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Published May 2, 2022

Monday Morning Marth: How Do Top Players Make Money?

moky, was just eighteen years old when his life changed forever. Although he had previously made a small reputation for himself as a Top 100 player, beating ChuDat at Genesis 5 elevated his name within the Smash community to new heights. It was everything moky could have ever dreamed of – going to a supermajor, hanging out with his best friends, and taking a huge step forward in his competitive career.

Four years later, moky is a household name in the scene. Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed – rather than killed – his greater involvement. With a little over a thousand Twitch subscribers and a third place at the largest Melee tournament of all-time, moky is undeniably an inspiration for up-and-coming players looking to start Melee careers of their own. At the same time, he doesn’t rake in millions of dollars like peers in other esports and he doesn’t own a home. By his own admission, he’s paying rent, living with a housemate, and competing for pennies. His success story, inspiring in many ways, nonetheless showcases the sobering realities of what a best-case commitment to Melee actually looks like.

I’ve dedicated today’s column to answering a simple question: “how do top players make money?” I will review three different primary income sources, provide some ballpark estimates to how much money is typically earned through them, and offer some general takeaways.

How Successful are Top Melee Players at Streaming, Really?

Nobody embodies Melee streaming’s model of success quite like Mango. From his days of analyzing videos for fans in 2013 to Fundays with his friends in 2016 to his current standing within the streaming sphere, Mango is effectively the face of Melee streaming. He has well over 8,000 subscribers, 129 hours of Melee streamed through April, and well over 200 total stream hours this month alone. The only streamer within the community who comes even close to Mango’s level of success is Hungrybox, who has over 7,000 subscribers, as well as the title for largest Ultimate streamer in the world over the last year.

Because of Mango and Hungrybox, streaming is often brought up as a prime revenue model for top competitors. However, most Melee streamers do not see anywhere close to the level of financial success within this avenue as Mango or Hungrybox. Even the ones that actively grind Melee content on Twitch are leagues behind these two when you look at the numbers.

NOTE: Leffen and Plup do not showcase their subscriber numbers, as a result, I have not included them in my research. Also, these numbers are estimations of just their most recent April numbers for subscriptions, when I checked their streams on April 27. In cases where I was not able to get these numbers, I had to rely on somewhat outdated numbers, based on their most recent YouTube highlights of Twitch streams.

To be clear, subscription numbers for Melee streamers are often all over the place. Depending on how a player performs at a tournament – or whether or not they’re traveling for an event – subscription numbers could go up or down by hundreds, if not thousands. By no means is the above an exact estimate of even a fixed amount of subscribers. By the time you’re reading this article, it’s very likely that these numbers will have changed.

For the context of this column, however, they provide a rough ‘median’ within a range of possibilities for these players. With these numbers, and – once again – a ballpark idea of roughly $2.50 per subscriber as our basis (so not accounting for differently tiered subscriptions or individualized deals with Twitch), we’re going to look at three things: estimated monthly stream income, hours streamed in the last 30 days (per SullyGnome), and estimated dollars per hour.

NOTE: By using the above players as reference, I’m not trying to intrude on their privacy – I’m merely using them as well-known examples to illustrate a rough financial idea of “being a top Melee streamer.” Please do not harass them about how much they make from Melee streaming. I’m also not accounting for donations or large gifts. I spoke with one player about how to factor these in and they said it was fairly negligible in terms of annual revenue anyhow.

If you are not Hungrybox or Mango (or, though he’s not accounted for above, most likely Leffen), your Twitch stream, by itself, is functionally the equivalent of working slightly above a minimum wage job in most American states, and that’s not accounting for taxes. To an extent, a ton of Melee streamers seem to have realized this, as many of their hours seem to reflect streaming becoming a part-time commitment in recent times. This is likely because of the return of large in-person events.

So, is independent Melee streaming a viable full-time career on its own? Honestly? Probably not. But you’ll notice one word that makes the difference here: “independent.” While streaming on its own isn’t adequate as a primary source of revenue, what it can get you is attention from a sponsor.

The Impact of a Sponsor

Few things grab the attention of smashers more than involvement from sponsors. For example, one of the biggest indicators that Smash was going to hit it big in 2014 was when Team Liquid announced sponsorships for Ken and KoreanDJ. They were initially more symbolic than substantive, sure, but from there, the same company picked up Hungrybox and ChuDat (or at least Team Curse did), and other sponsors entered the scene. Cloud 9 sponsored Mango, Evil Geniuses sponsored PPMD, Team SoloMid sponsored Leffen – the list goes on.

