In the world of professional video games, winning isn’t everything. Fortnite phenom Tyler “Ninja” Blevins made $17 million last year, enough for first place on Forbes’ inaugural ranking of top-earning gamers, but the 28-year-old pro won less than $100,000 competing. In fact, Ninja didn’t even qualify for the first-ever Fortnite World Cup, which was held in New York’s Arthur Ashe stadium last July, or its $3 million grand prize. (That money was won by Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf, a 16-year old from Pennsylvania).
That’s because top-earning gamers are more influencer than they are elite athlete. They earn their millions from leveraging their massive online followings into endorsements, fees and sponsorships. Ninja has 2.8 million followers on Mixer, Microsoft’s nascent gaming platform, which Forbes estimates will spend $30 million over three years after luring him from arch-rival Twitch last August. The blue-haired gamer has an additional 22.7 million YouTube subscribers and 14.9 million followers on Instagram. In all, the ten top-earning gamers have a combined 270 million followers across YouTube, Twitch and Mixer and earned $121 million last year. None of them made the list through competition alone.
The next step? Mainstream celebrity. Ninja, who has been a pro gamer in one form or another since starting with Halo 3 in 2009, is well under way. His visage adorned soft drink cans thanks to an endorsement deal with Red Bull. Adidas has a Ninja sneaker. In the last year he has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and performed as a guest vocalist on Fox’s The Masked Singer. Ninja merchandise—from a graphic novel to his signature headband—can be purchased at Walmart and Target.
And Ninja is just one of hundreds of internet entertainers cashing in on the growing influence of streaming and gaming culture, which has brands including Monster Energy, Postmates and State Farm paying up in their hunger to reach the elusive Millennial audience; eMarketer estimates sponsorships and advertising spends in gaming alone would hit $3.3 billion in 2019.
The biggest streamers buttress that revenue by collecting directly from their followers, who can “tip” them with direct one-time payments or pay for a premium subscription that the players split with platforms like Amazon’s Twitch and Mixer. At his peak, Blevins made upwards of $500,000 per month, splitting the $4.99 premium fee fans paid to Twitch.
Three months after Ninja signed with Mixer, Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek, a former Counter-Strike: Global Offensive pro who retired in 2018 at 23 (No. 5, $12.5 million), followed. Both gamers were cashing in on Microsoft’s desperation to give relevance to Mixer, which lags Facebook, YouTube and Twitch in total gaming hours watched, according to both Palo Alto-based streaming toolmaker StreamElements and Chicago-based data analyst Arsenal.gg.
Pro gaming is still the Wild West. There is no government agency overseeing decency on streaming sites and the personalities making the most noise aren’t always peddling the most high-minded material.
Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg (No. 2, with $15 million) has lost partnerships because of anti-Semitic and racist videos. His audience has stuck with the Swedish gamer, though; he remains the most subscribed-to individual on YouTube. Blevins himself was caught in a controversy after he said in August 2018 he wouldn’t stream with women because of possible relationship rumors that could emerge.
Controversies aside, it’s a ripe time to cash in. Mixer’s announcement of the Ninja deal had the feel of a major league free agency press event and triggered an expensive chase for talent. It was a smart move to jump. Blevins had around 250,000 premium subscribers in March 2018 and a year later was down to about 20,000, according to TwitchTracker. Since then, platforms including Facebook, YouTube and Caffeine have been signing more gamers to exclusive deals, including Jeremy “Disguised Toast” Wang, Jack “CouRage” Dunlop and Rachell “Valkyrae” Hofstetter.
Forbes estimates Mixer will pay Grzesiek $20 million over three years, even though his 7 million Twitch followers has translated into less than a million on the nascent platform. This in addition to the money publishers like Electronic Arts and Activision Blizzard, pays for Grzesiek to play their games on stream. Blevins himself is getting in on the pay-to-play action, receiving reported $1 million in February for a few hours playing Fortnite competitor Apex Legends.
#1 Ninja (Tyler Blevins)
Earnings: $17 million
The top gamer was everywhere in 2019, from Red Bull cans in grocery stores to bedding in Walmart to starring roles in NFL commercials. While his viewership fell, his influence didn’t, with endorsements from Adidas, Red Bull and underwear designer PSD. His exclusivity deal with Microsoft is helping to reshape the live-streaming landscape. And the good times seem to be continuing. This month, Fortnite maker Epic Games released an in-game Ninja avatar that fans can play as.
#2 PewDiePie (Felix Kjellberg)
Earnings: $15 million
The top individual YouTuber, Felix Kjellberg announced he’d be taking a break from the site after another tumultuous year. Last September he pledged $50,000 to the Anti-Defamation League to “move past” his anti-Semitic controversies—then suddenly canceled the donation after an outcry from his fan base. Kjellberg remains as popular as ever, though, pulling in a staggering 4.5 billion views in 2019.
#3 Preston (Preston Arsement)
Earnings: $14 million
Both a popular Minecraft player and vlogger, Preston’s also bringing in seven figures annually hosting custom versions of Minecraft with in-game spending.
#4 Markiplier (Mark Fischbach)
Earnings: $14 million
He built a following with humorous, over-the-top reactions to horror video games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and released a choose-your-own-adventure YouTube Original film last fall called A Heist with Markiplier.
#5 Shroud (Michael Grzesiek)
Earnings: $12.5 million
Not being tethered to one game has made Michael Grzesiek a favorite of major game publishers like Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and Activision Blizzard. The former pro also has an extensive clothing line with gaming brand Jinx.
#6 DanTDM (Daniel Middleton)
Earnings: $12 million
Daniel Middleton is a worldwide sensation due to his popular Minecraft videos, amassing 22.4 million subscribers. In 2019, he went on tour for an interactive movie experience called The Contest.
#7 VanossGaming (Evan Fong)
Earnings: $11.5 million
Fong’s comedic playthroughs have attracted 24.9 million subscribers and had 1.6 billion views on YouTube in 2019. He’s been famous for some time now, starring as a monster hunter in Paranormal Action Squad, a premium 2016 cartoon series on the same platform.
#8 Jacksepticeye (Sean McLoughlin)
Earnings: $11 million
With 23.2 million subscribers, McLoughlin is Ireland’s most popular YouTuber, uploading videos on a variety of games. Late in 2018, he started a clothing brand with fellow YouTube gamer, Mark “Markiplier” Fischbach.
#9 TimTheTatman (Timothy Betar)
Earnings: $8 million
Timothy Betar’s comedic, good-natured Fortnite streams have made him a favorite with brands, from Reese’s to Bud Light. He also streams and is a commentator for the NFL’s Thursday Night Football games on Twitch. At the end of the year, he signed an exclusive streaming deal with the platform.
#10 Nickmercs (Nick Kolcheff)
Earnings: $6 million
Nick Kolcheff made a name for himself by playing Fortnite with a controller, which is considered more challenging than using a keyboard-and-mouse. It helped him become the tenth-most-watched streamer in 2019, according to StreamElements and Arsenal.gg. Twitch took notice, signing him to an estimated two year, $2 million exclusivity deal.
Additional reporting by Madeline Berg and Christina Settimi.
METHODOLOGY: All earnings are from January 1, 2019, through January 1, 2020. All figures are pretax, and fees from agents, managers and lawyers are not deducted. Estimates are based on SocialBlade, TwitchTracker, Captiv8 and Pollstar, as well as interviews with industry insiders. For the purposes of the list, Forbes defines a professional gamer as anyone who makes their income playing games, both competitively and casually.