The Spring Series NA Finals: Was Landon Donovan a step too far?

On 26th April 2020, the Rocket League Spring Series NA Finals rounded off with G2 whitewashing NRG 4-0, giving more weight to the suggestion that G2 are the best team on the North American scene right now.

With Jacob “JKnaps” Knapman putting in a strong performance, ably assisted by his teammates Reed “Chicago” Wilen and Dillon “Rizzo” Rizzo, G2 were able to cap off a remarkable run of form that began with a win at the Promotion Tournament in Season 8, and culminated with back-to-back wins at the Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS) Season 9 North American Regional Championship and the Rocket League North American Spring Series.

But while many of the fans will have felt let down by the standard of the final at the weekend, raising questions about just what is going on with NRG at the moment, there was something else about the Rocket League Spring Series final which attracted their disappointment. And it came in the form of Landon Donovan.

Landon… Who?

For Rocket League fans who have never heard of Landon Donovan, don’t worry: he’s not a long-forgotten OG. In fact, he’s nothing to do with Rocket League at all.

Until recently, Landon Donovan was a soccer star who played in MLS and even as far abroad as Europe, joining clubs in Germany and the United Kingdom in the course of an illustrious career. You might know him better from his international appearances, though.

Nearly ten years ago, he scored this goal against Algeria in the World Cup, to put the US Men’s National Team into the knock-out stages of the tournament.

The thing is, though, that even if you’ve heard of him, he’s almost certainly not heard of you. Especially, that is, if you’re a big deal in Rocket League. Landon Donovan, it turns out, doesn’t know anything about Rocket League.

Of course, this is fine: there are lots of people who don’t. But there are also lots of people who don’t commentate on the Rocket League Spring Series NA Finals for ESPN.

Calling It How It Isn’t

On Sunday, those people tuning in to the ESPN coverage of the final were treated to Landon Donovan’s first—and perhaps last—stint as a Rocket League commentator.

Joining pro commentators, Leif and Jamesbot, Donovan was clearly included in a bid to offer first-time viewers of the esport a jumping-off point, giving him free rein to ask basic questions and help the audience through the viewing.

In the course of the transmission, it became obvious that Donovan had next to no experience of the game he was commenting on: he didn’t know the rules; he called boosts ‘turbo’; he had to be walked through each step of the game by his co-commentators.

Unsurprisingly, this produced some mixed feelings from hardcore fans. Take Cameron Johns, for example:

Over on Reddit, user mallaire offered a different point of view:

If you are reading this, you were not the target audience for the ESPN broadcast today. And that’s ok. This was clearly targeted towards trying to explain the game towards new viewers who might be watching for the first time ever.

Having an extremely well known soccer legend in the booth to help make traditional sports analogies, and to give james and lief the opportunity to help explain how the game works to a new audience is a pretty cool thing. 

One thing was certain, the fans were split both ways. For some, it was a decent attempt by Psyonix and ESPN to introduce fans to the game. For others, it was patronising and unrepresentative, unattractive to both first-timers and the hardcore fan base.

First Impressions

This raises an interesting question: what is the best way to market Rocket League to a potential market?

Sunday’s coverage on ESPN had to balance a tricky line between taking too much for granted on the part of its audience or taking too little.

In the event, they probably erred too much on the side of assuming no knowledge. But it’s not at all clear that the decision is an easy one to make.

Including Landon Donovan in the coverage was not simply a hat-tip to the fact that Rocket League is, in essence, football with cars. It also allowed the commentary team to appreciate just how confusing the game can be to a first-time watcher, giving them a in-studio weathervane to gauge audience response.

This did come at the audience expense, though. At times, it felt like a tutorial, deflating what little excitement there was in a poor performance from NRG.

The case could be made, as we saw Cameron Johns did above, that the most important aspect of first impressions of a sport is the excitement. Once enthusiasm is generated, then new fans can spend time learning more about it off-air.

Perhaps a balance would have helped: standard commentary during the game trying to capture the exhilaration of the gameplay before switching to Landon Donovan and tutorial mode in the breaks in play?
The guys over at Poddy C had similar observations

Be Careful What You Wish For

There is a curious phenomenon among fans of any cult entertainment: when asked, they will tell you that they are desperate for their hobby to become more popular; but, in reality, when it happens, they are usually less than happy with the result.

Last month, we described Rocket League as being at an important juncture of its history. With an increased interest in gaming, we suggested that Psyonix should attempt to attract new fans to Rocket League and fill the void left by non-esports during lockdown.

By broadcasting on ESPN and bringing in Landon Donovan, Psyonix have attempted to do just that.

Perhaps they can learn from their first foray onto the big stage and improve things next time. But compromise goes both ways. If the fan base is really serious about Rocket League’s expansion, then they might have to temper their own expectations about the product.


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