Rocket League is surprisingly skilled for a game where flying rocket-powered war cars pound giant low-gravity footballs into simulated nets.
The setting is virtually unimportant in any skill-based competitive pursuit — winning necessitates expertise, and mastery needs practice. Rocket League, like many esports games, requires hundreds of hours of practice and refinement, with the outlines of the game’s mechanics slowly and carefully etched into the muscle memories of its players. Rocket League is a game that started little. The sequel to 2008’s Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars (or ‘SARPBC’ for the uninitiated) was released six and a half years ago on a budget of just under $2 million (£1.53 million). Psyonix’s revenue had risen to $110 million (£83.3 million) by mid-2016, according to the most recent publicly available numbers before Epic Games bought the company in 2019.
Psyonix doubled heavily on esports after commercial success. The Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS), the company’s main tournament, has expanded in size and prize money over its five years as professional competition. In 2020, the game became free-to-play, drawing even more attention to its esports environment with a well-executed campaign of in-game advertising and item prizes for fans. Rocket League carved up a competitive niche as a distinctive, mid-table ‘Tier 2’ esport during those formative years. The esports tier system is an informal hierarchical rating of the subjective popularity of different esports titles, as judged by an equally informal agreement of the esports hivemind. There is no official list of criteria. Tier 1 is often considered to be reserved for esports titles with the largest ecosystems, viewership, brand sponsorship deals, and prize pools, according to the majority of fans.
Rocket League, like its Tier 2 equivalents, has been unable to challenge rivals such as Riot Games’ League of Legends or Valve’s CS: GO and Dota 2 for the coveted Tier 1 status. Psyonix is shifting gears now that the company has received a lot of attention — and money — from Epic Games.
There’s a lot to like about this sport-action hybrid. Because it is a video game that is nearly entirely played online, its simplicity has resulted in a strong focus on esports. According to the story, one of its most appealing features is that it is user-friendly. Anyone who has watched football will recognize the core principle, which is to hit the ball into the net more times than your opponent. Unlike MOBAs and FPS games, Rocket League allows non-gamers to follow the action. It provides a fast track into a world of professional gaming that is anything but welcoming to outsiders — a kind of esports gateway pill. It’s also brand-friendly, which makes it even more profitable. It’s a safe pick for businesses who want the esports credibility without the violent connotation attached, with an ESRB classification of E for Everyone and a conspicuous lack of firearms, bombs, or even death.
Cliff Shoemaker, Esports Director at Psyonix, said, “It’s strange that our sport can attract such major brands.” “There aren’t that many endemic esports companies in here because so many of the major big brands and partners want to be a part of it.” They are aware that we speak to an audience with whom they would like to converse. We’re delighted that it can be played and enjoyed by a young audience. We’re quite proud of the fact that our game has very few boundaries in terms of where it can go.” Psyonix has been forming esports collaborations with automotive companies left, right, and center, which may be one benefit, but it also appeals particularly strongly to one segment: (and numerous other directions, too).
“I think it’s hugely beneficial to our sport’s growth that we can talk to those sponsors and get in front of those guys and make their audience feel engaged,” Shoemaker said. “It’s what sets our sport apart from the rest of the esports.” It’s one of the main reasons I’m here and will continue to be so optimistic about it.” It almost fulfills all of the requirements. It’s a [esport] that appeals not only to participants but also to sponsors and teams. “I believe there is a wonderful balance of how highly talented the activity is while yet being accessible.” Psyonix pressed the pedal to the floor after checking all the boxes.
Following an initial extension of the RLCS in 2020, the developer announced another widely anticipated big expansion in September 2021, which included three new regions — MENA, APAC North, and APAC South — as well as support for Sub-Saharan Africa. The RLCS’s yearly prize pool was also increased to $6 million (£4.3 million). Rocket League’s collegiate league made its debut in Europe in January, making it the first esport to hold a worldwide collegiate championship.
“To be honest, I believe we were a touch slow,” Psyonix’s Esports Product Manager, Cory Lanier, said of the game’s rise. “But that’s just because we were a smaller game studio with incremental change as one of our beliefs.” “We’re not going to take any steps back.” Psyonix’s sluggishness does not appear to have slowed its progress. Misfits, Evil Geniuses, Natus Vincere, Luminosity Gaming, and Complexity are among the main esports organizations that have (re)entered the industry in recent months.
These companies are hoping to profit from Psyonix’s revenue-sharing scheme’s ‘Away’ decals, a new set of esports team skins that players can buy for in-game automobiles. Another first in esports is that Psyonix has permitted sponsors of esports teams to be featured on the in-game skins itself, similar to professional motorsports.
Sponsor-branded skins in Rocket League are a useful and authentic method of in-game promotion. They allow fans to show their support for their favorite team while also providing teams with new sponsorship activations, direct money from sales, and increased sponsor visibility. Psyonix’s objective, according to Murty Shah, Esports Manager of Operations, is to create inventory where Rocket League teams can sell sponsorships ranging from in-game decals and team name rebrands to on-air broadcast exposure.
“What we want teams to do is look at the full RLCS season and say, ‘hey sponsor, instead of us trying to cram your brand name into this esport in odd, random ways, Psyonix has developed all these various inventory pieces for you to join the esport in a highly authentic way,'” Shah explained. However, a string of recent victories risks concealing the fact that Rocket League’s esports audience continues to lag behind that of other popular esports titles.
According to data from Esports Charts, the RLCS Season 8 World Championship and the 2021-22 Fall Major — the two most recent international LAN tournaments — both had peak viewerships of roughly 280,000. That’s a far cry from most Tier 1 (and even some Tier 2) esports events, which often attract millions of viewers at peak. Despite being a lower level of competition, last year’s Fall Major nearly doubled the hours seen of the Season 8 World Championship – a promising sign of things to come as LANs restart and the Winter Major takes place this weekend at the sold-out YouTube Theatre in Los Angeles.
For many in the game’s ardent fanbase, Rocket League has already arrived — it’s in its genre and league. What are tier lists? Validation in the mainstream? What’s an expert’s opinion? They aren’t required. The modus operandi for much of the community is waxing lyrical about Rocket League’s prominence. Psyonix, on the other hand, is more measured. Shoemaker added, “We still recognize it’s very fresh in the broad scheme of things, there’s still a tonne of room to go.” “However, every day we get smarter about how we get this thing to where the vision is.” “My job is to make it as simple as possible for us to achieve our aim of making it an upper-tier, Tier 1 esport moving forward.”