The only thing more unexpected than Rocket League's dynamic gameplay is its monstrous success. The game's predecessor, the not-so-catchily-named Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, came out in 2008 and received middling reviews from critics. Rocket League has much the same premise — soccer, but with rocket-powered cars — so one would be forgiven for presuming that it, too, would flop following its release in July 2015. Instead, it became a critical darling and gamers responded accordingly: To date, developer Psyonix has tracked over 14 million unique players.
Its next challenge is cracking the lucrative world of eSports, an industry dominated by multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs), such as League of Legends and Dota 2, fighting games such as Street Fighter V, and first person shooters like Counter-Strike. So far, so good: The Electronic Sports League (ESL) picked up Rocket League shortly after its release, and Major League Gaming (MLG) held the first season of professional Rocket League in September and October. Currently, the inaugural Rocket League Championship Series is underway; the winning team will take home $55,000, which isn't a bad haul for playing a video game.
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Except, within the cash flush of eSports, it's not an especially great one, either. The total prize pool for The International Dota 2 Championships last year was nearly $18.5 million. The eventual winners, Evil Geniuses, took home over $6.6 million. Obviously that kind of cash doesn't arrive overnight, but Rocket League's prize money will need to increase for the game to continue to attract new talent and fan interest. But, Rocket League has just about everything else in place to make it big as an eSport.
First of all, and perhaps most importantly, the game itself is fantastic. The mechanics are simple, yet there's an extremely high skill ceiling that allows professional players to continually wow spectators. The cars can elevate to the point of practically flying and drivers can drive up the arena walls to use the additional height their advantage. There are countless videos of incredible Rocket League goals on YouTube, each more impressive than the last.
It makes for a low visual barrier to entry. MOBAs are notoriously complex to outsiders, and while a particular League of Legends play will thrill a hardcore devotee, all casual fans see is colorful characters and effects on screen. Someone new to fighting games won't understand just how intricate a particular combo was, while a member of the fighting game community will be left breathless. In Rocket League, however, anyone can tell it's impressive when a car soars through the air upside down as it slams the ball into the goal. Some games draw a following by being pick-up-and-play. Part of Rocket League's appeal is tune-in-and-watch.
And — this matters — Rocket League is perhaps the closest to real world sport eSports has to offer aside from real life crossovers like FIFA. There is a built-in replay system and while MOBAs often require tweaks or balancing, Rocket League generally provides a level playing field. Everyone has the same car - with only minute differences between the models — and the same set of skills. In nearly all situations, the better player wins. Additional game types only enhance the sports motif: Last winter gave us a hockey-style update, while a recent spring update added a basketball mode.
All of this comes at a relatively minimal cost. The game itself retails for $19.99 and is augmented by regular discounts and free weekends. Big updates such as new game modes and maps come for free, and PlayStation Plus subscribers were even able to download the game at no cost for an entire month after its release. The upshot? Teenagers — who simultaneously lack income and are also tomorrow's eSports stars — have ample opportunities to get hooked on the product.
What Rocket League lacks is personalities. A quick look at the Rocket League game page on game streaming service Twitch.tv shows a couple dozen channels, with the most viewers on one being a few hundred. Popular League of Legends and Dota 2 streamers rake in tens of thousands of viewers on a regular basis. They tune in to see the likes of former professionals Michael "Imaqtpie" Santana and Marcus "Dyrus" Hill, or current players like WehSing "SingSing" Yuen. In order to bolster viewer numbers for professional tournaments, Rocket League also needs to be generating regular views elsewhere. The spectators need someone to support. They also need commentators and analysts to enhance their live broadcast experience.
But, as with prize money, these things can sorted out over time. Rocket League has every other piece of the eSports puzzle laid out in front of it already. It can be a sensation different from any other game, and I hope it gets there. Why watch people play soccer if we could watch rocket-powered cars playing it instead?