Are professional gamers underpaid? (2017 League of Legends Edition)

If you were one of the top 200 people in the world at your job, your typical work week was between 60 and 80 hours, and you had thousands of fans across the globe, how much money would you expect to make per year?

If you were an athlete in one of America’s “big 4″ professional sports leagues, then anywhere between 2.1 and 62 million dollars per yer would be a completely fair guess. If you were a professional gamer? Not so much.

The reasons for the enormous gap in player compensation between  ”traditional sports” and eSports should be obvious, even to the most die-hard of gaming fans. Leagues such as the NFL and NBA are largely comprised of one-in-a-million human specimens, while nearly everyone has the physical tools (2 working hands) to be a professional gamer. Though the argument can easily be made that finding someone with the mental tools (read: skillz) to be a professional gamer is just as rare, if not rarer than finding someone with the mental tools to hit a ball with a stick, player compensation in sports is fundamentally decided by markets, and markets are all about supply and demand.

I remember a discussion I had with my father about a graph which showed that the highest paid state employee in the vast majority of US states is a college sports coach. My dad thinks its ridiculous that elected officials (governors, senators, etc.) who regularly make decisions on the behalf of millions of Americans make less money than college football coaches. I disagree.

I don’t think college football coaches are more important to American society than governors are, unless you live in Alabama. I’m of the opinion that there are hundreds, if not thousands of politicians who could adequately do a governor’s job for the next two months without their statesmen ever noticing, yet the number of high school football coaches who could adequately fill in for their local college team are few and far between. The supply for college football coaches is low. Governors obviously have a larger impact on the well-being of a state than a college football coach does, but for better or worse payroll isn’t fundamentally decided by the impact of a job. School teachers have a significant impact on society, yet there’s a reason that garbage truck drivers make more money than school teachers. Demand.

Lets take a brief look at the “demand” of eSports by comparing the numbers behind America’s most watched sports league, the NFL, with those of the most watched eSports league in the world, League of Legend’s LCS.

  • The 2016 NFL regular season averaged 17.6 million viewers per game.
  • The average LCS game pulls in somewhere between 100 and 200 thousands viewers on twitch.tv.
  • Superbowls account for 19 of the top 20 most watched US television broadcasts of all time, with last year’s Patriots vs Falcons superbowl pulling in 117.5 million viewers.
  • The LCS Season 6 World Championships pulled in 43 million unique viewers. By comparison, the 2017 NBA finals pulled in an average of 22 million unique viewers.
  • The highest paid player in the NFL, Oakland Raider QB Derek Carr, averages 25 million per year on contract alone. He will likely take in millions more from various endorsement deals. The average NFL player “only” makes 1.9 million per year.
  • It’s a little trickier to determine how much LoL pros are making. Their earnings come from a combination of team contracts, $12,500 from Riot per split per season, streaming revenue on Twitch.tv, endorsement deals, and prize money. Player contracts in LoL are not made public, but speculation is that many top LoL pros make 6 figures a year from contracts alone. Combining all these revenue sources together makes final figures tricky to estimate, a survey by ESPN of 33 professional LoL players revealed an average salary of 105 thousand dollars per year for players in NA and 81 thousand per year in Europe. It was leaked that Faker was offered a 2.5 million USD contract alone, a nice compliment to a plethora of other revenue sources for the defacto best player LoL in the world, including revenue sharing with Riot from his three SKT1 world championship skins.

When you take a look at viewership numbers it makes sense that NFL players are earning more than LCS pros. The “demand” for the sport is two orders of magnitude higher. NFL players are also subject to severe physical punishment on a week to week basis and have to grapple with the serious risk of long term brain damage from repeated head injuries. With higher risk comes higher reward.

Demand is only half of the equation, so how do things stack up from a “supply” standpoint? Again, lets compare LoL to the NFL by taking a look at their farm systems. If the amount of professionally skilled players available to pro teams is high then we can expect they’d be paid comparatively less. Conversely, if the supply of suitably talented players is low they should be earning comparatively more.

There are roughly 73,660 collegiate football players, and 256 of them end of being drafted into the NFL each year. There are 1696 players under NFL contract per year, which amounts to a professional to farm system rate of 2.3%. The farm system for the LCS isn’t as clearly defined as the NFL’s farm system, but it seemed logical to me that professional teams would scout new talent from the highest leagues of the LoL ladder, Masters and Challenger league. As of writing this post there are currently 753 LoL players in NA Solo Queue Masters and Challenger league according to leagueofgraphs.com, and 50 players earning a salary from Riot in the NA LCS. This very crude estimate comes to a professional to farm system rate of 6.6%, implying that the supply for potential LCS level talent is actually much lower than that of the NFL. Though these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, the “supply” side of things looks very promising for LoL and the LCS.

I find it extremely encouraging that when we look at the numbers for the two leagues side by side, player salary compares favorably for the LCS:

  • Average NFL viewers per game: 17.6 million.
  • Average LCS viewers per game: 150 thousand.
  • Average NFL earnings: 1.9 million.
  • Average NA LCS earnings: 105 thousand.
  • Supply of NFL level talent in farm system: 2.3%
  • Supply of NA LCS level talent in farm system: 6.6%

The NFL draws in more than 100 times more viewers than the LCS does, yet the average NFL player earns only 20 times more than the average LCS player. Since the demand is higher for the NFL but the pay is comparatively lower, this implies that the supply for NFL talent is significantly higher than the supply for LCS players, which it is. I know the numbers here are very rough, but it seems that LoL pros are earning about as much money as they ought to be when you look at earnings through the lens of supply and demand.

The truth might be a hard pill to swallow, but it seems like there isn’t some magical land where all the eSports dollars go to line the pockets of rich executives. If you ask me, professional gamers are vastly underpaid for all the hard work they put into mastering their craft, but so are teachers and firefighters. Can Riot afford to pay their LCS players more money? Possibly, but they’re already losing money by running major tournaments as-is.

This begs the question – what can we do as fans to help professional gamers earn more money? That answer is simple, watch more eSports. Travel to live events like people do for their favorite sports teams. Invite your friends. Subscribe to your favorite streamer on Twitch.tv. If we do our best to grow the worldwide demand for eSports there is every reason to believe that player salaries will grow to match it.

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