The loss of live events due to the global COVID-19 pandemic has taken a significant toll on prize money distribution during the first half of 2020. Nearly all major esports award the bulk of their prize money during in-person, international events – many of which cannot be replaced by an online equivalent. As a result, the esports industry has seen an over 40% drop in year-over-year prize money distribution.
This year, ranking the top esports by prize money distribution (according to figures from Esports Earnings) highlights which games were able to most effectively move their competitions online or, in one unique case, benefit from scheduling a world championship event early in the year.
- Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
The first year of the Call of Duty League has not exactly gone as expected. COVID-19 forced a league which planned to debut in a home/away structure to shut down for several weeks before returning with an online format.
The CDL was able to better adapt to the situation than its sister system, the Overwatch League. As a somewhat less global league that had already moved to a tournament structure, the CDL was able to continue operating in much the same way many Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournaments have since the shutdown, albeit with its fair share of technical issues. This structure, along with a global secondary system in Call of Duty Challengers, allowed the game to continue handing out prize money despite the effective termination of its open tournament ecosystem.
It is also worth noting that Call of Duty’s standalone battle royale mode Warzone very nearly made the Top 10 by itself due to its open ecosystem of weekly events and several tournaments operated by Twitch Rivals. If combined, the overall Call of Duty ecosystem would have ranked much higher.
While many will likely dispute chess’ presence on a list of esports titles, the fact of the matter is that online chess has exploded lately on Twitch, tournaments have been hosted by esports operators such as Twitch Rivals, and there is a great deal the esports industry can learn from the rise of chess as an esport.
Websites such as Chess.com have a thriving competitive ecosystem, but the platform recently pushed itself into the esports and gaming space through a $50K USD streamer tournament called PogChamps, which was won by former League of Legends pro Joedat “Voyboy” Esfahani. The largest digital chess prize pool recorded by Esports Earnings, however, came from chess24’s Magnus Carlsen Invitational, which gave out $250K.
- Rocket League
Earlier this week, Rocket League developer Psyonix announced an overhaul of the game’s esports structure which will result in a $4.5M overall prize pool for the game’s next wave of competition. Thus far in 2020, however, the game has benefitted from the amount of activity that exists outside of the Rocket League Championship Series. Numerous smaller tournaments held by Twitch Rivals and other organizers, combined with the roughly $1M awarded during RLCS season 9, helped push the game into the Top 10.
Esports Earnings has reported progressively fewer esports events each year for Hearthstone as Activision Blizzard’s Masters Tour structure has overtaken the game’s previously more open ecosystem. The only significant events reported so far this year have been the three Masters Tour stops, each with a $500K prize pool, and the $250K GrandMasters event in May.
That being said, much like League of Legends with its offshoot autobattler mode Teamfight Tactics, this total does not take into account the burgeoning esports scene surrounding Hearthstone Battlegrounds. Just last month, Activision Blizzard hosted a $200K tournament for the autobattler mode. The gameplay and structure are distinct enough that Battlegrounds is for all intents and purposes an entirely separate esport, but it is reasonable to expect that growth within that scene could have an inverse effect on the broader ecosystem for Hearthstone proper.
- PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS
Like the Overwatch League and Call of Duty League, PUBG had high hopes for a new esports structure this year that were dashed by the global pandemic. Event cancellations and the need to pivot online resulted in a nearly $1M drop in prize money awarded so far this year.
Despite this, the game has still seen a number of regional events and smaller third party tournaments. Additionally, the PUBG Continental Series kicked off late last month and will ultimately award over $800K in its first wave of competition. While many in gaming have written of PUBG since it lost its title as top battle royal game in 2018, the game still receives significant esports support, and will remain a Top 10 contender for the rest of this year.
- League of Legends
The professional League of Legends ecosystem is not especially focused on its prize money. If asked, many fans likely wouldn’t even be able to say how much money is awarded for major international events. That said, Riot Games still puts up millions for its global events, and the numerous regional and secondary leagues have their own meaningful prizing. This year, like every other game, LoL felt the loss of its biggest mid-year international event, the Mid-Season Invitational (which last year awarded $1M).
The World Championship is still expected to take place later this year, and the majority of LoL’s leagues have effectively transitioned online, so the game is likely to end the year with the bulk of its prize money intact.
- Rainbow Six Siege
By virtue of having its world championship event, the Six Invitational, take place in February, Rainbow Six Siege was one of the few major esports which was able to host a large-scale international competition in 2020. As a result, it is also one of the few to see its prize money increase year-over-year thanks to the growth of the Six Invitational prize pool.
Rainbow Six is in the midst of revamping its esports ecosystem but like most major esports, that system culminates in large-scale offline events, which may not return until 2021.
- Dota 2
Valve’s esports titles were able to be extremely agile during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic due to their open ecosystems, numerous organizers, and the prevalence of online competition within those systems. This allowed both DOTA 2 and CS:GO continue awarding prize money and generating viewership from numerous tournaments.
Of course, any discussion of Dota 2 prize money is inevitably going to focus on The International and its routinely record-breaking prize pool. While the rise of regional competition in Dota 2 will no doubt allow it to remain a top distributor of prize money for the rest of the year, the announcement that The International 10 will not take place until 2021 means that Dota 2’s position as a perennial top two finisher is now in question for the first time in years.
- Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
As with Dota 2, CS:GO is at once feeling the loss of its offline events, but able to leverage its well-stocked tournament schedule to continue outperforming most competition with online events.
CS:GO’s large annual prize money figures are always less about the support from Valve for the Majors, and more to do with the investment from third parties, but the loss of the year’s first Major did create a year-over-year decline. If the November Major is able to go forward, that loss will be amended, but if not CS:GO is likely to have a down year despite the overwhelming number of tournaments that will have taken place. Still, that decline will be nothing compared to the loss of TI for Dota 2.
While a nearly $4M drop is the largest decline in year-over-year prize money for any esport, Fortnite still sits comfortably in first place. Epic Games’ flagship title was likely among the least-impacted by the pandemic as the publisher has been handing out millions for online competitions since 2018. Live events for Fortnite were already few and far between.
With The International no longer a factor, Fortnite has already all but locked up first place in the end-of-year rankings even if the game does not get a $30M world championship. Epic can simply distribute those funds across weekly online events and streamer invitationals as it sees fit.