Rocket League is esports’ best shot at the big leagues

It seems crazy to say that esports doesn’t have mainstream appeal. Over 100 million people tuned in to watch the 2019 League of Legends World Championship. Hundreds of thousands of people tune in regularly to watch pros play shooters like Call of Duty, Rainbow Six Siege, Overwatch, CS:GO, and now Valorant. Colleges have been offering esports scholarships for several years already.

But despite the growing popularity of esports among the wider gaming community, esports has not become a cultural touchstone in the way that more traditional sports are. Most people know what a basketball is, but if you start talking about League of Legends or Overwatch League with the average non-gamer, they will probably have no idea what you’re talking about. There’s a reason why ESPN shut down its dedicated esports division this past November and why future broadcasts will mostly revolve around games based on traditional leagues like the NBA and F1.

The reasons for esports’ struggle to break into the mainstream are obvious. I play and write about video games for a living, and I have no idea what I’m watching when I tune into a League of Legends event. First-person shooters are much easier to understand, but the full impact of the split-second decisions and precision aiming required to compete at the highest levels just doesn’t necessarily translate unless you know what you’re looking for. Not to mention the violence can be a total turnoff.

And then there’s Rocket League. There’s no esport that’s easier to understand, just on a basic conceptual level, than Psyonix’s mega-hit. It’s soccer but with rocket-boosted cars. There are no characters with different abilities. There’s no such thing as “map knowledge.” There are just cars, two nets, and a ball. If I were to show the average sports viewer an esport to at least show them why esports can be exciting to watch, I’d show them Rocket League.

Now in its tenth season, the RLCS—Rocket League Championship Series—has both honed and expanded its formula. Instead of just having one round of league play, regional playoffs, and world championships, RLCS X (its current season) has spread out to become a yearlong event. Each season has had a “split” that culminates in a regional major for both North America and Europe. While the format might be a little more complex than the standard regular-season-to-playoffs structure of most U.S. sports, it follows a similar trajectory. Throughout the year, each three-player team earns points for tournament placements, and the end of the year culminates in a world championship competition between the teams with the most overall points.

The RLCS X Spring Split kicks off on March 11th with the first European regional event, and this is the best time to start watching. While RLCS has always been entertaining, it truly hit its stride with the Winter Split, especially in the North American region. Europe has been dominated pretty much the entire season by Team BDS, who has placed first in all but one of the regional events this season, including winning both majors. Even against Vitality, which is composed of some of the most winning veterans in RLCS history, BDS made their Winter Major win look easy. Meanwhile, the North America Winter Major saw one of the most historic runs in RLCS history, with Rogue sweeping the entire loser’s bracket (including two of the best teams in the region), earning a bracket reset against favorites NRG, before finally falling in the final series 4-2. On the other hand, fan-favorites G2 were taken out of the event early, jeopardizing their chances at even making it to the World Championships—something that was all but a given at the beginning of the season.

Other than the nail-biting games and compelling storylines that came out of the Winter Split, it’s the presentation that makes RLCS feel like a mainstream sport. That’s partly thanks to the fun Ford-sponsored graphics that came with the partnership between the automotive company and Psyonix, but it’s also because of the deep roster of broadcasters that RLCS boasts. After a slightly awkward adjustment period due to COVID-19, the casting duos have really solidified into top-notch play-by-play and color commentators. Sometimes, the fast-paced nature of the game means that a commentator’s analysis of an ongoing match will bleed into the play-by-play, and vice versa, but the on-air talent is so practiced and knowledgeable that they can usually take these momentary role-swaps in stride. Really, though, it’s the passion and excitement that the casters clearly have for the game that makes the broadcasts so exciting. And bringing the player’s face cams into the RLCS matches helps fans get more attached to their personalities, rather than just associating them with the cars they’re controlling.

RLCS still faces some challenges in breaking through to the mainstream. It probably helps if you’ve played Rocket League. Knowing how much mechanical skill goes into simply landing your car and keeping your momentum can give you a deeper appreciation for the abilities of the players on the pitch. There’s some lingo like “double-tap” and “flip reset” that might throw off new viewers. And of course there’s the odd (and thankfully waning) stigma that watching competitive video games is somehow more childish than watching a bunch of grown men throw a ball around for millions of dollars.

But Rocket League has something going for it that other esports don’t, and that’s the genius simplicity of its design. Like most sports, it’s physics based, and it involves a ball. There’s passing and shooting, teamplay and individual prowess. There are no characters to balance. It’s a game of skill, quick-thinking, and stamina. Matches last five minutes, and overtime is a sudden death format. All of this means it’s got the capacity for the kinds of last-second goals that make real sports so exhilarating.

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