Just one year into its eventful life, Rocket League is staring down its first major live eSports event: The final weekend showdown of the Rocket League Championship Series. Three months of frantic online competition have led to this, with eight of the world’s best teams ready to throw down in three-on-three, four-wheeled soccer showdowns.
In case it’s not obvious, Rocket League isn’t quite like any other eSports offering. It’s cars playing soccer, first and foremost, but there’s also no build-up: It’s all action from start to finish as the vehicles zip around and soar through the air in the wild back-and-forth battles. It’s totally chaotic, yet helped by the fact that a playground-level knowledge of soccer can get anyone caught up enough to savor the excitement.
Rocket League’s competitive side is still young, but it’s growing — and the Live Final is its best chance to date to show the world why this is an eSport worth following. Before a winner is crowned, we spoke with people inside the thriving community and around the RLCS about how the game has grown and what’s ahead for its eSports future.
Psyonix’s game was an immediate sensation when it launched last July, thanks to strong word of mouth and free initial PlayStation 4 downloads via PlayStation Plus. With a large player base right out of the gate (and up to 19 million now), Rocket League’s fans cultivated a dedicated community that started filling in the eSports blank before Psyonix made its own plans official.
Rocket League Central was an early driving force, as the community fan site founded by CloudFuel put on streaming leagues and tournaments. Kais “Sadjunior” Zehri recalls playing in early tournaments “where there was no prize money and it was for fun.” Now he’s a member of the top-seeded North American RLCS team, Kings of Urban, and will bring home a share of the $55,000 total prize pool up for grabs this weekend.
According to Kevin “Findable Carpet” Brown, one of the RLCS broadcasters, the fans helped build excitement and enthusiasm around competitive Rocket League before Psyonix was ready to show its hand. “The community was doing fantastic — Rocket League Central was kicking ass,” he affirms, noting that one tournament pulled in upward of 12,000 viewers without advertising or official support.
Just a few minutes spent watching competitive Rocket League shows why it’s such a draw. You don’t need to know anything about the game itself to enjoy the action, and it’s so rooted in a real-life sport that the competition needs no context. Tune in at any point in a match and you’re likely to see plenty of high-flying antics, not to mention a startling level of precision from cars and trucks that can be flung through the air. There’s rarely a dull moment, and the pro players are incredible.
“It bridges that gap between the more casual viewer who just enjoys competition and watching excitement, and the hardcore eSports viewers that really like seeing the mechanical side of things and high-level play,” says Brown. “It bridges that gap really quickly. You look at League of Legends … you can’t casually watch League of Legends, and Dota 2 even more so.”
“For me, the most important thing about Rocket League is that it can have so many hype moments in a single series,” asserts Remco “remkoe” de Boer, a member of top-seeded European RLCS team, Northern Gaming (formerly We Dem Girlz). “Some teams will absolutely play out of their mind, creating clutch plays, making insane goals or [mounting] incredible comebacks. Rocket League can literally have people on the edge of their seat in an important game.”
Remkoe points to a game nine showdown between Crown & Jewels and FlipSid3 Tactics as the ultimate example of how intensely exciting Rocket League eSports can be. Not only did it come down to the final game of a best-of-nine series, but then a nearly buzzer-beating tie kicked the series into overtime, where unbelievable aerial teamwork from Crown & Jewels secured the victory. And this was for the fan-run RLC Pro League series that ended in March, before the RLCS started play, and it managed a $5,500 prize pool for the final.
Still, there was demand for a more official road ahead, which was something that only the game’s creators could provide. “The future of Rocket League eSports was unclear for a very long time, and Psyonix wasn’t openly talking about their plans,” adds de Boer. “All top teams at the time knew we needed Psyonix to try and create an actual eSports scene by investing in it.”
In early March, Psyonix did just that by announcing the Rocket League Championship Series in partnership with Twitch, with plans to hold the first official tournament with a total prize pool of $75,000 along the way. Later in the month, Psyonix also said that it would fund the Electronic Sports League, Rocket League Central, and the American Video Game League with more than $30,000 in prize money and scholarships to support a wider community beyond pro-level play
Justin Dellario, senior program manager for Twitch Esports, says the company’s RLCS partnership with Psyonix was designed to benefit all corners of the Rocket League competitive ecosystem and help grow it far and wide.
“We believe Rocket League has a promising future, so we entered a long-term partnership to create a sustainable ecosystem for Rocket League eSports,” he affirms. “Some companies try to force-feed eSports without properly nurturing all the supporting elements, and that leads to top-heavy structures which stagnate and die from within. We’re very grateful Psyonix had faith in our ability to work with them on something novel and exciting for Rocket League.”
As Dellario explains, one aspect of building from within the community was finding potential talent to help convey both the excitement and minutia of Rocket League, by elevating fan broadcasters to RLCS gigs rather than bringing over established casters from other games.
Kevin Brown is one of those examples: he had broadcasted tournaments and matches via his own Pulsar Premier league, and became known in the community because of that. He had no previous experience with other eSports broadcasting, but his passion and knowledge came through and he was offered an on-camera job calling RLCS games. Brown recalls stepping onstage for the first time: “When I first saw that studio, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I couldn’t have been happier for Rocket League as a whole.”
Across nine weekend showdowns, the top North American and European teams gave their all and delivered several fantastic series, ending with the wild online finals last month. Brown suggests the peak viewership was around 28,000 viewers during one broadcast, while Dellario says generally that “viewership has exceeded our already optimistic growth projections.”
Dellario adds that the personal Rocket League streams of players and broadcasters alike are also on the rise — all of which benefits Twitch, of course. But it also benefits Rocket League and the community, and helps turn casual viewers into invested fans. Remkoe says he’s seen a significant increase in discussion around the series and game, whether on Reddit, Twitch or elsewhere, and King of Urban’s Jayson “Fireburner” Nunez claims the RLCS has “introduced us to a lot of new viewers that are just getting into the game and the pro scene.”
Building the future
It all culminates this weekend at the Avalon Hollywood, as the four best teams each from North America and Europe descend upon Los Angeles for the double-elimination championship across Saturday and Sunday. Tickets to the live event are sold out, and Brown says that a lot of the key community members who helped drive initial excitement in competitive Rocket League are flying out to see what all of that word of mouth ultimately led to.
He adds that the “raw excitement is going to be insane,” and believes the event will be a major milestone for Rocket League eSports on the whole. “As things grow, you have steps that legitimize you to a wider audience,” he says. “If we can put on a fantastic live event, I think that’s going to be one more step of legitimacy for us.”
And it’s just the start for the Rocket League Championship Series. Psyonix has confirmed plans to introduce unlockable crates with cosmetic items to Rocket League, which will help raise money for future eSports events and prize pools, while Dellario says that several seasons of the RLCS are planned across multiple years.
Furthermore, Twitch and Psyonix will continue to develop and fund community-building endeavors to build the wider cause of Rocket League eSports. It’s all part of a plan to offer “a clear path to professional play for all levels of player, an increase in the number of competitions available to all players, and an environment where players and content creators can make a sustainable living,” claims Dellario.
And for the average viewer who simply wants to watch and see amazing players do amazing things, the Championship Series certainly aims to deliver on that front, too. “There’s a massive Rocket League community, and most of them have yet to discover Rocket League eSports,” he says. “It’s a huge opportunity to evangelize competitive play to an interested audience.”