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Tue Oct 10 2017
The Case for Rocket League as the Next Big Esport

When trying to explain esports to friends and family, a person may start with MOBA's like League of Legends or DOTA 2. Maybe it is FPS games like Overwatch or CS:GO that are your first association, or fighting games such as Street Fighter or Smash Bros. These are tried and true models of esports and, in some cases, are evolutions of some of the earliest arcade games. Rocket League is something else entirely. A mix of driving, flying and demolishing makes for a high-paced soccer game that naturally brings innovation and heart-racing action.

Released in 2015, Rocket League is young on the scene but its rise as an esport has been exponential. Here are some of the reasons why Psyonix's award-winning sequel to Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle Cars could be one of the biggest esports of 2018. (At least they got the name figured out)

Meteoric Rise

At the dawn of 2017, Esports Insider asked: “Can Rocket League become a Tier 2 esport in 2017?” The answer was an emphatic yes! Jens Hilgers of BITKRAFT Esports Ventures created the Esports Tier List as a quick glance of where esports stand in comparison to others.

Image Credit: Jens Hilgers. PUBG had an unprecedented vault straight into Tier 1, only the prize pools are still lacking.

In January, Rocket League was firmly in Tier 3 alongside popular titles such as Vainglory and Super Smash Bros. As one of the youngest games on the scene, it was pegged as a likely candidate to rise a tier by mid-2018. Rocket League shattered those expectations. With the final quarter of 2017 just getting started, Rocket League has passed two out of Hilger's three benchmarks to elevate it to Tier 2. The third will be passed with the culmination of Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS) Season 4. Credit goes to /u/lovbra00 for first identifying this on /r/RocketLeague.

The only benchmark yet to be hit is an annual prize pool topping $1 million. $713,346.59 has been awarded across a total of 32 events so far in 2017. RLCS Season 4 alone will boast a prize pool of $350,000.* Add in RLRS's $50,000 in prizes and Rocket League breaks seven figures. These numbers are still pennies to the multi-millions in prize pools for DOTA and League, but the growth is encouraging.

The second benchmark is monthly hours watched. According to a report by Newzoo, a trusted source of esports business numbers, Rocket League to date has streamed on Twitch for 3.1 million hours in 2017. While that number only puts it 17th in total games, what matters is the percentage of that time spent watching esports. Fans spent 1.6 million hours watching competitive Rocket League, which ranks eighth among all games. But at half of all total hours watched, Rocket League ranks third in esports percentage. It trails only DOTA 2 and COD in that category which bodes well for the game's future as an esport.

The final metric is monthly active users. Rocket League passed this easily because it has always been available on a variety of platforms. Plus, it started as a free game on consoles, and today is only $20, a great deal in the world of over-priced DLC-heavy console games. On PC's alone, 1.4 million people played Rocket League in the last two weeks. While the numbers for Xbox and PS4 aren't immediately available, it is safe to assume they exceed the 100,000 needed for Tier 2 status, and then some.

Big Game on Campus

The University of Utah is the first school from a major conference with a varsity esports program, which includes Rocket League. AJ Dimick is the Director of Operations for the University of Utah Esports and he is “thrilled” to feature Rocket League.

“The trajectory of Rocket League is amazing,” Dimick says, “It has been one of the biggest games on our campus for the last couple of years.”

Rocket League is huge on college campuses for several reasons. First, it's accessible. There are multiple platforms to play it on; it doesn’t require a gaming PC like many other esports. Second, it’s also multiplayer friendly, making it easy for split-screen play. Two or three people can play on the same console and account. And third, possibly most important, it is instantly understandable. New players may drive around in circles desperately trying to touch the ball, but they will understand the general concept. Hit the ball, with the car, toward the goal.

Compare that with games like League of Legends, DOTA, or Hearthstone, which often confound casual viewers. The casters of these games typically assume their audience knows the general gameplay, whereas Rocket League benefits from the universal language of sport: a creative shot or goal-line save is relatable to all.

“If you haven’t played a MOBA before, it is hard to understand without someone sitting on the couch with you and explaining what is happening and why it is exciting. Soccer with cars is instantaneously understandable,” says Dimick.

Beauty in Simplicity

There are 138 different champions in League of Legends; each has at least five unique abilities. That’s 690 different abilities alone for a spectator to potentially process. That doesn't include Masteries, Runes, Items and all other components that can affect a game of League of Legends.

Hearthstone is slightly easier at a glance. There are over 1300 cards in total with 953 of those playable in the Standard format, the mode almost every tournament uses. Add in nine classes and a variety of deck archetypes and, despite slower gameplay, it can get confusing quickly.

Rocket League also has the benefit of being visually appealing. The different aesthetics in each stadium, choices of team colors, (just ask Hollywood) and fluidity of high-level gameplay make it a fun game to watch, and not just for players.

Image Credit: IGN. Blue and Orange are a time-honored combo in Tinseltown

Being spectator-friendly is one of the reasons Utah has the game on the varsity program. “Rocket League, played at the highest level, with players passing back and forth, throwing the ball off the backboard on breakaways, it is crazy, it’s a really fun game to watch,” Dimick says.

There's talk of adding esports to the Paris Olympics in 2024. Rocket League is a game the International Olympic Committee (IOC) could consider. The IOC has already said it doesn't want violent games, but has not defined what it considers to be violent. Even with demolitions, Rocket League is one of the least violent esports being played.

With Rocket League's exponential growth, ubiquity to sports fans and popularity among a young demographic, the IOC should take a long look at the spectator-friendly game from Psyonix.

*Correction: Previously the sentence "This is a $200,000 increase from the season 3 RLCS prize pool, the largest in RLCS history," was written here. I misinterpreted the RLCS LAN Finals prize pool, with the total Season 3 Prize Pool which was actually $300,000. This is makes the prize increase only 50,000 and is not the largest in RLCS history. I apologize for this oversight, credit to /u/Murdock_RL and /u/thebuele for pointing this correction in the comments of the Reddit post.

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