Amazon's Twitch leads a booming esports six-figure-salary job market in coronavirus era

Key Points
  • The meteoric growth of esports is manifested in the recruiting and hiring world even during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Job postings on Indeed for esports roles rose 43% during the first three months of 2020.
  • Among the largest employers are game publishers, such as Blizzard Entertainment, Tencent and Riot Games, and esports platforms including Twitch, YouTube, Facebook and Skillz.
  • IT workers and marketers can earn $100,000, engineers as much as $160,000, and Twitch is paying top dollar.
Participants of an esport tournament during the digital festival DreamHack Leipzig on January 25, 2020, in Germany. DreamHack combines a variety of digital entertainment, including esport tournaments, LAN parties, Pokemon competitions and virtual reality presentations, as well as a cosplay contest.
Jens Schlueter | Getty Images

While baseball, basketball, soccer and pretty much every other sport on the planet remains shut down during the coronavirus pandemic, there's one corner of the competitive universe that's still playing games: esports, the $1 billion global industry in which individuals and teams square off in video games.

Viewership on Amazon's Twitch, YouTube, Facebook and other streaming platforms has spiked tremendously in the past couple of months, owing to the fact that esports was born and exists online and competitors can play remotely in its virtual realm during the crisis.

And although the millions of Americans suddenly unemployed include tens of thousands of people who work for the shuttered traditional sports leagues' offices, ballparks and stadiums, as well as the ancillary businesses that support and supply them, the esports workforce is relatively intact.

"Yes, we are still hiring," said a spokesperson for the streaming website Twitch, a unit of Amazon that enjoyed a 23% surge in viewership in March. In mid-May its jobs page listed more than 115 positions, from a senior software engineer at its San Francisco headquarters to an advertising sales director in Singapore.

So to those naysayers out there who castigate video gamers as frivolous, basement-dwelling, introverted time wasters, welcome to the latest Revenge of the Nerds. Thanks to esports — plus the $150 billion gaming industry from which this phenomenon evolved — thousands of great jobs are being scored in this one bright spot of an otherwise depressed employment landscape.

We're not just talking about the young professional players earning big bucks from well-financed esports teams in league matches streamed live online — and, before the coronavirus canceled live events, staged at sold-out arenas. Or even the coaches, trainers, nutritionists, psychologists and other staffers supporting the more than 200 pro squads.

John Legend gets in the game

Twitch has emerged as the predominant platform for gaming in general, including esports, as well as a desired place to work. Since being acquired by Amazon for $970 million in 2014, it has expanded from live-streaming game play of third-party titles into a formidable creator of its own diverse digital content, much of it geared to esports but also music and other pop culture. Since the coronavirus struck, Twitch streamed an NBA 2K virtual tournament between 16 of the league's stars, and John Legend performed his new song "Actions" for more than 139,000 live viewers during an online fundraising event.

An attendee watches a live demonstration of Link Kit's Snow World online game displayed in a Twitch Interactive's streaming video service.
Kiyoshi Ota | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Hiring and grooming talent for Twitch falls to Mike Aragon, senior vice president of content and partnerships. Besides posting various jobs on Indeed and other job sites, he relies on an in-house recruiting team that scours colleges and tech and gaming events.

"Wearing a purple T-shirt with the Twitch logo is a great way to target candidates to work for you," said Aragon, who declined to say how many people work for the company, though Fast Company recently estimated more than 1,200. "We also get a lot of in-bound [applicants] through our industry connections."

The burgeoning esports workforce — largely comprised of millennials and Gen Zers — also includes software engineers, content creators, data analysts, game designers, social media specialists, broadcasters, journalists, marketers, partnership managers, advertising and sponsorship salespeople, event managers, venue operators, concessionaires, accountants, lawyers and office staff. There are private chefs and house managers employed at the digs where teams live together, and there are counselors who wrangle kids at esports summer camps.

"You see a lot of mirroring of the traditional sports industry in terms of employment opportunities, but the roles have a twist on them," said Remer Rietkerk, head of esports at Amsterdam-based Newzoo, a market research firm specializing in esports and gaming. "You have a different set of challenges due to esports being digital and attracting a different audience," he added, alluding to the worldwide fan base of 443 million, according to Newzoo's latest Global Esports Market Report.

A meteoric rise in esports jobs

The meteoric growth of esports is manifested in the recruiting and hiring world. "Esports jobs on Indeed are rising very fast," said Andrew Flowers, the former economist at Indeed, who saw the share of job postings for roles related to esports rise 343% between December 2015 and December 2019 and continuing to surge through 2020.

