As one of the fastest growing industries today, the world of Esports is on the rise. With year-on-year revenue increases in the hundreds of millions, the industry is showing no signs of slowing down.
Just take a look at the broader gaming industry, and you’ll see celebrities, business leaders and politicians alike getting involved in the industry, streaming and playing games. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez almost broke streaming records when she took part in some Among Us gameplay, playing alongside internet famous streamers like Pokimane, DrLupo and Toast.
This publicity and a general increase in the acceptance of gaming as part of the mainstream are just some of the major factors that are causing this boom in esports popularity - by 2021, some reports estimate that the esports industry will have an audience of around 557 million, up from 293 million in 2016. Plus, while the 2020 pandemic has a serious impact on sports around the world, esports has continued to thrive due to its growing popularity, remote capability, and accessibility.
In Australia (the home of major esports events such as the Melbourne Esports Open and more recently, the Intel Extreme Masters), this meteoric rise looks to be no different, and Aussie esports players are reaping the benefits. When it comes to prize money alone, Australian esports players barely in their 20s are already reporting career earnings in the millions - and this is before their team paid salary, win bonuses, sponsor, ad and endorsement money, and in many cases, earnings from streaming.
Here are the Australian esports players that have taken the sport by storm, smashing the competition and earning themselves a place amongst the best of the best when it comes to prize money.
Coming in at number one on the list of highest earning Australian esports players, Anathan Pham (alias ana) isn’t just dominating Australian esports - he is the third highest earning esports player of all time, at just 21 years of age. Known for his relentless and unforgiving playstyle, ana’s dominant Dota 2 performances (across only 24 tournaments) have bagged him some serious prize money.
Ana chose to pursue a career in esports at the age of 16, dropping out of school and moving halfway across the world - from Melbourne, all the way to Shanghai. Just one year later, in 2016, ana had already joined professional gaming team Invictus Gaming - despite some initial hiccups, moving teams once again to OG and relocating to Israel as a result, he has been winning tournament after tournament ever since.
After leading his team OG to victory in Shanghai tournament The International 2018, ana took a break from competitive esports. Announcing his return to OG the following year, the team once again claimed victory at The International 2019 as the first repeat winners of the tournament.
At the age of 19, ana walked away from his performance at The International 2019 with prize money of $4.62 million, bringing his total career earnings to $8.5 million, and bumping him from 18th to what would have been 13th on the AFR Australian sports rich list of 2019 (above the likes of athletes that include tennis star Nick Kyrgios and cricketer Steve Smith). He has since announced yet another hiatus.
On top of his wins at The International in Shanghai, ana has won tournaments in a long list of countries that include Beijing, Boston, Ukraine and Adelaide.
Damien KPii Chok is another Australian Dota 2 player who is making a killing in prize money. He is currently playing for the team TNC Predator - while KPii is just trailing Aussie rival ana in terms of earnings, he is a few years (and 43 tournaments) ahead when it comes to experience, with his first notable win in late 2014.
This advantage in experience and head start within the esports industry means that KPii has reached a few Australian esports milestones - he was the first Aussie esports player to reach $100,000 in prize earnings, and subsequently became the country’s first esports millionaire.
KPii’s Dota 2 record began with a number of Oceanic teams that included Noxious Gaming and AkmA - throughout his career, KPii has played within the offlaner role, across a number of teams. As a result of some heartbreaking losses, some of KPii’s team changes have struck an emotional chord with fans and teammates alike, however his ability to bounce back, as well as his position as a fan favourite amongst Australian’s are both indicative of his continued future success within esports.
As the second highest earner in Australia and the 37th highest earner within international esports, KPii is doing alright for himself at only 27 years of age, and has plenty of opportunities as he continues to develop his playing skills.
The third highest earning Australian esports player is Justin ‘JKS’ Savage, born in 1995 and with professional gaming experience since he was just 14. Unlike the majority of this list who play Dota 2, JKS is a (very talented) Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) player.
While first playing the original ‘Counter Strike’ with ‘Team Exile5’ from 2010, CS:GO was released in 2012, and JKS got straight to mastering it. By 2014, he was amongst the best of the best of the time, and seized the opportunity to join top Australian team ‘Vox Eminor’. Since then, he has played for ‘Renegades’, ‘100 Thieves’, and as of October 2020, ‘Complexity’ - JKS’s first move to a non Australian team thus far in his career.
