The state of professional Rocket League: inside the game’s surging esports scene

The state of professional Rocket League: inside the game’s surging esports scene
Andrew Hayward

There's nothing quite like Rocket League in competitive gaming today. Sure, FIFA has its pro players, but that's a serious, by-the-numbers simulation. Competitive Rocket League, on the other hand, challenges coordinated teams of three to blisteringly fast, acrobatic, aerial football battles in series of swift five-minute games. And they're driving cars.

Without an obvious analogue in esports, Rocket League has blazed its own path via the Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS), which Twitch runs in partnership with developer Psyonix. Now in its fourth season, the RLCS saw large gains in viewership earlier this year, and has built upon those increases with deeper in-game ties.

Now the league has nearly doubled in size, more major organizations are fielding teams, and mainstream media partners like NBC and ESPN have put on their own tournaments this summer during a busy RLCS offseason.

With Rocket League's competitive star seemingly on the rise, here's a look at how the game's esports scene has grown to date, where the money and business interest is coming from, and what's next.

Rise of the RLCS

The Rocket League Championship Series debuted in April 2016, eight months after the game released on PlayStation 4 and PC, in response to strong interest in community-run tournaments and livestreaming. Some notable teams had already formed in the scene before the RLCS came along, but Psyonix and Twitch legitimized the early fan-driven efforts by offering up a total prize pool of $75,000.

When the live finals took place in Hollywood, California that August, North American team iBUYPOWER Cosmic towered over European squad FlipSid3 Tactics to secure the victory. Season two was quickly announced with a $125,000 prize pool and got underway in September, ultimately finishing up in December with FlipSid3 Tactics on top. According to Robin Allemand, Rocket League Esports Program Manager at Twitch, streaming viewership remained pretty static between seasons.

But that changed with season three. With a lengthier offseason than before, the RLCS returned in March 2017 with some big tweaks: a large leap in total prize pool, up to $300,000, plus the addition of a third competitive region with Oceania. And Psyonix introduced something new on its end of the equation: an in-game "Live Now" button for the RLCS, which activates on the main menu and allows players to pull up the Twitch stream with the tap of a button.

Between building interest and that deeper in-game link, viewership surged. Allemand says they saw a 285% increase in minutes watched over the previous season, and more than double the peak viewership, with June's World Championship in Los Angeles netting 200,000 concurrent viewers. "Rocket League is in a game category of its own in many ways, so it is difficult and unfair to compare the RLCS to other official leagues," explains Allemand. "However, to hit a peak 200k CCU in just its second year of existence is remarkable."

Bigger and better?

With that kind of momentum behind it, the RLCS has grown dramatically for its fourth season, which is currently underway and finishes up its regular-season league play cycle this weekend. This season saw the introduction of the Rocket League Rival Series (RLRS), a lower-tier division that sits below the standard RLCS and allows the eight next-best teams in both North America and Europe to compete each and every week.

The RLCS itself has a larger $350,000 pool for the season, while the Rival Series offers up another $50,000 for teams. At the end of the season, the two lowest RLCS teams and the two best Rival Series squads from each region will compete in a promotion/relegation tournament, giving the RLRS teams a chance to vault up into the RLCS for the following season.

Along with those changes, the expanded structure provides more stability for teams. The top six RLCS teams in each region will retain their spots for the following season, along with whichever teams come out of the promotion/relegation tournament. Meanwhile, the top four Rival Series teams (following that tournament) hold onto their own spots, leaving just a few new spots up for grab during the next qualifier.

With those changes, we've seen organizations large and small pour into pro Rocket League over the last few months. Team EnVyUs made the biggest splash of the offseason by acquiring Europe's season three RLCS champions from Northern Gaming, but since then, other large organizations like Cloud9 and Team Secret have come into the fold, along with several smaller ones. Meanwhile, notable organizations like G2 Esports and NRG have maintained teams in the competitive scene across multiple seasons now.

"We attribute the [organizational] interest in Rocket League to several factors: the first being the continued popularity of the game and the high-level of engagement of our esports programs over the years," explains Josh Watson, Esports Operations Manager for Psyonix. "We also believe that the interest from traditional media is very appealing to esports organizations that have established a following primarily in the digital space. Lastly, with many of the changes to the Rocket League Championship Series this season focused on players and team stability, organizations can feel more secure in acquiring players in our competitive ecosystem."

With league play about to wrap up and the World Championship on the horizon for November (dates and location TBA), season four has "set multiple viewership records already," asserts Allemand, "and we look forward to continuing upward growth into 2018."

Constant competition

While the RLCS had most of this past summer off—aside from some one-off Summer Series invitational online tournaments—pro players hardly had time for vacation. That's because the wider Rocket League competitive ecosystem began to flourish outside of the RLCS, with multiple large events filling the months before the main event returned. And some of those events brought large mainstream partners into the fold.

The largest of the bunch was the NBC Universal Open, a new tournament built around the game's 2v2 format, which is typically not used in competitive play. Along with a $100,000 prize pool for the event, a large part of the allure for Psyonix, players, and teams alike was the use of NBC's wide media ecosystem. Regional tournaments would film at and air on NBC's regional cable affiliate channels in the United States, while part of the finals would air live on NBC Sports' flagship NBCSN channel. Meanwhile, everything would stream via NBC platforms (and Twitch, too), while international viewers could also watch via affiliated networks. NBC partnered with tournament platform FACEIT for the Universal Open.