Sponsor interest in the scene’s top players has ebbed and flowed over the last eight years, but more or less, we’re at a current revival of them. The question is: how does a sponsorship translate into income? I did not feel comfortable asking players directly about their specific situations, as it would likely jeopardize terms of their contract, as well as just generally encroach on their personal space. Instead, I reached out to a personal source who I trust quite a bit to offer me a general idea of what players could expect to see from their salaries. I have chosen to keep them anonymous for this column.

According to my source, the very top level of community personalities could expect to drive in the big bucks – the kings of Melee streaming will receive anywhere from $10,000 to $12,000 a month as their full-time sponsor-specific salary. My personal guess is that only about two people – maybe three in the whole community – make anywhere close to this kind of money from a sponsor. Even then, it would be in part because of their broader prestige within gaming.

For everyone else, the drop off is pretty big, not just in terms of monthly income, but how contracts are structured. While the cream of the crop can take home five-figure monthly payouts from sponsors, people who are just outside the absolute largest figures in Smash often hover anywhere between $2,000 and $4,000 for monthly salaries as freelancers, not full-time employees with benefits or insurance. I asked my source about the kind of salary someone could hope to achieve by simply being No. 1 in the world and meeting the bare minimum of being an adequate content creator. They said, this would point to somewhere around $5,000 a month.

Per my source’s knowledge, only about 10 people in the scene have anywhere close to these types of deals. Below that, any aspiring top player has to rely on the goodwill of TO or smaller grassroots “sponsors” paying for their travel and/or housing or events. That, or they pay out of pocket and hope that by winning enough, they can eventually make the money back. Speaking of which…

Competitive Earnings

It’s not a secret that Melee players are overwhelmingly broke for shit. While our largest tournaments have payouts comparable or even greater than the most significant fighting game events, in the broader esports world, they’re nothing. For example, moky’s third place finish at LACS 4 netted him $3,900, a payout dwarfed by contemporaries across competitive gaming with similar accomplishments in their field. And yet it simultaneously was beyond what third place at Genesis 7 brought Mango. Top Melee streamers often talk about how even doing well at a supermajor may end up costing them subscribers in the short-term. That’s true, and it’s even worse for players who don’t have other ways to support themselves.

Take into account the more realistic form of tourney winnings than majors – weeklies and regional tournaments – and this particularly stands out. For obvious reasons of accounting for local-by-local differences and volatile entrant counts, it’s difficult to estimate an average first-place payout. Based on FlyQuest’s investment into Melee over the next year, however, we know that first-place at every region-locked Training Mode Tuesday roughly nets a top player $225 in winnings, with second place bringing $125, third place offering $75, fourth place paying $50, and fifth place giving $25.

Let’s create a hypothetical player called “MarthaStewart.” Martha enters TMT thrice in a month, winning twice, finishing third another time, and taking a week off. Martha spends about 14 to 20 hours a week on serious Melee practice and tournament play combined. It’s functionally a part-time job. For her efforts, she will take home $525 in a month. If she maintained this for an entire year, her overall winnings would be $6,300. Even if there were two tournaments like TMT every week and she continued her extraordinary – and frankly unsustainable – performances, that number would go up to $12,600.

If Martha made fifth place at a major like Genesis 7 four times a year, she would make, at most, an additional $1,800 for her annual income, so on average, another $150 per month. The truth is, competing on its own is not a full-time career. It’s a hobby that only becomes full-time as much as it accomplishes two things: supplementing your presence as an online content creator and getting you a sponsor.

General Thoughts

While these three ways of income are not the only avenues available for top players, they’re the most frequently brought up. Each of them on their own aren’t realistically adequate for full-time careers in Smash, but together, they create the equivalent of a rusty boat. My guess is that there’s only 10 or 12 people within Melee who are making anywhere from $40,000 to $80,000 from the game in a year, with “work weeks” hovering from 30 hours to 60 hours.

In spite of how terrible this all may seem, I remain inspired by someone like moky. He unambiguously overcame the odds to be one of the best in his field. Melee has absolutely changed his life for the better, and I’m not going to buy into the idea that it’s not “worth” it. I’ve been thinking of potential solutions to the diminishing returns of the current streaming, sponsor, and competing ecosystem. I have one in mind that may not be the most satisfying one to hear, and a few that I’m not so crazy about. I’ll get into those in another column.

For now, stay tuned next week for my Smash Summit 13 preview. Afterward, I’ll return to examine other ways for top players to make money from Melee.

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