After spearheading his team’s success throughout 2019, JKS earned himself a spot within the HLTV Top 20 Players of the Year list, coming in at number 15 - this achievement marked the first time an Australian player has ever made it onto this list.
According to HLTV.org, JKS has played a whopping 25674 rounds of CS:GO as of 2020.
CS:GO might not have the same prize pools involved when compared to a game like Dota 2, but when you include sponsor money and a team salary, JKS isn’t doing too bad for himself. He is currently ranked at #658 in highest overall esports earnings worldwide, and with the way he has been performing and progressing as a CS:GO player, the future is looking good for JKS.
Aaron ‘AZR’ Ward is another ‘Counter Strike: Global Offensive’ (CS:GO) player, and holds the place of fourth highest earning Australian esports player. With some amusing, although unlikely stories surrounding his career, gaming tournament ESL once claimed - on AZR’s entry into the esports world - that he began his Counter Strike career due to an injury he sustained while fighting a wombat at the age of 16.
AZR began his career with Vox Eminor, before moving to Renegades, and then 100 Thieves (the same team progression as JKS).
AZR’s earnings throughout his career put him at fourth in the list, but he is ridiculously close to third, trailing JKS by just $150 AUD in prize money. This has been the case for a while too, thanks to the fact that they have been playing for the same (CS:GO) teams. However, as of October 2020, JKS has moved over to ‘Complexity’ - as is AZR finally moving in a different direction, only time will tell whether or not he manages to finally take JKS’s spot as third highest earning esports player in Australia.
Most recently, while AZR is still under contract with ‘100 Thieves’, he has made it clear that he is open to other offers, and is looking to move to an EU or NA team.
At number 5, the final player on the list of biggest earners in Australian esports is Denholm ‘Denz’ Taylor. In what might surprise many gamers, Denz has managed to snag the spot of fifth highest earning Australian esports player as a professional Call of Duty (CoD) gamer.
Active since 2014 as a professional esports gamer, Denz has played professionally across eight games within the Call of Duty franchise - most recently, Denz has seen success within the newest CoD game; Call of Duty: Warzone.
Earning $236,240 AUD across 41 tournaments, Denz’s prize money puts him at rank 859 within the international esports scene. He has played across five teams in this time, and has also competed independently. In his most recent win, Denz managed to beat the competition for the number one spot at ‘CDL Warzone Weekend: Week 1’ in May, 2020. Fast forward to August with the Call of Duty Championship 2020, and whilst he didn’t manage to get the number one position, Denz earned $28,500 AUD with a position 9-10 placement - he has yet to earn more in a single tournament.
While the remainder of the top earning Aussie esports players play in games that are known to have a higher skill floor, and a higher barrier to entry as a result, CoD is known for its accessibility, yet still high skill ceiling that allows for competitive play. As Denz has had his most financially successful moments in 2019 and 2020, he is a perfect example of how as esports continues to grow in Australia and worldwide, so do the pockets of esports players.
When it comes to esports in Australia, the competitive scene is growing immensely. The Intel Extreme Masters has been held in Sydney and is finally making its way to Melbourne, the Melbourne Esports Open 2021 is in exciting preparation stages, and national gaming communities such as Couchsurfers (a fighting game community with over 10 years of history) are thriving.
Looking at Australian esports, here are some pretty interesting insights:
Female fans and players: Just like the rest of the esports world, the majority of both the audience and players in Australian esports are men. Whilst the percentage of female esports viewers has increased in recent years to 30% today, the percentage of female esports players remains low. The highest earning female Australian esports player is HaganeNoTema, an ‘Attack on Titan Tribute Game’ player who (whilst reported earnings vary) has earned approximately $43,000 AUD in prize money - this places her at #4109 in the esports earnings world rankings.
The games that Australians like: Australians seem to have broad taste when it comes to game choice. Like a large portion of the international esports community, the most popular games are shooters (Fortnite, Call of Duty, CS:GO), as well as Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) games (Dota 2, League of Legends). More broadly, even games like iB Cricket, Street Fighter and Halo are popular enough to be included in the Melbourne Esports Open list of open tournaments.
The Australian gaming communities: The Australian esports community have come together to create a number of groups, designed to support the industry and provide aspiring players with a way to get involved. Communities of all sizes are involved, such as Couchwarriors, the Esports Games Association (EGAA), the Australian Esports League (AEL), and the University Esports League. In addition to gaming communities built around the fans, there are also large scale events and tournaments held in Australia, where professionals, gaming influencers and fans have the opportunity to get together and get involved in all things gaming.