortnite World Cup Finals solo division on Sunday at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens.

Akin to when Brood War took over South Korea as a phenomenon, the same can be said about Fortnite in the United States and around the world, with the overall prize pool for the weekend-long event coming in at $30 million. The second-place finisher in the solo division, Harrison "Psalm" Chang, one of the oldest competitors at the World Cup Finals at the age of 24, took home $1.8 million for his efforts.

Times have changed in esports. Previously, world championships and marquee events would give away grand prize money in the low thousands of dollars, with players needing to be consistent throughout the year at numerous events to keep themselves above water in terms of finances. If they wanted to be paid to game, for the vast majority, they needed to win often, traveling from city to city in cars and doing their best to not spend too much on a hotel room. There were times when players would have to bunk up in hopes of earning enough money at an event to cover the cost of a plane flight home.

We're at a point now in the gaming world where being a competitive player is not the only avenue to go down to make a living. With the emergence of Twitch over the past half-decade, becoming an entertainer who plays video games or an influencer who spends time in the video game community has given players an opportunity to make a living without grinding 12-hour days playing the same game on loop.

The best thing to ever happen to French-Canadian streamer Félix "xQc" Lengyel was getting suspended from the Overwatch League while he was a member of the Dallas Fuel. His eventual decision to quit competitive gaming to focus solely on streaming was the correct one, at least financially, as xQc has become one of the premier streamers on Twitch, averaging more than 10,000 concurrent viewers for his broadcasts.

At the Fortnite World Cup Finals, Turner "Tfue" Tenney -- arguably the biggest streamer on Twitch today -- also competed, eventually finishing in 67th place and outside the needed rank for any additional prize money. Still, he bagged a nice $50,000 for showing up.

Tfue doesn't need to be in esports, nor does he necessarily need to compete in the upcoming Fortnite Championship Series, which was announced during the broadcast of Sunday's final. While the no-delay live streams of his quest to qualify for the Fortnite World Cup were some of the biggest of the year -- with more than 100,000 people tuning in to see if he could make it to New York -- like xQc and many other retired professional gamers, Tfue would continue to thrive as solely an entertainer/influencer.

And although Tfue doesn't necessarily need competitive Fortnite, competitive Fortnite might need him. Since its inception last year, the official competitive scene of Fortnite run by creator Epic Games has preached personalities over organizations. Epic Games wants to promote stars and not the star of a team. When Bugha won the world championship, it was about the player behind the ID and little to do with the official team -- Sentinels -- that he plays under. Teams were asked to make custom jerseys for their players to wear on stage with a smaller team logo on the front that wasn't so prominent when shown on camera.

When it comes to events such as the World Cup Finals, which attracts kids wishing to see their favorite players, Tfue is the biggest star of the bunch. The crowd's largest reaction of the day (outside of Bugha's victory) came whenever the popular streamer was on the screen, clad in a leopard-print security vest and matching pants. The only person at the venue who might have matched Tfue's popularity with the announced sellout crowd was Tyler "Ninja" Blevins, someone who didn't even qualify to play in the tournament. Fans were leaning over the rails inside the stadium to get Ninja and his wife, Jessica Blevins, to take pictures with them and sign autographs -- until Jessica went to social media to ask them to stop due to security yelling at them for causing a security risk.

Esports in this day and age, like traditional sports, are powered by stars. To keep stars like Tfue, Ninja and other Fortnite personalities engaged with the competitive scene, the money has to be there. While $30 million might be the biggest competitive gaming tournament to date, in two weeks, in China, Dota 2's world championship, The International, will surpass it, with the prize pool already nearing $31 million and time still remaining for it to grow by fan support. In a previous incarnation, the games were bigger than the players; but now, the players are brands themselves, public personalities with their own merchandise and streams without needing to be tied down to a single game or esports team.

Back in 2009, a 19-year-old Jaedong winning almost $100,000 felt like a monumental shift in the landscape of esports. Players at the top level could lead comfortable lives in team houses with salaries and make even more money by doing well in tournaments.

Today, a kid who might not have his driver's permit won $3 million and became one of the all-time top-10 prize earners in esports.

"It sounds amazing. Honestly, it's pretty surreal," Bugha said in an interview with ESPN when asked how he felt about becoming a millionaire in a single day. "I got out there and played amazing, and then pretty much brought it home."

As esports and the video game industry grow, so will the money and the personalities surrounding them.

Bugha's story might be the first, but it certainly won't be the last.