Strange esports games that made gamers rich

Turbo Racing League
(Image credit: Turbo Racing League)

Technically, any game can be an esport. With a dash of multiplayer, some spectators watching players duke it out, and a cash prize for the winner, you’ve got yourself an esport (a Reddit user even ran a Sims 3 tournament). That said, when you think about the notable esports games that separate the professional players with careers to the amateur competitors, the usual suspects are often Dota 2, Fortnite and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

We’ve all heard about 16-year-old Kyle Giersdorf (a.k.a. Bugha) who won a whopping $3 million during the 2019 Fortnite World Cup, and there’s even Valve’s feature-length documentary Free To Play, which follows three professional Dota 2 gamers trying to nab the $1 million grand prize at The International (it’s a brilliant free watch on YouTube, if you haven’t already). In 2019, the tournament’s prize pool was a freaky $34 million with the winning team, OG, splitting an envious $15 million between five members.

The esports industry is big money, but the competitive gaming scene can sometimes head into strange territory — as in DreamWorks’ Turbo Racing League type of strange. Sometimes, unexpected titles gain a lot of attention, and that attention brings the funds.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from exploring the quirkiest games players have made a substantial bit of dough on, it’s to spend a few more hours perfecting my skills at developer High Horse Entertainment’s Disc Jam and keep my hopes high that there will be a proper esport for it one day. If you’re looking for a place to start gaming to get your esports career on the road,  try getting good at one of the best PC games today.

Catherine: A puzzle game at EVO? 

You know the one — developer Atlus’ hybrid puzzle platformer and dating sim about protagonist Vincent who must climb his way out of deadly nightmares with other sheep, all while dealing with dating multiple women. It’s a bizarre concept many gamers loved, but it gets even more bizarre with its multiplayer.

Two players were pitted against each other in a race to the top of the game’s puzzle tower, which is made up of blocks. The gameplay is simple: shift enough blocks the right way and the player wins. But as gamers began to see, there was a lot more skill involved, whether it be moving blocks out of reach of the competition, blocking them so they can’t climb resulting in them falling to their death, or letting blocks fall on them. 

In some form, it became an intense fighting game, which is how it ended up being an event esport at EVO 2015 in the US as part of the AnimEVO side games. It’s all thanks to two gamers, David “DacidBro” Browlett and Sean “Coopa” Huang, playing it as a joke of sorts at first. They ended up duking it out for 7 hours, then went to show off their high-level gameplay at a tournament that gained thousands of views on Twitch. There was even a group in Australia that started competing. Check out Akshon Esports on YouTube for the full scoop.

While the total earnings for pro Catherine players at esport tournaments are a few digits short to make a career out of it, the reward pool isn’t anything to sneeze at either. The most any tournament has dished out is $340, and it wasn’t even at AnimEVO. In fact, it was at Genesis 4, another fighting game tournament, with the winner being a player known as Shas.

Shas is currently the top earner, with a total of $522 under his belt, who also won the AnimEVO 2019 tournament with a prize pool of $180. Sure, compared to many other esports games, Catherine looks more like a warm-up to the big leagues, but it now has its very own tournament known as Climb Cancel. It takes only one sheep to get the flock to follow, so we may have yet to see Catherine’s rise to esport fame. 

Painkiller: An old-school origin story 

Ever heard of Johnathan Wendall? Fans will also know him by his gamer tag, Fatal1ty, but if you don’t, just know he’s a very well-established professional esports player, presenter and entrepreneur. Well, he can give thanks to the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) World Tour in 2005 for his winnings after which he established the gaming hardware brand Fatal1ty Inc with the amount he earned.

He’s known to be one of the first pro players, and a lot of that fame stems from his one-vs-one win against Sander “VoO” Kaasjager at the CPL World Tour Finals in New York, when he nabbed a grand prize of $150,000 and around $240,000 throughout the world tour.

The game he won it in? Painkiller, a fast-paced first-person shooter in the same vein as Quake Champions or the very popular (at the time), Quake Arena III. It’s not exactly the iconic title one would think a famed pro gamer would make his most earnings ever on. In fact, it caused quite the controversy when it was shown to be the official CPL World Tour game because it wasn’t nearly as popular as Quake Arena III, Unreal Tournament 2004 or Counter-Strike. Either way, Fatal1ty won, and he gained a big reputation (and money) from winning.

Despite its plentiful expansion packs, the last utterance of Painkiller was back in 2012 with its sequel, Painkiller: Hell & Damnation, which wasn’t very well received. However, the original Painkiller was developed by Polish game studio People Can Fly, and that name will ring a bell if you’re a fan of Square Enix’s third-person looter shooter Outriders. It might be worth getting good at that...

