At 15 years old, Hoa “Anakin” Luu and his dad made the nearly 700-mile journey from his hometown of Atlanta to the sun-bleached southern tip of Miami for Guard Your Grill, a Tekken tournament with a $1,000 payout for first place. That same year the two made an almost equally long trek heading the opposite direction on America’s sunbelt from Atlanta to Houston.

He spent his formative years balancing high school, a job loading trucks for UPS, and Tekken. Competitions for Bandai Namco’s premier 3D fighting game brought him all over the Southeastern U.S. When his parents weren’t able to drive him from tournament to tournament, he dipped into his savings. As he continued to improve and entered college, he was succeeding and occasionally even winning, but only making a small amount of money with this part-time commitment.

When Red Bull approached two years ago, he decided to jump from the high-dive into the deep end. As a top American player with Red Bull behind him, he could travel the globe, competing as far away as South Korea and Japan, and he could commit to improving full-time.

He is one of the few competitors in the fighting game community who can make that claim.

“Playing for the money was never really a concept for me growing up. The money’s always nice. It’s always nice to be rewarded for winning and succeeding. But I played to be the best or to see how far I could go. That’s what competing was about, not making a big pay day,” he said.

Have no doubts that his ability to support himself full-time is not the norm. Most players, even many at the top, are not in the same position. Virtually no one is supporting themselves on just fighting game prize money.

The top of a treacherous mountain

Evolution is the most prestigious fighting game tournament of the year, and it boasts the largest and toughest brackets in every game present. For a third-place finish at the tournament, Anakin made $2,649. That’s not chump change by any means, but it’s not enough to form the foundation of a stable lifestyle, either.

Arslan “Arslan Ash” Siddique, who overcame Evo’s most difficult Tekken 7 bracket ever this year, received $14,000. While that sounds like a much bigger chunk of change, contrast that against the top of the towering mountains that sandwich Evo on the calendar. The Fortnite World Cup took place just before Evo and awarded $30 million in total to competitors, making it the jewel in the crown of professional Fortnite. The International 9 happened only weeks after Evo and one-upped Fortnite’s World Cup by awarding over $33 million. On the other hand, hundreds of competitors fought tooth-and-nail over only a few thousand dollars for some games at Evo. Tens of thousands were up for grabs by thousands of competitors for the bigger games.While that sounds like a much bigger chunk of change, it stands in stark contrast to the prize payouts that the winners of the Fortnite World Cup and The International 9, the two events that Evo was sandwiched between which respectively represent the top of the mountain for Fortnite and Dota 2, numbered in the millions.

Above: The crowd reacts to a match during Evo 2019 in Las Vegas.

Image Credit: David O'Keefe

SomeOther Evo competitors who made the top eight of the hardest tournaments their respective games had ever seen walked away with less than $100 in their pockets for their achievements.

Andy “Rikir” La, who finished tied for fifth in Under Night In-Birth, lacks the support structure of a team or a widely known sponsor. For his performance at Evo, he took home just $270.80. That amount does not even cover a flight from Las Vegas to his hometown of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.  As a competitor and full-time university student, he has to employ as many cost-cutting procedures as possible like taking red-eye flights or booking cheaper motels in order to travel to tournaments. He also has to be extra discerning about which events he goes to.

“I would not have been financially capable of entering Evo this year because I did not have enough funds on my own to pay for it. I was planning on skipping the event entirely. The only reason I was able to show up was because my parents suddenly stepped in to pay for my trip because they wanted to go cheer me on in person. Most of the time that doesn’t happen so I just say, “Well, I guess I can’t go to this event. Better save up for the next one,”” he said.

His shopping list when going to a tournament includes event registration, hotel, flight, and food. According to him, flights from Toronto to most events on the east coast of the U.S. run him around $400-$500 round trip and, as such, are his biggest expenses that he has to worry about.

“I’m reliant on winning local events to be able to fund most of my trips. As of right now I managed to pay for a trip to CEOtaku (a fighting game tournament focused a subgenre, anime fighting games) by winning an event and a few weeklies. When I work my usual part-time job most of that money just goes back to paying my own rent and tuition. In other words, If I’m not winning events near me I can’t afford to go anywhere in the U.S.,” Rikir said.

He cannot sustain as a full-time venture. He knows this. To him those sacrifices are worth making because even without being able to earn a living from excelling at competitive fighting games, it’s still what he loves.

“I’ve been competing for eight years in various games, and I can certainly say for every dollar I’ve won, I’ve probably lost ten times the amount or more,” Rikir said. “Of course, I was never really in it for just the money, I compete because that’s what I enjoy. If I just wanted money, there’s more reliable ways to earn it.”