Indeed does not reveal its precise number of job postings, only the share of its overall postings. To give a sense of the scale in esports, Flowers said, "It was 10 jobs per million [postings] in 2015, up to 30 per million by the end of 2015, and by the end of 2018, it was about 100 per million." By the end of last year, the number rose 7.4% to 140 job postings per million, and as of March there were 180 esports jobs per million of all postings on the site, up 43% since the beginning of the year.

The largest category of jobs posted on Indeed is for tech workers, who might create video games for publishers, such as Blizzard Entertainment, Tencent and Riot Games, or help run the streaming platforms. "These are software engineers, full stack developers, front-end developers — jobs you would find anywhere in Silicon Valley," Flowers said.

Esports job categories and pay

A recent analysis of Comparably, a website that tracks salaries and cultures for hundreds of companies, offers a glimpse into average compensation for specific jobs at several esports employers. IT workers, for example, average $111,000 at Twitch, $103,000 at Blizzard and EA Sports, and $105,000 at Riot. Engineers earn $163,000 at Twitch, $148,000 at Blizzard and $138,000 at EA Sports. Marketers make $103,000 at Twitch, $88,000 at Blizzard and Riot, and $79,000 at EA Sports.

Before the coronavirus outbreak brought live events to a screeching halt, Indeed's second-largest esports category was for staff at various brick-and-mortar venues that host wildly popular matches and tournaments organized by the pro leagues and teams that have grown up around megahit games, such as Overwatch, League of Legends, Counter Strike, NBA 2K and Fortnite. But until stay-at-home mandates are lifted and America gets back to business, esports will be contested online, thus delaying hiring plans in that segment of the industry.

We're hearing from the industry that they want people who aren't pigeon-holed in one area. They want problem-solvers with a broad understanding of different areas.
Deborah Grzybowski
associate professor of engineering at Ohio State University

This unexpected development is putting a crimp in the growth strategy of the NBA 2K League, a three-year-old joint venture between the NBA and Take-Two Interactive, under which 23 of the league's 30 franchises have formed esports teams. They train and practice in their host cities and compete at a site in New York during the 2K season, which spans 18 weeks from April through August. But to build critical local fan interest, teams have been opening dedicated venues. In November, for example, the Cleveland Cavaliers' Cavs Legion Gaming Club unveiled Legion Lair, featuring gameplay, streaming and production spaces — and creating related job opportunities.

CFRA's John Freeman explains the best way to value esports industry over time

Likewise, last year T-Wolves Gaming, the Minnesota Timberwolves' esports team, moved into a new state-of-the-art training facility in downtown Minneapolis. "I hired a social media coordinator and a corporate sponsorship executive, both full time," said Justin Butler, the 2K team's general manager and head coach. Plans for future hiring remain on hold until live competition resumes.

The NBA isn't the only pro league spinning off job-creating esports teams and businesses. Major League Soccer has kicked off eMLS, an esports league in which 19 of the 23 MLS clubs participate. Although the National Hockey League hasn't adopted a formal esports league system, 22 of its 31 teams host local gaming tournaments. Formula 1 auto racing revved up its esports engine on April 5, attracting 3.2 million online, and shut in viewers for the debut of its virtual Grand Prix.

Attempting to disrupt Indeed and other online employment platforms, British gamer turned entrepreneur Phil Huggan co-founded an esports-exclusive job site in 2017. Hitmarker, in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, listed 5,373 esports and gaming jobs when searched in mid April. More than 2,000 were U.S.-based, but reflecting esports' borderless nature, there were 71 postings in China, 11 in Israel, 102 in Singapore and five in Thailand. There were 347 "remote" jobs list, up from 142 in January, perhaps reflecting today's work-from-anywhere reality.

As on Indeed, software engineers are the most sought after on Hitmarker, followed closely by marketing positions. And then there are the unusual positions created by the novel esports industry.

"A few Overwatch League teams posted jobs for private chefs who specialize in Korean cuisine," said Cam Brierley, the site's 20-year-old manager, a nod to South Korean players' big presence in esports. "FaZe Clan posted a job for a house manager" to help oversee the dual 12,500-sq-ft mansions in LA's Hollywood Hills, where multiple esports teams live and train and associated businesses employ dozens of people.

Although the uninitiated question of the veracity of labeling gaming as a sport, they don't include the sports moguls and franchise owners invested in the 20 international teams that compete in the Overwatch League, 11 based in the U.S. "Everything that exists in traditional sports either does or will exist in esports," said Geoff Moore, president of Dallas-based Envy Gaming, which counts the Dallas Fuel among its four esports teams and Hersh Interactive Group, investors in MLB's Texas Rangers, as co-owners.