 TEPPEN: The true ultimate card game  

Forget Yu-Gi-Oh! Forget Hearthstone. TEPPEN is the ultimate card battle game, especially when there’s $274,000 on the line for the sole winner. Hearthstone esport tournaments like BlizzCon 2016 may boast a $1 million prize pool, but the highest amount a winner can get is only $250,000. TEPPEN is king. 

(Image credit: GungHo Online Entertainment)

Developed by GungHo Online Entertainment and Capcom, it features a mishmash of Capcom’s greatest titles as a digital collectible card game, featuring characters from Resident Evil, Mega Man, Monster Hunter, Okami, Devil May Cry and Street Fighter as cards. It’s a one-vs-one card game to the figurative death, with players strategically building their own decks to come out on top.

That’s exactly what the winner of the TEPPEN World Championship 2019 did. Taiwanese player Huai-Yong “Last Guardian” Wu walked away with ¥50,000,000 in Tokyo after going up against 12 other candidates from the U.K., U.S., Italy and Japan. It’s a free-to-play card game available on the App Store and Google Play Store, too, meaning Wu made more than a quarter of a million dollars by playing a card game on his smartphone.

Due to COVID-19, the 2020 world championship was held online, with a prize pot of ¥5,000,000 (around $46,000). That’s not as much, but who would say no to that? Move aside, Yugi, there’s some TEPPEN to play. 

Turbo Racing League: A $1 million snail race 

Whenever a kid is playing a free-to-play mobile game for hours on end that’s meant to be a simple tie-in to a DreamWorks movie, you should probably just leave them at it.

Out of all the DreamWorks movies, from How To Train Your Dragon to Kung Fu Panda, it was none other than Turbo, a movie about superfast snails, that turned into an esports game. Turbo Racing League for Android and iOS had an appropriately named $1,000,000 “Shell-Out Contest” organized by Verizon. Yes, 1 million big ones for a game you would otherwise think is like the other thousands of mobile racing apps out there.

The 19-year-old who won the tournament, Brian Dragotto, was playing it on the side when looking for a summer job in 2013, and was more a fan of World of Warcraft than racing games. He used no pro gaming accessories, no high-end smartphones — just a simple Samsung J3 (from what we can see). With that, he won a whopping $290,000. At the time, his mother even thought it was a scam. That must have been a happy day when the check came in. 

 Just because other competitors didn’t come first, doesn’t mean they didn’t get a considerable sum of money. Second place got $100,000, third nabbed $40,000 and even those who came in 7th and 8th got $10,000 each. Sadly, there hasn’t been a Turbo Racing League tournament since, so Dragotto hasn’t had the chance to prove himself as the reigning champion.

The moral of the story: keep your eye out on the Google Play Store the next time DreamWorks Animation releases a movie, and start playing games instead of looking for a summer job. 

 Diabotical: The up-and-coming

Not much can be said about GD Studio’s fast-paced arena shooter Diabotical, only that it looks identical to Quake III Arena or Unreal Tournament just with diabolical robots. It was officially released after a closed beta in September 2020 and has $250,000 set aside for esports in its first year. 

(Image credit: Epic Games)

It seems the developers are keeping up their end of the bargain as February 2021 already saw the Factory Diabotical Duel Masters with a $10,000 prize pool, along with other small tournaments. The game only just took off, so is there time for newcomers to join in to get a chance to win upcoming Diabotical esport tournaments? Yes, there is. Like many of the other aforementioned games here, Diabotical isn’t exactly the go-to when it comes to the esports scene.

However, there seems to be $250,000 to be gained from getting good at blasting robots, so… take a shot at it. It’s free-to-play and available through the Epic Game Store.

Darragh Murphy

Darragh Murphy is fascinated by all things bizarre, which usually leads to assorted coverage varying from washing machines designed for AirPods to the mischievous world of cyberattacks. Whether it's connecting Scar from The Lion King to two-factor authentication or turning his love for gadgets into a fabricated rap battle from 8 Mile, he believes there’s always a quirky spin to be made. With a Master’s degree in Magazine Journalism from The University of Sheffield, along with short stints at Kerrang! and Exposed Magazine, Darragh started his career writing about the tech industry at Time Out Dubai and ShortList Dubai, covering everything from the latest iPhone models and Huawei laptops to massive Esports events in the Middle East. Now, he can be found proudly diving into gaming, gadgets, and letting readers know the joys of docking stations for Laptop Mag.