For a game where flying rocket-powered battle cars slam oversized low-gravity footballs into virtual nets, Rocket League is surprisingly skillful.
Like any skill-based competitive pursuit, setting is largely irrelevant — winning requires mastery, and mastery warrants practice. Like all esports titles, Rocket League requires thousands of hours spent training and refining intricate mechanical movements, the contours of the game’s physics slowly and diligently seared into the muscle memories of its practitioners.
Rocket League came from humble beginnings. Launched six-and-a-half years ago as a successor to 2008’s Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars (or ‘SARPBC’ for the sane), the sequel was developed on a budget shy of $2m (~£1.53m). Revenues had ballooned to $110m (~£83.3m) by mid-2016, the latest figures publicly released before Psyonix was acquired by Epic Games in 2019.
Commercial success assured, Psyonix doubled down on esports. Its flagship tournament, the Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS), has grown in size and prize for each of its five years as a professional competition.
The title went free-to-play in 2020, bringing even more eyeballs to its esports ecosystem in a cleverly orchestrated campaign of in-game advertising and item rewards for viewers.
Through those formative years, Rocket League dug out a formidable spot as a unique, mid-table ‘Tier 2’ esport.
While there is no official list, nor criteria, the esports tier system is an informal hierarchical ranking of the subjective popularity of different esports titles — as determined by an equally-informal consensus of the esports hivemind. Most fans agree Tier 1 is reserved for esports titles with the largest ecosystems, viewership, brand partnership deals and prize pools.
Like its Tier 2 counterparts, Rocket League has failed to mount a serious claim to the revered Tier 1 status of rivals like Riot Games’ League of Legends, or Valve’s CS:GO and Dota 2.
Now, flush with hype — and Epic Games money — Psyonix is changing gear.
The sport-action hybrid has a lot going for it. As a video game focused almost exclusively on online play, its simplicity has birthed a considerable focus on esports.
One of its biggest draws, the story goes, is that it’s viewer friendly. Look past its outlandish setting and anyone who’s watched football will recognise the underlying premise — hit the ball into the net more times than your opponent.
Unlike MOBAs and FPS titles, even non-gamers can follow Rocket League’s action. It offers a fast lane into a world of competitive gaming that is anything but hospitable for outsiders — something of a gateway drug to the esports experience.
Even more lucratively, it’s brand friendly. With an E for Everyone ESRB rating and a distinct lack of guns, bombs or even death, it’s a safe bet for brands who want the esports clout without the violent stigma attached.
“It’s actually wild that our sport can attract such big brands,” Cliff Shoemaker, Esports Director at Psyonix, told Esports Insider. “We don’t even have that many endemic esports brands in here, because so many of the big big brands and partners want to be a part of this. They know that we speak to an audience that they would like to speak to too.
“We’re proud that a young audience can play it and be a part of it. We’re really proud that there are very few guardrails in terms of where our game can go.”
Universal appeal may be one benefit, but it also appeals especially well to one particular segment: Psyonix has been striking esports partnerships with car brands left, right and centre (and numerous other directions, too).
“I see it as massively helpful to the growth of our sport that we can talk to those brands and get in front of those guys and have their audience feel engaged,” Shoemaker said. “It’s what really makes this sport stand out amongst other esports. It’s a big reason why I’m here and continue to just be so bullish on it.
“It kind of checks all the boxes. It’s an [esport] that is attractive to not just players, but to sponsors and to teams. I think there’s a perfect mix of how highly skilled the sport is, and how accessible it is at the same time.”
With boxes checked, Psyonix pushed the pedal to the floor.
After an initial enlargement of the RLCS in 2020, the developer announced in September 2021 another highly-anticipated major expansion which saw three new regions added to the global circuit — MENA, APAC North and APAC South — as well as support for Sub-Saharan Africa. The RLCS also received a boosted $6m (~£4.3m) annual prize purse.
In January, Rocket League’s collegiate league entered Europe, making it arguably the first esport to have an international collegiate championship.
“Speaking honestly, I think we were a little slow,” said Cory Lanier, Psyonix’s Esports Product Manager, reflecting on the title’s growth. “But that’s just because we were a smaller game studio and one of our philosophies is incremental change. We are never going to take a step back.”
Psyonix’s slowness has seemingly not stalled its progress. An influx of major esports organisations have (re)joined the scene in recent months including Misfits, Evil Geniuses, Natus Vincere, Luminosity Gaming and Complexity.
These organisations are, in part, looking to capitalise on ‘Away’ decals, a new set of esports team skins players can buy for in-game cars that are part of Psyonix’s revenue-sharing scheme. Psyonix has allowed esports teams’ sponsors to be featured on the in-game skins themselves — akin to professional motorsports — another arguable first in esports.
Rocket League’s sponsor-branded skins are a valuable and authentic form of in-game advertising. They provide fans a chance to represent their team, whilst also offering teams new sponsorship activations, direct revenue through sales, and greater sponsor visibility.
Murty Shah, Esports Manager of Operations at Psyonix, told Esports Insider that creating inventory where Rocket League teams can sell sponsorships — from in-game decals and team name rebrands to on-air broadcast exposure — is an intentional part of Psyonix’s strategy.
“What we want teams to do,” Shah said, “is look at the entire RLCS season and be like, ‘hey sponsor, instead of us trying to jam your brand name into this esport in weird, random ways, Psyonix has created all these different inventory pieces for you to join the esport in a super authentic way’.”
A slew of recent successes, however, risks masking the fact that Rocket League’s esports viewership still lags behind certain major esports titles.
Both the RLCS Season 8 World Championship and the 2021-22 Fall Major — the two most recent international LAN events — received peak viewerships of around 280,000, according to data from Esports Charts. That’s magnitudes lower than most Tier 1 (and even some Tier 2) esports events, which regularly breach millions of peak viewers.
But last year’s Fall Major almost doubled the hours watched of the Season 8 World Championship, despite being a lower level of competition — a positive sign of what’s to come as LANs resume and the Winter Major plays out this weekend at the sold-out-in-hours YouTube Theatre in Los Angeles.
For many in the title’s impassioned community, Rocket League has already arrived — it’s in a genre, and league, of its own. Tier lists? Mainstream validation? Expert opinion? Don’t need ‘em. For much of the community, waxing lyrical about Rocket League’s status as a top esport is the modus operandi.
Psyonix, however, is more measured. “We still know it’s relatively new in the grand scheme of things, there’s still a ton of room to go” Shoemaker admitted. “But every day we’re getting smarter and smarter about how we take this thing to where the vision is.
“My role here is to make it as easy as possible to hit that goal of making it absolutely an upper-tier, Tier 1 esport moving forward.”
Until then, Rocket League quietly continues its aerial ascent.