Today, it’s possible to be an e-sports athlete with a six-figure annual salary.

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Today, it’s possible to be an e-sports athlete with a six-figure annual salary.

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Dennis “Thresh” Fong is a legend. Last August, he was inducted into the e-sports Hall of Fame at QuakeCon in Dallas, Texas.

Don’t know who Thresh is? You should. A Doom and Quake champion, the man is generally considered to be the first ever professional gamer, and he went pretty much undefeated up till his retirement in 1999. Tim Willits called him the Michael Jordan of gaming when he introduced him on stage at QuakeCon, testament to his larger-than-life stature in the annals of e-sports history.

As a teenager, Thresh was already earning six-figure sums annually from prizes, sponsorships, and appearance fees, an unheard of amount back in the day.

His May 1997 victory over Tom “Entropy” Kimzey in the Red Annihilation tournament is the stuff of storied myth, not least because the prize pot included John Carmack’s custom Ferrari 328 GTS.

Thresh decimated Entropy in the Quake map Castle of the Damned, and the final score was a commanding 14 to -1 . Fast-forward 20 years, and Thresh isn’t much of a household name today.

But his achievements are now being replicated on a much wider scale, with top players routinely earning comfortable salaries that many Olympic athletes can only dream of. What’s more, those who are at the very top of their game can even stand to earn millions of dollars in prize money, effectively getting rich off the back of an activity that has too often been considered a waste of time.

Just look at Sumail “SumaiL” Hassan, a Dota 2 player for Evil Geniuses. He has racked up over US$2.5 million in prize money, a stunning feat for an 18-yearold who had to sell his bike just to have enough money to log more hours on Dota 2 while growing up in Pakistan.

One of the brightest spots on the map is South Korea, where gaming is a national hobby and players can see legions of devoted fans turning up at tournament arenas to support them with hand-made posters and placards.

It was the Koreans that started the World Cyber Games (WCG) in 2000, an international competition that helped spread awareness of gaming as a legitimate sport.

Major tournaments over the past few years have been hosted in vast arenas, from the Spodek Arena in Katowice, Poland to the Lanxess Arena in Cologne, Germany. Dota 2’s The International, which boasts an over US$20 million crowd-sourced prize pool, is held at KeyArena in Seattle, a multi-purpose arena with a seating capacity of over 17,000.

As a sign of growing mainstream acceptance, regular sport teams have begun picking up teams that test their mettle on-screen rather than in the field. FC Schalke, the second largest soccer club in Germany, picked up a League of Legends team, while Manchester City recruited FIFA player Kieran Brown.

With the industry projected to generate over a billion dollars in revenue by 2020, ESPN – a leading source of traditional sport coverage – launched a section dedicated to e-sports on its website last year, and has even teamed up with EA to broadcast FIFA tournaments on cable TV.