How to Make Real Money Playing Video Games

It’s every little kid’s dream: getting someone to pay you to play the games you already enjoy. And like most dreams, the reality is somewhat underwhelming. A career as a game tester boils down to being an elaborate quality control worker. But there are other ways you can make extra money by gaming at home. Here are a few.

Trade In-Game Items for Cash

In just about any multiplayer online game, the best gear and weaponry is also the hardest to obtain. And while you might have the kind of disposable time it takes to sink 200 hours into dungeon crawling, raiding, or randomized loot drops, not everyone does. That’s why some of the rarest items in games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive sell for real money on third-party marketplaces. (They’re sold in-game for Steam Wallet credit, too, but those funds can’t be exchanged for real-world cash.)

CS:GO weapon skins can sell for hundreds—sometimes thousands—of real dollars.

CS:GO skins are probably the most lucrative item market in the world at the moment, at lest among games that explicitly allow and enable their in-game loot to be sold outside the game interface. DOTA 2, another game that relies on Steam’s item trading system, has a similar economy. Players can link their digital inventories with an online sale site like Loot Market, post a price for their item just like it was a real object, and get paid in real-world credit via PayPal, Bitcoin, Steam Wallet credit, or even real bank transfers. Everquest 2, a long-running MMO, allows buying and selling of in-game items for real money in select areas only, with a cut of each transaction going to the developer.

It’s important to note that while selling your Steam items through one of these third-party markets is permissible, it’s rather easy to get scammed, since Valve takes no responsibility at all for transactions that happen outside of its system. Most other online games explicitly ban any kind of trading for real-world money (though of course it happens on the sly more or less all the time—see below). The few mainstream games that have tried to have an easy in-and-out relationship with real money have had serious issues with their economies, like Diablo III’s now-shuttered Auction House. For this reason, it’s unwise to invest too much time and effort into a high-value item with an intent to sell, when an unscrupulous vendor or player could leave you high and dry. Do your research before trying to sell player-to-player or on a third-party market.

Trade In-Game Money for Real Money

Other games allow you to cut out the middleman and exchange the in-game currency directly for real money. Most MMOs and free-to-play games have some mechanism for exchanging real currency for digital coins or credit, but in the perennial life simulator Second Life, players can turn the “Linden Dollars” they’ve earned in-game back into real money via bank transfer or PayPal (at an exchange rate of more than 200 to one, if you’re wondering).

Entropia Universea space-themed MMO, allows players to buy in-game items for real money with an exchange rate of $1USD to 10PED. That currency can be transferred back out with a stable exchange rate at any time. The developer is so protective of its “Real Cash Economy” that some players use physical One Time PIN systems to log in.

Other, smaller games have attempted to create Real Cash Economy systems, with varying degrees of success—many quickly folded or never got out of development. It’s an interesting aspect of the evolving world of gaming, and one that can be expected to grow in unpredictable ways.

Create Items of Your Own

One of Second Life‘s most lucrative enterprises is creating digital furniture and other accessories to sell to other players. In a case of life imitating art, you can do the same thing for some of Valve’s most popular games. Most of the cosmetic items that appear in the shooter Team Fortress 2 and the multiplayer strategy game DOTA 2 were created by players, submitted to the developer, and then approved for sale. Each time other players spend real money on those items, the creator gets a small cut, like an author receiving royalties from a book sale.

Of course, there are significant barriers to entry here. Anyone submitting items for Valve needs to have some basic 3D modelling skills, and a bit of animation experience doesn’t hurt. Once you’ve created the item it needs to be voted on by the community and selected by Valve…so there’s definitely an element of skill and creativity here.

Valve briefly experimented with paid mods for popular games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. But due to the nebulous nature of attribution in the mod market, the scheme fell apart rather quickly. We may see something similar come back in the future.

Legitimate Alternatives…

Of course there are other methods for playing games and making money that don’t directly affect in-game economies. But these generally involve combining a passion for video games with real-world skills and talent. YouTube users who record their play sessions and upload it with commentary, collectively known as “Let’s Play” makers or just “Let’s Players,” can make enough money to be considered professional content producers. A variation of this technique is to stream video of your current play session live to an online audience with Twitch and similar services, earning money on advertising and donations.

Professional gamers, those who compete in nation- and world-wide tournaments, can make tens of thousands of dollars for winning a single event. The most popular games are the most lucrative, but game tournaments are now so diverse that most competitive genres are covered, including older real-time strategy games like Starcraft, newfangled MOBAs like League of Legends and DOTA, shooters like Counter-Strike and Overwatch, and traditional fighting games like Street Fighter and Super Smash Bros. (Starcraft has been jokingly called the “national sport of Korea” for the enormous pro circuit in South Korea alone.) The market is so big now that gaming leagues and teams are attracting corporate sponsors, just like real sports, allowing the most successful players to depend on competition as a full-time income.

If you’re not a particularly “epic” player and you lack the natural showmanship necessary to appeal to a live audience, there’s a huge and growing market for game journalism. Game journalists working for traditional publications and online blogs have to keep abreast of the latest releases and trends, but in a very real sense they get paid to play and review video games… so long as they’re also fairly decent writers as well. If current news coverage or long-form reviews don’t appeal to you, some writers make lucrative incomes creating game guides and selling them on digital book markets like Amazon Kindle.

Of course, all of these avenues for gaming wealth come with a big drawback: you need real talent and dedication to turn them into what’s basically a full-time job. Let’s Players and streamers have to create a stable and loyal following, pro gamers have to practice for hours a day to stay competitive, and game journalists often have to spend years working for practically nothing to build up a resume before they’re hired at a legitimate site or publisher. All of these careers are extremely competitive because, well, people like to play video games. While you work on becoming the next Twitch star or respected reviewer, remember the traditional comedian’s advice: don’t quit your day job.

…And Less Legitimate Options

Just because a game doesn’t have an official cash economy doesn’t mean that it has no economy at all. In pretty much every multiplayer game, there’s at least someone who’s willing to pay real money for in-game gold, gear, or even characters. There are entire sites setup to facilitate moving real money around between players who have in-game goods and other players who are willing to pay for them. Players have even been known to sell their Steam accounts, including access to all the games purchased within, for thousands of dollars.

The problem is that, with the exception of the games listed above, most multiplayer games list transactions outside of the game itself as a violation of its terms of service. Paying real money for those super-shiny pants in League of Legends or that fully-leveled character in World of Warcraft isn’t illegal—which is to say, there’s no way doing so can actually land either party in jail. But if the administrators of the game find out you’ve been “gold farming” or brokering high-value items for cash, they can boot both you and your customers out of the game for violating the terms of service.

This “grey market” fringe status tends to attract a lot of less salubrious elements to the out-of-game gold and item markets. Scams and fraud are rampant, even on sites that insist they’re completely safe. The takeaway here is that, unless you have that rare item or account worth thousands of real-world dollars, and you don’t mind risking it to turn a quick buck, trying to make real money off of markets that are against game rules isn’t a winning proposition in the long run. At the end of the day, it’s probably best to let games be what they are: fun.

Image Credit: CS:GO Stash, Loot Market, Entropia Universe blog, DreamHack/Flickr, PlayerAuctions

Michael Crider has been covering technology on the web since 2011. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order. He wrote a novel called Good Intentions: A Supervillain Story, and it's available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter if you want.