Teams aren’t always a golden ticket

Even if Rikir was on a team he might necessarily be able to compete full time. Not all teams are created equally. Anakin acknowledged that it’s thanks to Radiance and Red Bull, his team and sponsor respectively, that he can make his love his vocation. Unfortunately, few players in the fighting game scene, even among those with personal sponsorships or teams behind them, have such heavy-duty support.You might think that the sole difference between Anakin’s and Rikir’s situations is the lack of a team, and while Anakin acknowledged that it’s because of Radiance’s and Red Bull’s support that he can sustain this as a full-time job, it isn’t easy to find a team, and not all teams are equal in what they provide their players.

“I think the term ‘sponsored’ has grown to be more of a blanket statement now-a-days. [Getting] sponsored by any team? It isn’t too hard. Sponsored by a tier one team? [That is] extremely difficult,” said Armando “Angelic” Mejia, a world-class player in numerous games and a multiple-time third place finisher at Evo.

Misfits Gaming formed back in 2016. They have fielded squads in nearly every major competitive game since then. They’re in Angelic’s corner. With their support he has traveled all over the country honing his skills. Like Anakin, he does not have to pay out-of-pocket for his flights and hotels. When he talks about tier one teams, this is the standard he is holding them to.

After a weekend tournament, though, he goes back to his job working at the office of a law firm. His team takes care of travel expenses, but he still doesn’t make enough to quit his day job. That’s at least a fair sight better than the old days, he said, when he was paying to travel to majors from his own bank account, finishing top three, and still not recouping enough to even half-cover his expenses.

Angelic’s advice to others hoping to find a way to make their passion their careers in the fighting game community is by streaming or making YouTube videos. In fact, he urged those serious about making money to prioritize that over prize winnings and results.

“I unfortunately think the FGC is in a terrible spot right now with how expensive it is to compete versus how much prize money is available at major events. There are no moments of doubt if it can be sustainable because quite simple it isn’t, and it can’t be if you are solely talking about winning prize money as a competitor,” he said.

Tournaments are not raking it in, either

It’s not as if the money for tournament prize pools is being withheld or earmarked elsewhere. It just isn’t there in the same way it is for other major esports. There is a very shallow pool that can provide for only the most elite fish in the most competitive games, and that isn’t a reality that tournament organizers (TOs) can easily change.

“Very very rarely do we hit more than breaking even,” said Joe Ciaramelli, better known as LI Joe, a cofounder and TO for East Coast Throwdown.

Founded in 2009, ECT has grown to become one of the East Coast’s biggest yearly majors. The first one took place in Morrisville, New Jersey, and featured, at most, 150 people,Ciaramelli estimates. Last year’s tournament broke a thousand.

On most years, after the dust has settled, the tournament has paid for itself, but it hasn’t generated much profit. Occasionally it loses an amount that is small enough to not raise any alarms for its founders.

“It hasn’t been rainbows and butterflies for every single ECT,” he said, but their fortunes have reversed as ECT turns the corner into the second decade of existence. “If it is losing money, I’m not crying over it.”

ECT is, relative to other fighting game tournaments, in a stable financial position. The margins are thin, but their doors are still open and the horizon is hopeful. It does not leave them in the position to put forward opulent cash prizes, however.

Like most fighting game tournaments, prize pools for each game at ECT are determined primarily by how many players register to compete. A portion of their registration fees  goes towards the overall prize pool, while the rest goes back to the organizers. How much players stand to win is usually directly proportional to the popularity of a given game.

The most significant influx of cash toward prize pools comes from publishers offering bonuses to support their games. Capcom added $50,000 to Street Fighter V’s pool at Evolution this year..

Dragon Ball FighterZ players benefited from Bandai Namco contributing $10,000 to the game’s pot. Bandai Namco has been more sheepish about supporting tournaments for Soulcalibur VI, which released just late last year. For the game’s debut at Evolution in the US, it received no bonus prize money from them, which is why Kayane and Saiyne, the players tied for 7th place, walked away from the hardest Soulcalibur VI tournament ever with $74.60 each.

Another way that the community has found to bolster their pots is through the use of Matcherino, a crowdfunding platform for esports events. Summer Jam 13, for instance, had its Soulcalibur VI pot increased by $1,301.50 thanks to a successful campaign.

But registration fees which contribute to the prize payout remains the most consistent, reliable, and proven method that organizers have to guarantee some money goes to their top competitors. This unfortunately ties the maximum available payout to a game’s popularity, and also means that the higher a game’s prize pool, the more shark-infested the waters must be.

Above: Dragon Ball Fighter Z.

Image Credit: Microsoft

Registration is also one of the best shots that TOs have to break even on the substantial costs of running an event. Most big fighting game tournaments take place in the ballrooms of hotels. For example, ECT this year will be taking place in one of the Hilton Stamford’s ballrooms. The venue has to be rented for at least three days. According to Joe, most hotels do scaled contracts where the ballroom price corresponds to how many rooms are booked with a group code for the tournament.

