Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Episode VII - How to Make Money at Chess and Starcraft 2 (When you are not Kasparov or MarineKingPrime)

This article is not necessarily a comprehensive treatment of the topic. It is merely a collection of thoughts and opinions of mine on the economic realities behind coaching. I spoke to a lot of people in the SC2 and chess communities for this article, but all errors and omissions are my own.

This article is a continuation of a piece I wrote about prize money at the top level in chess and SC2. If you missed it, you can find it here:

The main point of the article was that unlike in other sports like soccer, basketball or golf, in Chess and Starcraft only a few players at the very top make good moneyIn this article I'm arguing that for SC2 and chess players who aren't quite at that level, coaching is probably the only way to make a steady income.

Synopsis of this article:
1. It is very hard to make money at SC2 or chess if you are not part of the global elite
2. Coaching is a much better way for talented players to make a stable income
3. Good players don't necessarily make good coaches.

Before I discuss the coaching business, I first want to talk about the kind of money that I've seen semi-professional SC2 players make.

The Texas Holdem Massacre: In recent years several second-rate grandmasters have given up chess in order to pursue a career in professional poker, where with the skill set of a chess grandmaster it is much easier to make good money compared to being a "mediocre" grandmaster on the chess circuit. And yes, the 1974 original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is my favorite horror movie ("Who will survive? And what will be left of them?")
In 2011 and early 2012 I was part of the management of Team Revoki, which in its prime was one of the best semi-professional teams in North America. Even though we had some very promising talents on the team, there hasn't been a single player from that time who has succeeded in become a full-time SC2 professional. The only possible exception is Chris "RevIllusion" Lee


But even he doesn't seem to be good enough (yet?!) to establish himself as a top SC2 player based on the SC2 earnings I posted in the previous article. Though of course I wish him the best of luck.
My time on Team Revoki taught me a lot about the semi-professional SC2 scene, and the business side of e-Sports
But despite the undeniable skill we had on the team there was nobody who made even remotely enough money to be considered "professional". The situation of players on the teams Revoki was competing with was very similar.

For a Top 8 Master league players and GMs we had on the team, other than coaching there were the following ways to make money:
1. Sponsorships and Salaries: Revoki and rivalling teams could only offer very limited amounts to their players. Personally I was also of the opinion that whatever resources we did have should be spend on the team as a whole (e.g. pay for the website, team-internal KotH's etc.) rather than be used to pay "salaries".
2. Prize Money: From time to time our players won money at LANs similar to the prize Col.Firezerg is collecting in the picture below. Several GMs I spoke with lamented the fact that the collapse of the Playhem Daily series meant a serious blow to their potential to regularly win money and get their name out to get invited to better teams.
3. Show Matches: We occasionally hosted show matches between our leading players and somewhat more known SC2 "celebrities". For example we had one show match between RevJsung and ESC.Goody. It was a Bo7 for a $100 prize. To be totally honest I was a little surprised and disappointed that even a player like Goody had to agree to a show match like this. Considering the amount of time a B07 takes, $100 is not very much reward.
4. Streaming: Initially some of our players thought that the revenue from their twitch.tv streams could potentially amount to something substantial. However, it has since become clear that this business model does not work for the players, and some streaming platforms (e.g. Owned3d) have already gone under. On Twitch and other platforms a streamer needs at least several thousands of viewers before the incomes becomes significant. This is a lot more than the average "semi-professional" player can attract.
SC2 GM Col.Firezerg (right) wins $160 at a university LAN 
Even a player like Pyre who's clearly one or two levels above the talent we had on Team Revoki "only" managed to make about $1,000 in his SC2 career so far. I think that's a great achievement, but it also shows how difficult it is to make money even as a very strong GM if you are not part of one of the top teams like EG.

For several years, my former clan mate HyDra[VcK] was a leading player in the Fastest Map Possible (FMP) community in North America in the original Starcraft / Brood War.  
Though it has to be said that the situation in the SC2 amateur community is already a lot better compared to the old original SC / Broodwar days. To put this into perspective, I asked my old clan mate HyDra[VcK] about the money he made in his "Fastest Map Possible" (FMP) career. His earnings were about $600, exclusively prize money, consisting of individual prizes of mainly $50-$100. Fortunately (?!) not nearly enough to ever make him consider going pro.

