There’s no denying that Rocket League, both as a game and an esport, has seen some pretty significant growth since going Free to Play in September 2020.
The game hit 1,000,000 concurrent players for the first time in its five-year history just days after going free to play and almost every day of every regional RLCS event (in North America and Europe at least) has pulled around 100,000-150,000 peak viewers since the beginning of the Winter Split.
Day 3 of the Season 7 World Championships back in June 2019 brought in a peak of 181,550 viewers on Twitch. Day 3 of the first North American Spring regional, for comparison, had a peak viewership of 153,913. One event from one region is now bringing in comparable numbers to the Grand Finals of the World Championships from just over a year and a half ago.
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Such growth this far into a game’s release isn’t very common but it’s surely a good sign for the esport.
There are tons of other signs, like the recent additions of massive organizations such as Team Liquid or FaZe Clan, that show us that Rocket League is moving in the right direction as an esport. So much so, actually, that members of the community are ready to call it a tier-1 esport.
Nearly every organization that has a Rocket League team, popular content creators and pro players alike have all been participating in a trend that essentially just consists of tweeting the phrase “Rocket League is a tier 1 esport.” Even pages and public figures dedicated to all esports—not just Rocket League—such as The Esports Awards and Rod “Slasher” Breslau have been participating as well.
There’s clearly a lot of passion within the community regarding the subject. A (now deleted) recent tweet thread calling the game “Tier 3” and not even on the same level as games such as PUBG Mobile and Mobile Legends becoming the subject of so much scrutiny. It’s now got to the point where it’s already become a universally recognized copypasta in the community just goes to show how much it believes in the game’s status as one of the world’s premier esports.
It Can Be Just Not Yet
Rocket League has all the fixings of a Tier 1 esport as a game but viewership numbers, cultural impact, sponsorships, prize pools, nearly everything that goes into account when determining the tier of an esport (which I understand is an arbitrary term with no objective definition), would suggest that it’s not on the same level as bonafine Tier 1s such as League of Legends or DOTA 2.
These games pull in millions of viewers and sell out stadiums of dozens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of people. Their cultural impact rivals that of traditional sports in some countries.
Rocket League’s biggest event of all time, the Season 8 World Championships, maxed out at around 215,000 concurrent twitch viewers and came short of selling out the Palacio Vistalegre in Madrid, a venue with a capacity of 15,000. The 2019 League of Legends World Championships maxed out at 44 million concurrent viewers and totaled over 100 million, more than the average Super Bowl. To claim these esports are of the same ‘tier’ is just a simple denial of reality.
I could continue to compare things such as prize pools, sponsorships, revenue, global influence, etc, but I think one can infer that all of these figures would suggest the same thing; Rocket League is not at the level of true tier 1s by basically every numerical measurement.
The only comparable aspect of the Rocket League to tier-1 esports is entertainment value. Its accessibility to the general public is one of its greatest advantages. It’s become a very tired point but a large part of the reason the game has such potential as a spectator esport is that it’s easy to understand, even to people who don’t play video games. Its simple goal of “car hit ball into net” bridges the gap between esports and traditional sports, and its physics-based feel gives it a nearly infinite skill ceiling. These two aspects can combine into an unprecedent spectator sport made for fans of both traditional sports, (a relatively untapped market in esports) and already established esports fans.
Conceptually, Psyonix hit the jackpot for a game to become not just one of the biggest esports in the world but a cultural phenomenon that transcends the world of gaming.
How to Make the Step?
I don’t want to go too far into detail on what’s preventing it from reaching cultural phenomenon status but a lack of presence in Asia, specifically China and Korea, is certainly one of the biggest things hurting its growth.
It’s also not the most organization-friendly esport, as spots in the RLCS are controlled by the players, most of whom are teens, deterring many of the orgs and the sponsors that come with them from being fully involved. Obviously, there are some orgs that are truly all-in, but that number could be much, much higher.
Rocket League is my favorite game and esport by a significantly wide margin. It’s essentially the only video game I care about. I want nothing more than to see it get to the same level as League of Legends. It absolutely has the potential to do so, but there is a lot that can still be done to maximize its growth.
Calling it a tier-1 esport in its present state doesn’t help. In fact, claiming that it’s already on that level suggests that it’s close to its ceiling as an esport. It’s not even remotely close, and there’s nothing wrong with saying that.
I do want to mention that there’s nothing wrong with flaunting where Rocket League is right now. It’s clearly on the upswing as a form of entertainment. Big orgs are joining, it’s gaining massive sponsors such as Ford and Verizon, and its viewership and playership are both still on the rise. Several content creators like Musty, SunlessKhan, and most recently Lethamyr, have surpassed 1,000,000 subscribers on YouTube. It’s perfectly understandable that the community is hyped about these developments.
Here’s to the Future
Rocket League has one of the highest potentials of any esport, and it’s not even close to reaching it. That alone should be enough reason to be excited about it. But our focus as a community should be on improving on the things that deter it from reaching that potential, not trying to convince the general public that it’s already there.
The biggest draw of Rocket League as an esport isn’t its viewership or its prize pool. It’s not its sponsors or the orgs. Other esports have a pretty decent advantage in these regards. The biggest draw of Rocket League is the game itself. The best way to help it gain viewers is to show people the gameplay, not the numbers or the crowds. That is what sets Rocket League apart, and that’s why it has so much potential.
Saying Rocket League is not a tier-1 esport is not meant to be a dig on the game. It’s a simple matter of truth. It’s obvious that it has tons of room to grow as an esport. The question of its prominence at the present moment should be irrelevant. We should instead be asking how we can help it grow because we all know it can.
If we pretend Rocket League is already at the top of the esports hierarchy, we become complacent. We lose a sense of competition with similarly-sized esports. We delude ourselves into thinking there isn’t anything else that can be done to truly make it a cultural phenomenon besides ‘wait.’ It eases the pressure on Psyonix to optimize the esport’s growth, but if anything, we should be increasing the pressure. We can’t pretend that time is the only thing that’s preventing Rocket League from being the next League of Legends, otherwise we’ll be waiting forever.