By Drew Cooney: Contributing Writer

I get it, trust me. The very thought of “going pro” in a video game seems absurd. As an avid gamer myself, the idea of making money playing video games has, at times, seemed crazy. It’s 2018 though, and technology itself has increased in number and volume to the point where everyone has played a video game in some form or fashion. Whether that’s “Candy Crush” or “League of Legends,” video games have risen in popularity to the point where almost everyone has played them, and some are even making millions doing it.

Esports, or professional video games, have been around since the early 2000’s, but they have picked up in number and value in the past five years. As for their validity as a sport or career, let’s first look from purely a numerical standpoint. One thing that has become a characteristic of professional athletes is the insane amount of money they make, and that is no different in the Esports realm.

According to Newzoo, a global leader in Esports coverage, the Esports economy in 2017 as a whole was worth $696 million. Most of that comes from advertising, sponsorships and media rights, while smaller percentages come from ticket sales at tournaments and merchandise purchases. Almost all of this money is poured into prize pools at tournaments, which creates enormous payouts for winning teams. The Esports economy grew by 41.3 percent this past year and is projected to keep increasing. As of right now, the Esports industry is expected to be worth $1.5 billion by 2020. This leaves some individual players making up to seven figures in prize money and the average professional gamer making around $50,000.

Here’s the kicker: that money is just for winning tournaments; most of their “salary” comes from playing video games on Twitch, a live streaming service specifically for video games, where people watch and subscribe to their favorite players. The average professional streamer makes between $2,000 and $5,000 a month.

The largest payout of 2017 was “The International” which is a “Dota 2” tournament, where the total prize pool was over $24 million. First place took $10 million and what might even seem crazier than that is that 18th place in this tournament took home $61,000, which is more than most people make in a year. Now, most tournaments across the Esports industry do not have payouts this high, but most “majors” break the million-dollar mark.

Video games tournaments operate similarly to those of professional golf. Every single video game played professionally has small tournaments, but a few times a year there are majors where the payouts are larger, and the competition is more intense. These tournaments are selling out stadiums like the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and there are even multiple arenas dedicated to Esports. These large payouts and crowds have drawn the attention of many investors. Retired athletes Shaquille O’Neal and Alex Rodriguez both own equity in NRG Esports. Alongside them, Robert Kraft, owner of the NFL New England Patriots, and Joshua Harris, owner of the NBA Philadelphia 76ers, both bought Esports last year in “Overwatch” and “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,” respectively. Many other athletes, actors and investors have a stake in Esports teams and the industry.

Still not convinced that this is legit? Let’s talk viewership. The “League of Legends” world championship last year drew in 106,000,000 viewers on Twitch, compared to the 111,000,000 views Super Bowl LI brought in. Esports are also making a move to television with TBS launching ELEAGUE in 2016, where games like “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,” “Street Fighter V,” “Rocket League” and more are shown on Friday nights. The ratings are good enough for it to be renewed for a third season in 2018. Along with this, since 2015, ESPN’s X Games have been including video games in their lineup.

Whether you believe Esports are a sport or not is a separate debate, but it is impossible to discredit the success the industry has and will continue to have for the coming future.