And salaries are growing in North America. The average for a player in a team’s starting five has climbed to $460,000 from $300,000 since 2018, Mr. Greeley said. The highest-paid players in the United States, Mr. Wolf said, might make up to $500,000 more than their elite counterparts in a country like South Korea.
Many of the League Championship Series’ 10 teams are backed by billionaires who also own traditional U.S. sports teams. But the sport has not yet become a cash cow. To get in on League of Legends, teams had to pay Riot $10 million to $13 million.
Riot declined to say how much it made from League of Legends, and analysts do not think it is profiting directly from e-sports. But SuperData, a research company, estimated that the game itself brought in more than $1.8 billion in revenue last year.
Just a few blocks from Riot’s headquarters in western Los Angeles — where matches are normally played — is Sawtelle Boulevard, where e-sports stars frequent ramen restaurants and boba shops. Korean transplants often spend their weekends in Koreatown, where they can find food that reminds them of home, said Genie Doi, an e-sports immigration lawyer.
The work-life balance in the United States is another draw for players who are weary of putting in 18-hour practice days and even developing wrist injuries, said Kang Jun-hyeok, a South Korean-born League of Legends player who has been Team Liquid’s coach and general manager. Though South Korea and China have made strides in recent years, he said, the culture is that of “working hard, grinding until you collapse,” Mr. Kang, 31, said.
North American teams pitch these benefits to prospective players as they engage in a delicate courtship to woo the best free agents before other teams do. Once a player decides to sign a contract, Ms. Doi helps the team apply for a visa, which she said was usually granted despite the unusual profession.