"[Rocket League's] accessibility from a spectator standpoint was one of the factors that we took into account for sure," said Michele Attisani, co-founder and chief business officer of FACEIT, back in June. "Take that, the size and engagement of the community and the very real opportunity we have here to create something new and unique, and those are the elements that pushed us into working with NBC and Rocket League."

It was a significant opportunity for everyone invested in the pro Rocket League ecosystem to gain some exposure outside of the gaming sphere, and while some top players griped about the uncommon 2v2 format, most of the major teams participated. Ultimately, EU team Gale Force Esports took the championship in late August. NBC has committed to the Universal Open format, which will return in 2018, although Rocket League's return hasn't yet been confirmed.

Also this summer was July's FACEIT X Games Rocket League Invitational, a $75,000 tournament held on the grounds of ESPN's long-running extreme sports event in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Eight of the world's top teams were flown in for three days of action, which was live-streamed via the sports giant's ESPN3 platform. Bookending the X Games on either side were a pair of $50,000 DreamHack tournaments, as well, at DreamHack Summer in Sweden in June and DreamHack Atlanta in July.

Additionally, the Gfinity Elite Series brought Rocket League into the fold alongside Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Street Fighter V this summer, with a combined £225,000 prize pool across the games. It seemed to gain momentum as the season went on, as Gfinity eventually signed deals with BBC Three and BT Sport to air the competition. Season two kicks off this weekend with the same three games on tap, albeit with Rocket League shifting its play schedule to better accommodate Europe's RLCS competition window.

Expanding the reach

With new mainstream partners in play, there's seemingly more money than ever flowing into the Rocket League competitive ecosystem. And the RLCS in particular has snared primarily non-gaming-industry sponsors, and has kept them around. Allemand says their "non-endemic sponsors have been excellent partners during the RLCS," with car oil brand Mobil 1 back for its third season, and deodorant company Old Spice and iced tea brand Brisk both in their second seasons. Nissin Cup Noodles just joined as a sponsor for season four, while the season three World Championship heavily featured the film Transformers: The Last Knight.

The pro scene also yields money directly from Rocket League players, thanks to the crates and keys system introduced in September 2016. Players randomly earn crates by playing the game online, which they can unlock by purchasing premium keys—and doing so unlocks special cars, skins, and other flashy in-game perks. Some of that money helps fuel the pro ecosystem.

"It not only goes toward prize pools for the various tournaments but it also helps fund the tournaments themselves," explains Watson, "and has allowed us to have a bigger presence at various festivals and conventions this year."

While pro players understandably want more of that money to flow into high-level prize pools, Psyonix seems more committed to building out a wide-ranging competitive ecosystem that can serve players at different skill levels, and help guide them into the upper ranks.

Earlier this year, Psyonix announced a $2.5 million investment in the competitive scene for 2017, which includes $1 million for prize pools, as well as support and funding for some community-run tournaments. For example, community group Pro Rivalry League will put on a Rival Week II event next week, in which 10 top pro teams vie for $5,000 in total prizes—and Psyonix is funding the purse.

Psyonix's investment in Rocket League esports also encompasses a collegiate push for student teams. Following a short Summer Series, the full-length Collegiate Rocket League fall season is currently underway in partnership with Tespa, with $50,000 in scholarship prizing available to teams. Psyonix will also support the tournament later this season by streaming competition and promoting it through official channels, including with the in-game Live Now button.

What's next

Rocket League's esports scene has grown steadily alongside that of the actual game, which continues to reach more and more players. Now two years after release, the game boasts more than 35 million players to date across the PC, PS4, and Xbox One editions, with a Nintendo Switch version out later this year. Psyonix has also helped to encourage esports interest by offering in-game Fan Rewards via RLCS streams. Paired with the Live Now button, it seems to have really juiced viewership from players who might not otherwise pay attention to esports.

"[They] have been great incentives for new viewers to jump into Rocket League esports," says Watson. "These features have had significant effects on the growth of our esports programs across the board. We've seen continued growth and engagement since we introduced these features, and in-game support for esports and our competitive community is something we plan to continue to support."

Beyond the Nintendo Switch, Psyonix's next target is China. A free-to-play PC edition of Rocket League is being developed with Chinese gaming giant Tencent, and it promises to maintain the car-football fundamentals with a new kind of business model attached. Psyonix says that it's open to figuring out how to bring that market into the global Rocket League esports fold if there's strong enough interest.

The RLCS will continue on past season four, with plans already made for future seasons now that organizations can hold onto their spots. And given the surge of additional tournaments and events during the last offseason, it seems likely that we'll see even more coming down the pipeline. Rocket League is incredibly easy to understand from a viewer's perspective—after all, it's football played with very fast cars—and that has pulled in some surprising mainstream media partners so far. Unsurprisingly, Psyonix is up for having even more.

"Traditional media is absolutely something that interests us," asserts Watson. "As traditional media continues to introduce esports into its regular programming, we think Rocket League is uniquely suited to help drive that change. Rocket League is the perfect mix of high-action, easy-to-understand gameplay and immense technical skill; couple that with its parallels to traditional sports and we think the game is perfect for traditional media. We are very open to exploring more of these traditional media opportunities as they arise."

After just a year and a half of an official Rocket League competitive scene, the little car-football game that could is pulling surprising viewership tallies as prize pools rise, non-endemic sponsors flock in, and traditional TV platforms take notice. Paired with the game's uniquely accessible spectating experience, it's no wonder that Rocket League has been dubbed a potential "breakout esports hit of the generation."

All images courtesy of Psyonix
 

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