Beyond the Game: Rocket League's Rise to Prominence

This article is part of our Beyond the Game series.

When NBC Sports made its grand entrance into the esports scene, no one could have guessed the game that it would choose to strap a rocket onto. League of Legends is in its own realm, so that one is surely out. Counter-Strike is the next choice, right? Nope. Okay, then it’s got to be Call of Duty? Try again. Halo? Negative. What else is there? Two words.

Rocket League.

While many (myself included) certainly would have been forgiven for wondering why Rocket League of all sports was chosen by NBC Sports as the horse to ride in on. When you really think about it, though, the answer is quite clear.

Before we dive into this new venture for NBC Sports and Rocket League, it’s worth looking back at how a game that started as a free PlayStation Plus title has exploded so much into the esports scene.

Released in July of 2015, Rocket League hit during a period where there weren’t a ton of AAA titles on the market. Coupled with the game being free to Plus subscribers (which is a large section of the PlayStation community given that the service is needed to play any multiplayer game), and there was a recipe for immediate success. That turned out to be quite the understatement, as the game saw 6 million downloads during that promotion, which skyrocketed Rocket League, and developer Psyonix, to new heights.

Even with the new heights that the game was reaching, however, esports weren’t really in the picture just yet. While the team knew that the potential for esports was there, it wasn’t the goal from the outset. “The focus was on creating the best possible game for everyone,” said Josh Watson, Esports Operations Manager of Psyonix. Rather than try and force esports to happen, they simply let the community do its thing.

As the game released and got out into the wild, members of the community started to put together their own tournaments, which put Psyonix on notice and got the wheels churning about what Rocket League esports could truly look like. At the end of the day, Watson made it clear that they wanted to make something that was “true to the community.”

This sentiment eventually gave way to the Rocket League Champions Series, which had its first season in August of 2016. That tournament consisted of just eight teams competing for a $55,000 prize pool, which is certainly not bad at all for a game that was merely a year old. It was nothing compared to where the RLCS would go in just two seasons later. For Season 3 of the RLCS, the team pool was expanded to 10 and included teams from the Oceanic region, while raising the prize pool to a $150,000. Not too shabby, I’d say.

Even with the success of the RLCS, Psyonix is always looking for ways to branch out and create more for the community. *In steps NBC Sports*

When looking at a potential avenue into the esports world, Senior Vice President of NBC Sports Venture Rob Simmelkjaer said that they wanted to go with something accessible to the audience at large that also had a sports DNA to it. “Rocket League was a perfect combination of two sports we’re heavily invested in: soccer and motor sports,” Simmelkjaer explains. With the title picked out, it was time to get some tournaments put in place, which is where FACEIT came into play. As Michele Attisani, Chief Business Officer and Co-Founder of FACEIT, puts it, the partnership between them and NBC Sports was a mutual one. Both entities saw Rocket League as ripe for a breakout, and it was off to the races.

Fresh with the backing of NBC Sports, along with FACEIT, Rocket League was off to the Universal Open series. So far, returns seem to have been pretty great. Not only did the first season of the event feature a $100,000 prize pool, but it was broadcasted live on NBC Sports Network. Again, not bad for a game that’s just now two years old.

In the greater scheme of things, this seems to be a nice deal for the esports scene as a whole. Simmelkjaer made it clear that the combination of strong sports DNA and accessibility were the main factors in choosing this game, which makes it unlikely that games like League of Legends and Counter-Strike will be seen on NBC Sports anytime soon. Still, the fact that a major player like NBC was willing to jump into the esports scene is a sign of good will.

There is still one caveat to all of this that has to be looked at. When it comes to esports, is mainstream media truly the way to go? While making deals with companies like NBC is well and good, I’m simply not sure how successful esports will ever be on an actual sports network. With the ease of opening a browser window and loading up Twitch coupled with the fact that many of esports’ main market (typically the 35 and under crowd) have gone the cable-free route, and you’ve got a recipe for complications when it comes to mainstream broadcasts.

At the end of the day, though, Rocket League has provided a solid model on how esports can finally break into the mainstream. Only time will tell where this will eventually take us.

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