Moore, a veteran in sports marketing and entertainment, runs the teams' business operations, but also manages the staff responsible for keeping about 30 gamers in tip-top shape. "We make sure they get optimal sleep, nutrition, hydration and exercise to improve their performance," he said in familiar athlete-speak. "So we give them every advantage available — coaching, training, video and data analytics, scouting." Those activities take place in Envy's new 21,000-sq-ft facility, which also houses its CFO, accounting staff, sales and marketing team, social media mavens, travel and logistics managers, and video production and content creation group.

The 2020 Overwatch League season is currently under way, with matches streamed live on YouTube. The schedule is sporadic, though, so as to accommodate teams' availability during the pandemic.

That's impacted the Fuel's everyday operations, Moore said. "Dallas is under a stay-at-home designation, which deems businesses like ours as nonessential," he explained, meaning that team officials and players and coaches have to work remotely. "Our coaches are using virtual meetings and videoconferencing to go over strategy."

Fortunately, Moore hasn't had to lay off any staff, but is waiting to fill some open positions. "Given the reduction in live events this year, that obviously changes our business strategy for the rest of 2020," he said.

The crisis also has altered the debut of VENN — short for the Video Game Entertainment and News Network — a sort of ESPN for the gaming and esports universe. The launch of what's now being called VENN Beta has been moved up to July instead of August as originally planned, and live programming will emanate from just one studio, in Los Angeles, while the one in New York will open later this year.

VENN CTO Scott Gilles in the control room of VENN's production studio at the Los Angeles-based Vista Studio facility
© Venn. All Rights Reserved

"We can't let this opportunity pass us by," said co-CEO Ben Kusin, referring to the Covid-19 crisis. "So this is about us getting out there as soon as we can and developing conversations and trust with our Gen Z and millennial audience."

VENN won't be a conventional TV network, but a hybrid that "crosses digital, cable and social platforms and channels," explained Kusin, a gaming industry veteran. That means Twitch, YouTube and other gaming platforms, streaming services like Hulu, YouTube TV and Apple TV+ and social networks including TikTok and Overtime, plus traditional TV outlets.

The 24/7 network is backed by $17 million in seed round funding. "We're going to program live videos and lifestyle-spun content," said co-CEO Ariel Horn, a former esports producer at Riot Games, "including reality shows, gaming competition, talk and esports," the latter which will constitute about 20% of programming.

VENN had planned to launch with about 70 full-time employees, but that number has been scaled back to 50, Kusin said. "We're going to continue hiring, but just at a reduced headcount," he explained, adding that no one has been furloughed or fired.

While VENN has hired a COO with 25 years of broadcast TV experience and other entertainment big wigs, it's mostly tapping into a half-as-old generation of passionate gamers who happen to have backgrounds in production, editing, writing and other areas of broadcasting. "For the first time ever, it's not older folks who are the most experienced in this field, but younger people who are being sought out for myriad creative roles in this new world of gaming production," Horn observed.

Academia furthers careers in esports

Academia is on the verge of furthering career opportunities in esports. The National Association of Collegiate Esports serves as the governing body for varsity-level esports competition for more than 200 member institutions, some offering scholarships averaging $4,800 a year. PlayVS, a two-year-old startup in LA that organizes high school esports leagues, has raised $96 million from investors such Sean "Diddy" Combs, Adidas and the Dodgers.

This fall, Ohio State University will begin offering an undergraduate major in esports and game studies. Students started organizing esports competitions on campus more than a decade ago, and the school recently opened an elaborate esports arena for its four teams. "The students realized they could gather others interested not just in gaming but also [esports] marketing, event production and broadcasting," said Deborah Grzybowski, an associate professor in the department of engineering.

Grzybowski is in charge of developing the wide-ranging esports curriculum with required classes, in addition to gameplay, across five departments in the College of Arts and Sciences. "We're hearing from the industry that they want people who aren't pigeon-holed in one area," she said. "They want problem-solvers with a broad understanding of different areas."

Take it from one of those industry insiders. "A chunk of my strategy and analytics team are PhDs from MIT writing a supply and demand model," said Twitch's Aragon. "This is very much an academic workplace, because of the nature of our business."

Nonetheless, the esports business is being unnaturally adjusted by the coronavirus. And although its workforce is experiencing a ripple effect, the unexpected growth in the overall gaming industry, already at $150 billion, is on an upward trajectory, so it's "game on" for job seekers.