Rocket League is a video game developed and published by Psyonix (now a subsidiary of Epic Games). Rocket League can be oversimplified by describing it as soccer with rocket-powered cars, but it’s so much more. While the premise is exactly that, everything surrounding the game is not as simply defined.
Before discussing the history and essence of Rocket League, and eventually its esport scene, readers should know what an esport even is. Esports are the competitive scenes where skilled players pursue professions via competing in tournaments of a specific game to win prize pool money. You may be wondering how people can even fund these tournaments and who would watch these players compete, but first, let’s dive into the world of Rocket League.
Rocket League, The Game
Let’s start off with a more detailed discussion about what Rocket League is, and how it differs from its comparable games. Rocket League does have multiple game modes, but for the purpose of simplicity and consistency, only Standard Play will be covered. Standard Play is Rocket League’s most popular format where two teams of three will compete in a match of soccer with a few twists.
Other than playing with rocket-powered cars online, what makes Rocket League different from the traditional sport of Soccer? Well, the perks of being a video game is that it’s nearly impossible to break the rules of the game (unless you hack your game, use cheats, etc.). This leaves players to do whatever needs to be done to score enough goals to eventually win the match by the end of the time allotted. Some may see this as a glorified version of the FIFA series video games, but even that has some differences. The biggest difference in that regard (again, other than the rocket-powered cars you pilot to play) is that the ball is always ‘in play’ unless it is in the goal. This is achieved by having walls and a ceiling that the ball can be played from, and the cars can be driven on!
While the walls and ceiling add to the complexity of the strategies available in the game, the overall game is simple, and that’s what makes it so enjoyable!
The History of the Game, Rocket League
Many may point to July 2015 as the start of the history of Rocket League, but the history dates back nearly a decade earlier. The developer Psyonix created a game quite like Rocket League that was released in 2008 for the PlayStation 3, under the name “Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars.” While the name is certainly a mouthful, the game did not quite hit the same mark. With reviewers like IGN, rating it a 6.5/10. The major consensus was the game was fun, but just too chaotic and not optimized well enough to want to invest the time needed to get good at! Despite its lackluster launch, selling just over two million copies, a dedicated and loyal fan base emerged. This fan base evolved enough that a third-party ladder was created to recognize competitive play.
At the time, Psyonix couldn’t continue working on their title to accommodate the smaller-than-expected fan base, so the developers had to resort to contract work to continue operating their business. With some fan-feedback, and a lot of time later, Psyonix attempted it again, but went all-in. In 2013 Psyonix started developing Rocket League to accommodate the feedback provided by the dedicated fans that had been enjoying the game for five years. With the right changes and a better marketing strategy, Psyonix sequel to the lackluster mouthful “Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars”, became a success. Initially, Rocket League released in July 2015 on PlayStation 4 free with PlayStation Plus subscriptions and on Windows for $19.99.
The different marketing approach that Psyonix found their success on with Rocket League surrounded the game’s easy viewing experience. Teaming up with Youtubers and Twitch Streamers to play the game, knowing that viewers could easily understand the premise, Rocket League was put in front of millions of pairs of eyes and the graphical upgrades made for Rocket League pulled in new fans from the get-go. Within the first month, the game had climbed the Steam gaming-hub ranking and sold over one million copies, and by the end of its inaugural year, eight million. Of course, the hype wasn’t just among consumers. The popular gaming review company IGN (that rated Rocket League’s predecessor a 6.5/10) awarded Rocket League an outstanding 9.3/10!
Since 2015, Rocket League has continued to evolve its business to accommodate consumer expectations and is now also available on Xbox One, macOS, Linux, Nintendo Switch, and PlayStation 5 and features new in-game purchasable cosmetics to customize your vehicle to your liking. In that time, there have obviously been many changes, but the important thing is what hasn’t changed, the game!
Rocket League’s Player Base
As mentioned, Rocket League’s inaugural year summated over eight million copies sold on Steam, and millions of free downloads with PlayStation Plus. With the ongoing success of the game Rocket League has grown to bolster incredible stats: downloads, purchases, and concurrent players. As of writing this article, on Steam alone there are 50,000 concurrent players. According to Psyonix, in just under a year of the game’s release, Rocket League had earned over $70 million in revenue and has continued to rise from there.
The following graphs give visual representation to the growth of the game’s fan base, downloads, and net revenues since release, respectively (all stats player and game stats are based on Steam estimates):
Rocket League Competition
With the game inherently involving competition as one team must win and the other must lose, Rocket League is perfectly situated to bolster talent, and foster competitive ecosystems. According to third party tracking, 87% of Rocket League players play Competitive matches. Compared to other video games with esports scenes like League of Legends, where in North America alone there are 11.1 million players monthly, yet only 1.9 million are ranked. That accounts for only 17% of the player base, which is almost the exact opposite of Rocket League’s stat. In essence, Rocket League is all about the competition and rewards the players that invest more time by emphasizing the skills they have developed and recognize them via skill expression.
In Rocket League, the primary method of skill expression is through climbing the ranks on the competitive ladder in the game. Not only are players rewarded with in-game content for reaching various ranks, but their new skills provide them with tangible rewards that they can keep forever because the game never really changes. This environment fosters talent to the point of expertise, which is where the conversation shifts onto what makes Rocket League so special.
Rocket League (like many competitive video games now) has an esports scene where players compete in teams for prize pools. Via the game’s competitive ladder, players can compete individually to be recognized and scouted by top teams in the game. This means the game has a genuine path to pro that players can follow to reach their dreams of competing in international tournaments.
So, how did Rocket League even get to this stage? Well, it really begins with the first third party tournaments that were run by organizations like ESL (Electronic Sports League) Gaming and MLG (Major League Gaming). This organizations had the funds to kick-start the professional scene in game’s youth, back in 2015. The incredible support the scene was given from the beginning, made Psyonix take notice and decide to create their own. The Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS).
The RLCS would run two seasons a year and consist of qualifying splits in respective global regions, then a playoff bracket to qualify for the final World Championship tournament where the season’s winner would be crowned. Recently, that schedule has changed to annually because the game is now free-to-play.
With the highly competitive environment that Rocket League offers, comes the highly competitive (and greatly successful) organizations in esports. In the early days of Rocket League, the biggest team’s name that people could think of was iBUYPOWER Cosmic. That team ended up winning the inaugural RLCS. However, the majority of the first few years were dominated by esports names that most gamers from other games haven’t heard of. That was until Dignitas joined the scene. After the successful first two years of the RLCS, Dignitas decided to join the party and purchase the best team that they could. Obviously, that team was very successful and ended up winning the season five World Championship.
Since then, not only have even bigger names joined the professional scene like Cloud9 and G2 Esports, but the prize pool and sponsorship deals grew drastically. In the first season of RLCS, the prize pool was $27 500 (split three ways). By the time Dignitas joined and won in season five, the prize was $100 000. Amazingly, the very next season when Cloud9 won, they won $200 000, doubling the previous season’s first place prize. Of course, with big name organizations, comes big name sponsors. In early 2021, the American auto manufacturer Ford was named the presenting sponsor of the RLCS X Winter Split!
In six years since the game’s release, and only five years since the start of the RLCS, the game has surpassed over 100 million views on their Twitch.tv channel and hit as high as 280 000 concurrent viewers. Not only has the game seen drastic development over the time since its release, but it has bolstered an incredible esports scene that is becoming a household name in esports. There are many esports teams looking to pursue Rocket League and the viewership, prize pool, and competition will only continue to rise as they flock in. Rocket League is truly special and has its rightful place among the biggest esports titles.
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