At one time, the colossal size of some of the biggest eSports prize pools was a major talking point and upheld by the industry. Despite the tournament or its base game not being quite as popular as others, The International continued to smash records. In 2021, it continued the growth established in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 to eclipse the former ceiling of $34 million to break into the $40 million zone.

However, in 2023, we saw distinctly low prize pools for two of the most important eSports tournaments of the year. Both The International and the LoL Worlds commenced with notably small prize pools. Of course, they were still in the millions of dollars, but pale in comparison to the pools of years past. Given how well-publicized these figures once were, it’s worth wondering if such a decline actually impacted the success of the events.

Prize pools running a bit shallow of late

Riot Games has never really gone big on its prize pool for what is its biggest game’s most important event – especially when compared to what Valve does for The International. Still, the 2023 edition of Worlds only offered a $2.225 million prize pool, which is on par with the 2022 and 2019 editions, but a far cry from 2018’s $6.45 million prize pool.

The prize pool can still be seen as worthy of the huge event, though, predominantly because the net proceeds from pass bundles, Renekton, and team icons go to the teams, which pads even the winner’s $445,000 prize significantly. Professional players on the Riot Games circuit also tend to get a salary for their performances, which lessens the need for an even heftier prize pool.

It’s a different matter entirely for The International. Last year saw the prize pool hit a historically low level that hinged on a change of funding method. It used to be fuelled by the Battle Pass, but is now funded by The Compendium, which offers players comparatively very little value. It ended up sinking the tournament’s pool from $18.9 million in 2022 to just $3.4 million in 2023.

Are the prize pools that much of a draw?

Seeing prize pools as a big draw is only natural. For years, eSports tournament showrunners have lauded the size of their prize pools almost as a badge of validation and to draw in advertisers. As such, prize pool size has been associated with popularity and as a selling point. In other realms of online entertainment, this being the case may inadvertently result in the increased emphasis on the eSports prize pools.

After all, the headline jackpot slots sell themselves on prize pool sizes. The WowPot! suite of slots paid out £33 million in December 2023, Mega Moolah gave a player £11.5 million that same month, and both are based on a progressive mechanic – which increases the set of prizes with each bet placed. You could also look to classic lotteries. The famed El Gordo in Spain is very much a prize pool and it gave out €2.86 billion in December 2023.

Luckily for The International and Worlds, the prize pools aren’t the main attraction, regardless of how heavily advertised they were in previous years. The competition itself remains the draw for the all-important audience. For Worlds 2023, its total hours watched clocked in second only to Worlds 2021 at over 146 hours. Last year’s The International even managed to draw in more viewers than the year prior for just its Group Stage.

For audiences, the prize pool doesn’t appear to matter anywhere near as much as the event runners once seemed to believe, but where it may eventually hit is in the appeal of the events to prospective competitors. Still, it would take some time to see if that is the case.