How Top Gamers Earn Up to $15,000 an Hour

Illustration by Andrew Rae

A new lawsuit reveals the high stakes in gaming as brands like Coca-Cola and Bud Light push the hourly income of popular streamers as high as five figures: "It's become something nobody predicted."

A decade ago, Benjamin Lupo’s hobby of playing video games was just that. Today, a gamer like Lupo could earn as much as $15,000 an hour broadcasting his gaming to the nearly 3  million people who follow him on live-streaming platform Twitch. 

Lupo, who goes by the online avatar DrLupo, says it took him "two full years of streaming 40-plus hours a week" while working a regular job before he felt comfortable gaming "full time." Now considered one of the world’s most popular gamers, he’s part of a burgeoning cottage industry of streamers who are profiting from the booming business of video games. 

Over the past five years, the gaming industry has more than doubled, rocketing to $43.8  billion in revenue in 2018, according to the NPD Group. Skilled gamers — buoyed by the rise of streaming platforms like Google’s YouTube and Amazon’s Twitch — have turned into stars who can not only attract millions of fans but also earn millions of dollars. Top Twitch streamer Tyler "Ninja" Blevins, for example, has said he made $10  million in 2018 playing online game Fortnite.

"There’s been incredible [revenue] growth across the board," says Mike Aragon, who oversees Twitch’s partnerships with streamers as senior vp content. "The entire ecosystem has become more mainstream."

Being a professional video gamer has become so lucrative, in fact, that disputes are arising about who has the right to the advertising revenue and brand endorsements that have started to roll in for top streamers. On May  20, esports player Turner "Tfue" Tenney became the first major player to sue his team, FaZe Clan, alleging that it has limited his business opportunities and pocketed 80  percent of his earnings in violation of California’s Talent Agencies Act. FaZe Clan responded claiming that it has collected "a total of $60,000" of the "millions" Tenney has earned since signing with the team. 

Streaming personalities regularly appear live on camera for more than eight hours a day, responding to fan comments and questions as they play. Twitch, the largest live-streaming platform, averages nearly 1.3  million concurrent viewers daily. Streamers monetize those viewers in a variety of ways, through in-stream ads, donations and paid subscriptions to their channel.

At the heart of this exploding new business is a wave of interest from major brands — Bud Light, Coca-Cola, Intel, Toyota and T-Mobile among them — that are drawn to the sizeable young audience tuning in for live streams from Blevins, Lupo, Tenney and others. "I get approached for endorsements multiple times a day," says Lupo, 32, who broadcasts to his 2.8  million Twitch followers for upward of 10 hours a day, averaging 4,000 concurrent viewers. He says he’s been contacted by potential sponsors from the luxury, alcohol, insurance, entertainment and home decor industries. 

Multiple sources at the Hollywood agencies tell THR that per-hour rates for endorsing a company during a live stream can reach as high as five figures for the most popular gamers. On average, a gamer can make anywhere from a couple thousand to $15,000 per hour. A brand’s overall commitment to a single streamer could total as much as $500,000. 

“It’s become something that nobody predicted,” says Steven Ekstract, brand director of Global Licensing Group. “Traditional brands had no idea. Now they’re all getting into it.”

Game studios also are paying popular streamers to play their new titles in the hopes of enticing millions of potential customers. Earlier this year, EA paid multiple streamers to broadcast gameplay of its latest title, Apex Legends, which helped boost the game’s early performance to more than 50 million players in its first month. Chris Early, vp partnerships and revenue at competitor Ubisoft, tipped his cap to EA at the L.A. Games Conference in May, acknowledging that the stunt "paid off handsomely" for the publisher. 

Money may be rolling in faster than ever before, but many predict it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Goldman Sachs has estimated that esports and online game streaming viewership will reach 300  million people by 2022, surpassing the audience for Major League Baseball. With that exposure, more blue-chip sponsors are expected to follow. "Every time a Starbucks comes into the space, every other coffee provider pays attention," says Niles Heron, co-founder of esports and live streaming tech platform Popdog. That increased interest, he adds, "fundamentally is good for all of us." 

This story first appears in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.