This past weekend saw the inaugural Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS), the world cup of boost-propelled football. It is not the first Rocket League tournament ever held, but as the game expands in popularity, developer Psyonix bet on its future in eSports with an ambitious tournament setup and a glitzy Hollywood finals. Parts of RLCS felt like a glimpse of the mainstream future for eSports, and it was all down to the game.
Many of the greatest competitive games have an enormous audience, outside of which they don't travel so well. Look at all the articles written to help non-players understand the International, the DotA 2 jamboree taking place this week. Competitive games from StarCraft to Counter-Strike, unless you're already a fan, are difficult to watch and enjoy.
Rocket League's simplicity is a virtue. This was not developer Psyonix's first attempt at making a boost-powered car football game: 2008's Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, after seven years of refinement, became Rocket League. It is stripped-back to the essentials: teams of rocket cars in an enclosed arena trying to score goals. You don't need to have played Rocket League to watch and understand, and it has even more innate advantages in the parallel to an existing sport and the five-minute matches—so many eSports events, even now, suffer from needless downtime.
The RLCS was the culmination of two qualifying rounds, held since April, during which any team from Europe or North America could enter their region's heats—first an open knockout, then a points-based league tournament. More than 20,000 players entered, and though small cash prizes were on offer, the real prize was a trip to Hollywood as one of the eight final competitors. In qualifying order, Europe sent Northern Gaming, Flipsid3 Tactics, Mock-It eSports, and the Flying Dutchmen, while North America was represented by Kings of Urban, iBUYPOWER Cosmic (iBP), Exodus, and Genesis. If you think those last two have a biblical thing going, you ain't seen nothing yet.
The RLCS finals use a double elimination format that means each team can lose once—but only once. Pre-tournament standings were quickly blown away on day one when the NA favorites Kings of Urban took an unceremonious spanking from the Flying Dutchmen, and losing 3–1 in a best-of-five match series, were dumped into loser's bracket. The final pairing in this round was iBP against the much-fancied Flipsid3 Tactics, and in a portent of what was to come, it took five closely fought games before iBP squeaked through.
This was the beginning of a streak that would take iBP to the final, but simply listing results would be dry. The privilege of the RLCS was seeing Rocket League played with superhuman skill at a relentless pace, the kind of knife-edge competition where the tiniest mistake loses everything. At this level, it becomes a different game, almost like ping pong, because both teams are so skilled at striking the ball in the air. There were languorous stretches where the ball was batted back-and-forth by mid-air combatants, hornet-like aerial duels, and sensational hits from space.
As the tournament wore on, it also became a test of team mentality. The loser's bracket match between Kings of Urban versus Flipsid3 saw the former wilt under expectation, while Flipsid3 began a resurgent run of form that would take it straight to the final. And what made RLCS feel like a great competitive event were the human stories that began emerging from these teams. The most irresistible was the rise of a new Messiah.
They call him Rocket Jesus. The resemblance, in truth, is only down to long hair, but on the pitch, iBP's 0ver_zer0 had his own line in miracles. An early glimpse came on day one against Flipsid3, when, for North America's sins, he babied this outrageous carry all the way home.
It gets better. iBP came into this tournament as outsiders mainly because team regular Gambit—considered among the world's very best—took a Rocket League sabbatical for personal reasons. 0ver_zer0 was his substitute, and something about that showed. Rocket Jesus was a hungry man on a grand stage, and he gobbled up every half-opportunity and grand air dive that presented itself. One of the hallmarks of professional Rocket League teams is discipline, the ability of each member to rotate through positions on the field and cover their team—another word for it might be "trust."
iBP has this quality and showed it throughout their games, with Lachinio a defensive colossus and Kronovi simply a beautiful all-round talent. But in Rocket Jesus, they had a player with the flair that can make a superstar. When watching iBP, it became usual, as you saw a ball hang in the air, to wonder which direction the hirsute wonder would be arriving from. Did he miss a few? Sure. But other times he'd score from nowhere, set up a teammate, or simply shut down the opponents' offense and move play upfield.
Against this Flipsid3 had the brooding Kuxir97, an Italian Batmobile-fancier of sensational skill: He scored from flying double-taps off the wall, he saved with boost-powered backward flips, he played throughout like the atmosphere itself was under his command—delicate toggles of boost to guide the car forward in 3D space and pedal-down flights into the ether. Kuxir's favorite zone is six feet in front of goal and roughly 30 feet high, making deft touches that turn the ball goalward but keep the momentum intact and crashing downward on anything that looks loose.
Flipsid3 is a gorgeous team to watch, and as the tournament wore on and Kuxir racked up goal after goal, the team seemed to grow in strength. The pinnacle may have been its third game against the Flying Dutchmen where, already two games up in a best of five, Flipsid3 put on a show and racked up what the Rocket League community calls a "Brazil"—a reference to Germany tonking Brazil 7–1 in the 2014 World Cup. The seventh was scored by M1k3rules, backward, before the occasion's poetry was ruined by his immediately smashing in another. The Flying Dutchmen came crashing down to Earth with an 8–2 loss, but having beaten two fancied teams and ended up in fourth place overall, it put in a big performance.
YouTuber XFijter's top ten goals from RLCS
As iBUYPOWER Cosmic and Flipsid3 progressed through their respective rounds, a rerun of their first round meeting grew more and more likely. Flipsid3's momentum and tournament story was the grand comeback, and as the goals flew in, the march to glory seemed possible—maybe even, in that wizard Kuxir97, somewhat destined. Northern Gaming hammered Flipsid3's goal in the second game of their semi-final match, but the scores stayed level—then in overtime Flipsid3 scored a sloppy winner, and from that point, NG buckled.
But if Flipsid3 were the comeback kids, iBP had fought to the final without losing a match. Throughout RLCS, iBP turned games and matches around—so many times the team went behind before coming back. In the final itself, Flipsid3 took the first game 1–0, but there was no panic. At some point, there was a sign in the crowd saying, "Take the Wheel Rocket Jesus," and perhaps He saw it because, in a game with everything on the line, 0ver_zer0 took risks and most of them paid off.
Flipsid3 play iBP in the RLCS final
Flipsid3 led 2–1 after three matches, but the final comeback belonged to iBP. The North American team went on a stunning run of three straight victories and became the first RLCS champions with a 4–2 victory.
Rocket League's heartbeat is purity, and the sky-high standard of RLCS was a wonderful showcase. But what made the inaugural RLCS worth watching was the passion of the players and fans, exemplified in Rocket Jesus. The guy's attitude was infectious, and after being awarded MVP following the final, his joyous disbelief was a magic moment.
RLCS delivered incredible skill-based competition, for which every team deserves credit, and human drama to boot. There will be many more to come but, in the tale of a humble substitute who went on to become Cosmic's saviour, the RLCS has one hell of a founding myth.
All RLCS matches are available to watch on YouTube, here.
Follow Rich Stanton on Twitter.