When you first step through the doors into a tournament on its first few days, the first thing that will stand out are the number of setups. Throngs of players fight it out in their pools at stations which usually consist of four consoles, four monitors, and four pairs of headphones each. Each console has every game at the tournament up to date, with all DLC characters purchased and unlocked. These stations dot the ballroom like freckles. Each station represents hundreds of dollars in games and equipment. This represents the second major cost TOs like Joe face.

Other costs include paying contractors and staff, though many tournaments also have volunteers doing things like running brackets. On top of that, some tournaments have a dedicated arcade section with a full suite of classic cabinets, 24-hour venue access, and more. Security is becoming an increasing focus, and with an all-night venue that necessitates even more staff and more security who have to be paid.

Some methods that events like ECT use to recoup costs include selling event-themed merchandise, selling floor space to indie developers to set up a booth, and of course, by courting sponsors.

The great divide

Sponsors can be a tricky subject, though. Friction has long simmered between the FGC and the wider esports community. Many of the folks who self-identify as members of the FGC are proud — proud of their abilities, proud of their local scenes, proud of tournaments they run or volunteer at, proud of their achievements, and proud of the grassroots vibe that is ubiquitous at any tournament, local or major. In this narrative, they are the scrappy under dogs; they are punk rock, and “esports” is ‘the man.’ Nobody yearns to sell out to the man. In this case, their identity was constructed around being grassroots, and they feared that mainstream sponsors and attention would wash over them like the tide over a sand castle.

The contentious history between the FGC and esports is a deep well for another time, but it has led to a sort of slow and cautious acceptance of attention from nonendemic sponsors at the price of sanding down some rough edges, and a lot of soul searching as to what compromises they can make together to make things more sustainable.

“Players understand it now. It was a bit more rowdy back in the day,” Joe said. “I could tell you stories where guys were rolling dice right next to where people were playing matches,” He added while admitting he was right there with them from time to time. “In order to have mainstream appeal you’ve gotta clean up your act a little bit.”

Like others competing in instead of running tournaments, Joe has not spent a decade running ECT expecting to suddenly strike it rich. “Being a co-owner of a fairly successful Northeast tournament, that’s worth the price for me.”

That is the refrain you will hear over and over again in the fighting game community. The money isn’t there, but that isn’t why anybody competes in fighting games. The downside to this passion-first approach is that money is still a material reality that can be a serious impediment to running tournaments and traveling to compete in them. That’s where the “C” in FGC comes in.

Having each others’ backs

Dawn “Yohosie” Hosie is a former pro-Dragon Ball FighterZ player and a well-known personality in fighting games. She grew up in a lower-middle class family, and her personal finances took a huge blow when she started college.

She once took second place at a tournament. The margins between first and second place were so thin, but enough that she barely couldn’t afford her electrical bill that month without also selling her camera. She used to share hotel rooms with over a dozen people and would sometimes bring her rice cooker and soy sauce to events so she could eat for the weekend for less than two dollars.

“Sometimes you eat rice. Sometimes you say, screw it, I’m going to a taco bus and spending $7 and I’ll deal with it later,” she said. “The FGC is traditionally broke. We stay broke, and we take care of those without the means to excel.”

That can mean buying someone McDonald’s when they wouldn’t be able to afford to eat otherwise, or it can mean giving someone a ride. Yohosie said that that is one of the best things one can do for other players in their local scenes.

Above: SonicFox celebrates victory after winning Evo for MK11.

Image Credit: David O'Keefe

Making money in fighting games — whether as a player or as a TOs — is a challenge. Making a living off of them is a dream that comes true only for a very rare few. The prize pools are still too small, the mainstream spotlight still too dim, and the teams that could prop more players up often keep fighting games at arm’s length.

That has not stopped those with the will to keep testing themselves and the means or community support from showing up. It hasn’t stopped them since Evo was Battle By The Bay being run out of the crowded Southern Hills Golfland arcade instead of the Mandalay Bay Event Center arena.

The scene has grown, receded, and grown again. Change has crept in slowly from the corners. Through it all, the FGC has stayed broke, but never lacked for passion.

“It’s not something you do for financial gain, it’s something you do because you love the grind,” Yohosie said.

The word poverty gets used a lot in fighting game circles. It can refer to games that are at the bottom of the barrel quality-wise. It can refer to the poor state of a tournament, such as when a Melty Blood top 3 was played in the middle of a parking lot. It can also be used more generally to refer to the status of the FGC and how very few people are capable of parlaying their passion into something profitable. For as long as there have been arcade cabinets there has been a competitive drive in the FGC, but after all these years this concept of poverty is still ingrained in the soul of the fighting game community.