The Future of Video Game Jobs: A Snapshot of Fields in the Booming Industry

A woman plays video games in her apartment.
Getty Images

Conventional wisdom has a lot to say about video games.

It says gamers are male basement dwellers who live on a diet of Mountain Dew and Cheetos, that gaming makes people lazy, and that it’s impossible to make a living by playing games all day.

Well, au contraire. According to data from the Entertainment Software Association, the video game industry and its players are flourishing. A 2020 survey by ESA found that 64% of all Americans play video games — every day.

“From Fortnite to League of Legends, games have captured the hearts and imagination of a lot of folks,” said Chris Greeley, an esports events commissioner for one of the most popular computer games, League of Legends.

With so many people playing, especially during the pandemic, there are ever-growing opportunities to work in the estimated $160 billion gaming industry.

Video Game Careers On the Rise, Experts Say

While the pandemic has driven esporting events further online, major championships are typically held in massive venues and attract crowds and viewership that rival real sporting events.

For example,the 2018 League of Legends World Championship drew in more than 200 million viewers at its peak. (The Super Bowl that year had an audience of 103 million.) The event was held at Incheon Munhak Stadium, a world-class sports complex in South Korea, which hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2002.

Like their real-world counterparts, esports events require tons of preparation and manpower, and the industry comprises a lot more than pro players. Depending on the size of the League of Legends event, there are between 80 and 150 staffers working on and off camera, Greeley estimates. Across the industry, demand is spiking for announcers, scouts, coaches, marketers and broadcasters.

Video game companies supply a good chunk of those jobs. Blizzard, Electronic Arts, Epic Games and Riot Games all have budding in-house esports divisions that broadcast and scout their respective competitions and teams.

“Games have captured the hearts and imaginations of a lot of folks.”

Greeley drew many comparisons to the sports entertainment industry, calling it a “blueprint” for how esports jobs work. But one notable difference is that, for several companies, all of the developing, marketing and broadcasting happens under one roof.

“We joke all the time that we’re a sports league, a production house, a broadcaster and a start- up business,” he said.

But not all video game companies have the resources to run such wide-ranging operations. In many cases, esports jobs are outsourced to third-parties, such as ESL Gaming, which handle event management and production for large-scale tournaments.

“There are 100-plus esports organizations that, on a day-to-day basis, are looking for help,” Greeley said. “I think there’s a really healthy mix” of both in-house and outsourced job opportunities.

Some companies are building hubs in Atlanta, Austin, Texas, and Dallas. But the vast majority of esports jobs are in California.

“The top three spots for esports jobs right now are Los Angeles, Los Angeles, Los Angeles,” Greeley said.

The meteoric rise of the esports industry often gets all the attention, but the more traditional video game careers — animators and designers — are slated to see healthy growth in the coming years as well.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2019 to 2029 job forecast, software developers will see a 22% increase in job opportunities, and multimedia animators will see a 4% increase, which is on par with all job growth.

Colleges know this. Indiana University, one of many colleges looking to get ahead of the trend, offers several major specializations in game art, production and audio – plus a dedicated degree in video game design – to prepare students for future video game jobs.

Edward Castronova, a video game economist and professor at Indiana University, foresees a large wave of video game jobs right around the corner.

Future job seekers, he said, should “pay as much attention to your gaming literacy as you do to literature, art, music and film.”

Video Game Jobs — For Pros and Aspiring Pros

The Penny Hoarder detailed several strategies to make money playing video games — as in literally playing video games for cash. Several pay quick money. But other options, especially competitive tournaments, provide pathways to the big bucks.

The Penny Hoarder interviewed Christian Lomenzo, who won $45,000 in esports competitions held by Madden NFL. Before his days of Madden fame, he participated in smaller video game tournaments online, earning a couple dollars at a time.

While Lomenzo’s Madden prize money is a serious chunk of change, the biggest competitions in the industry pay out several times that amount. Competitions held by Blizzard Entertainment, Epic Games and Riot Games draw in hundreds of millions of viewers and pay out hundreds of millions in cash prizes. As a result esports earnings are skyrocketing.

Epic Games, the developers of the massively popular Fortnite, paid out $100 million in prize money across all qualifying rounds of the 2019 Fortnite World Cup. Another mainstay competitive game, Dota 2, paid out $34 million in prize money during its 2019 championship series alone.

The pandemic canceled or postponed the 2020 championships for both games, but the next tournaments are expected to pay as much or more.

Video Game Jobs
Photo courtesy Blizzard Entertainment

Outside of the sporadic earnings of large-scale esports events, professional gamers can make healthy salaries. Riot Games, the makers of League of Legends, hires talented gamers whose day job is to stream their matches on Twitch, create buzz and draw in more players.

“League of Legends pros in North America have an average salary of a little bit more than $300,000,” Greeley said. “Minimum for our pro level is $75 grand. I mean, that’s not a bad salary when you’re 18.”

The vast majority of gamers don’t play competitively, however. Even if they did, they wouldn’t qualify for selective tournaments or cushy pro-gamer jobs at Riot.

For the majority of video game jobs, a healthy dose of passion and knowledge will suffice.

Future Video Game Careers

Bureau of Labor Statistics data show the amount of time Americans spend playing video games is on the rise — especially so for 15- to 24-year-olds, who now spend about five hours per week gaming. Meanwhile, hours spent watching TV — while still much higher — have been steadily declining since the agency started tracking the numbers in 2003.

The latest BLS figures are from 2019. Video game sales and industry revenue growth in 2020 suggest the pandemic is surging the trend.

Entire career fields are budding in efforts to monetize those changing habits.

How does a video game monetize the hours you spend playing it? A rough comparison is how social media websites like Facebook make money. They’re free to use, but the companies generate billions of advertising dollars by tracking how long users stay on the site and what type of content they interact with. The video game industry is beginning to toy with similar metrics.

“That all has to start with the data,” Greeley said. “There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity there… for business students, for people who can help with their data insights and their number crunching to make data-informed decisions.”

One way video game companies are trying to monetize users is through microtransactions, tiny payments users make when playing the game. Think: $1 for a new shiny sword that other players don’t have. Or $5 for new quests or story lines that unpaid players don’t get access to.

Over time, a small percentage of users spend thousands of dollars on microtransactions. Those players are referred to as “whales.” Lots of resources go into keeping whales engaged in the game – and spending money.

Castronova, from Indiana University, predicts that by the mid 2020s video game companies will hire gamers on a large scale to attract and retain new players, especially whales.

“There’s no difference between an ad campaign [that] gets you players, and an incentive system that pays people to play,” he said. “They both cost money, and they both increase your player population.”

His predictions seem inevitable, as video game companies are already experimenting with creative ways to pay their players – with fast-growing prize pools in competitions and salaried pro gamers. But what Castronova expects to see will go far beyond that.

In the future, he argues, it’s not just the pros getting all the money. Casual gamers will cash in, too.

“The companies will pay them small amounts to just be there, in the game, while the big shots make all the noise,” Castronova said. “Those [casual gamers] are the people who will have viable low-wage jobs from video games.”

Adam Hardy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. He specializes in the gig economy, career trends and other ways to make money that don’t involve stuffy corporate offices. Read his ​latest articles here, or say hi on Twitter @hardyjournalism.