I also spoke with Gerome[VcK], another old clan mate of mine. He was also part of the FMP community and occasionally won smaller amounts at local high school LANs (you may remember that back in the day "LAN" actually meant "local"), typically in 2v2 tournaments. Commenting on his limited success, he said "when you're in high school, it's pretty cool to win any kind of money, but my advice for people considering a professional SC2 career would be 'Don't quit your day job!'" I couldn't agree more.
Russian-German Grandmaster Arthur Jussupow (left), shown here in conversation with Garry Kasparov in Zurich 2009, is one of the world's foremost chess coaches and author of several excellent books on training for competitive chess players. On his website www.jussupow.de he offers online lessons for only 60 Euros/hour. 
So. Now that we have firmly established that there is no real money in SC2 unless you are part of the global elite. How do you actually make money off your SC2 or chess skills? In my opinion the only people who manage to do that are (good) coaches.

I also want to say that I firmly believe in the value of good coaching. In both chess and SC2 I have personally reached levels that I could have never achieved without the help of good coaches. I no longer play SC2, but I will almost certainly at some point hire a chess coach again to help me improve my game so that at some point I might actually break the 2300 ELO barrier, which is my long-term goal in chess.

Who are the people willing to pay for lessons? For this article I spoke to a number of well-known SC2 GMs and coaches, and they all confirmed that their typical clients are slightly older and economically more stable than the average SC2 player. Players who pay for lessons are typically in the late 20s/early 30s, have decent jobs, and not the time/desire to acquire skill through grinding out ladder games.

In chess, the situation is a bit different. First of all, compared to the rather APM-heavy SC2, chess is a much more knowledge based game. This means that coaching in chess makes even more sense than it does in SC2 because there are many concepts that will be very hard for a beginner to understand without external help from either a coach or a book or other resources. Many strategic and positional ideas for example, just as endgame technique or the mechanics of calculating variations a player can't simply learn by playing games.
Modern technology offers completely new ways of teaching chess in a class room setting. Whether all these new gimmicks really make sense is something I'll look at in a future article. But the short answer is "No!"
Coaching as a Business:
Even if they aren't famous grandmasters, qualified coaches make anywhere between $25 - $50 / hour. Let's assume an average rate of $30/hour and 4 hours of coaching 5 days a week. That translates into a weekly income of $600. It does take some serious effort and commitment to build a reputation strong enough to attract this many students, but talented coaches can do so without too much difficulty.

Compared to that, the number of people who make $600/week through playing chess or SC2 is very small. And really good coaches make significantly more than $600/week.

In fact a 20 hour coaching commitment per week leaves enough room for other professional activities such as college or a (not too demanding) day job.

In my case for example I could make that kind of money if I devoted enough time to coaching chess. I'm not doing it because my full time job keeps me busy enough (and is more lucrative) but if that was not an option I would seriously think about coaching full time. Not only because of the money, but arguably even more so because by coaching talented players, I as a coach go through a lot of teaching materials that benefit me as a player, too.
However, when it comes to my hobbies, financial considerations are secondary. I play chess and played SC2 primarily because it's a lot of fun.

Magnus Carlsen's very first coach said that he never learned as much about chess as he did in the year he was teaching Carlsen. 
On Gosucoaching.com, Team EG's Idra offers lessons for $300/hour. Obviously Idra is a good player, but I doubt that he is good enough a coach to be worth so much money.
However, the fact that coaching is the only way for many talented players to make some money does not mean that every player is equally qualified for coaching. Strong players don't necessarily make good coaches, and many excellent coaches have seen only very limited success as players. The problem with coaches like Idra is that the student ends up paying a lot of money for the "celebrity" status of the coach, but does not get very much coaching expertise in return.

A great example of a good SC2 coach is Zanderfever, who played an important role in my eventual promotion to diamond league. Though at the time he was "only" a top 25 Master League protoss (I was playing terran). I highly recommend you check out his website:

In the next article on coaching I'll be talking about how to identify a good coach.

To be continued...


  1. IdrA has stated before that his $300/hr price isn't worth it, but that's what it will cost for him to take time out of his day and away from practicing to coach somebody.

    1. Thanks for your comment. This is really interesting, when did Idra say this? Can you send me the link? I'll definitely address this in my next article!

    2. I remember he said it while he was streaming. I tried looking to see if anyone grabbed a video, but couldn't find anything. I did find a few more people saying something similar about his pricing when it was $150/hr. http://www.teamliquid.net/forum/viewmessage.php?topic_id=198611

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