Rocket League, the vehicular game of kickball that took the world by storm when it launched on PlayStation Plus to little fanfare in July 2015 turns two this month.
In two years, it has established itself as one of the breakout esports successes of this generation, a poster car both for non-violent esports and the fact that digital sports don’t have to be hyper-complex.
But why is it so successful? Why did both fans and players flock to the title?
Rocket League is easy to watch because it’s football, but with all the players as cars. You can easily follow the basics: blue cars, red cars, a comedically oversized ball to be punted into a goal located at either side of the arena. Several of these elements would later change as Rocket League tried to ape several conventional sports in add-ons, but in its competitive format, Rocket League truly is the beautiful game on four wheels.
The game will make its debut at Gfinity’s Elite Series in London, and TV broadcasters NBC and tournament organisers FACEIT have recently announced a partnership with developers Psyonix to create the television network’s first ever esports tournament, focused on the car-based kickabout.
At the time, Michele Attisani, FACEIT’s co-founder and chief business officer, said “There’s a number of reasons,” when asked about the game’s inclusion.
“First is the Rocket League community. It's extremely strong and very passionate, and that's one of the main factors for us when we decide to invest in a game or work with the game publisher.”
"We felt there was a huge demand for more competitive features and more competition around the title itself."
“Also we felt there was a huge demand for more competitive features and more competition around the title itself, so for us it's very much like what drew us to Counter-Strike originally, starting from the community, starting from the grassroots level, having an open circuit. That's very much what we managed to achieve in partnership with NBC.”
Speaking to Josh Watson, Psyonix’s head of esports at Psyonix, Watson is, understandably given his job title, enthusiastic about the game’s esports potential and credits Rocket League’s community and grassroots support for the game’s competitive success.
“We've seen incredibly loyal and passionate fans, TOs (tournament organisers), all over the world. Today, we have several dozen community tournament organisers who run hundreds of events yearly, online and in-person.”
“The success of that leads to our first official foray into esports, the rocket league championship series, which is run in partnership with Twitch. Basically, this is our premier esports competition. It's got 20 plus teams competing globally, across three regions. We do three month seasons twice a year and we give out 600,000 dollars in prizing for that one tournament.”
Over the first year, Psyonix ran two seasons, with one open qualifier attracting more than 6,000 teams, each eagerly hoping to qualify for the main event. During which there were more than 10m channel views over the first year, with 1m unique viewers.
Rocket League isn’t often discussed in the same sentence as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, League of Legends or Dota 2, but it’s attracting massive amounts of attention and investment. Psyonix themselves announced they’d be investing $2.5m dollars into Rocket League’s competitive ecosystem at the start of 2017.
Rocket League could be on track to become one of the first big mainstream successes for esports. ESPN and several other broadcasting outlets have shown esports live on television, but it’s not always proven that successful, as many casual viewers would need a primer to understand what’s going on in a MOBA or even an FPS title. Even fans of Counter-Strike Global Offensive need an article to explain why a team would want to mass suicide into a single Molotov Cocktail, it’s nearly impenetrable for those without experience with the game. Want to know who’s winning at Rocket League? Just look at the scores at the top of the screen.
For Attisani, Rocket League’s success as an esport is assured. “(Psyonix) will be able to build a very strong and active, engaged community, which is the most important principle if you want to create and grow an eSports title.”
“There is a very large and engaged community but at the same time there was demand for more, more competition and more competitive features and we can obviously fulfil that demand so we saw a very natural fit."
Primarily though, it’s the ease with which the game can be spectating by traditional sports fans that makes it a natural fit for fiercely promoted live television events.
“We've been working with some very large media and TV companies for quite some time now and we were looking for new titles that have a potential to be understood and distributed both on traditional digital platforms but also on television to pull in a different audience.”
“Rocket League is a very suitable game from that standpoint because it's very easy to understand and it's very easy to follow the action. It has quite familiar mechanics. You know like football. So football with cars basically, right? So for that reason we decided to work with them, and on top of that like number one reason is the great relationship we have with Sionics, the developer of Rocket League. And they are very keen to support us and all this initiatives. So putting all of these elements together, we thought that Rocket League was definitely a very interesting area for us to invest in.”
Rocket League has a little way to go before it can claim it has reached mainstream acceptance, but after two years it feels like a quality contender both to challenge the dominance of the ‘big three’ esports titles, but also in a world apart from those guys, acting as the gateway esport to bring fans over to a whole world of digital competition.