eSports

Opinion: Rocket League Will Never Be a Tier One Esport, but it Can Dominate High School

In the esports industry, there is no esport with greater potential to penetrate popular culture than Rocket League. The game’s structure most closely mirrors a traditional sport without being a pure sports sim, it requires the least mechanical knowledge to follow mid-match, and creates some of the most stunning, skill-expressive highlights of any esport.

So why isn’t it the biggest esport? Why has it never made Tier One on The Esports Observer’s quarterly PC Games Impact Index? Why is it outside of the Top 10 every year in prize money on Esports Earnings?

Let me be extremely clear — Rocket League is a monumental success and a truly fantastic esport. On Steam alone the game still averages more than 50K concurrent players (having grown its player base on other platforms since going free-to-play). In fact, last September Rocket League passed 1M concurrent players across all platforms. It’s biggest events draw solid viewership, even breaking last week’s Top Five in hours watched. Psyonix Studios was able to leverage the game’s breakout success into an acquisition by Epic Games. Rocket League is an excellent game that everyone involved should be proud of.

But that burning question still remains — what will it take to push the game to a higher status as an esport? If it’s so accessible, why aren’t more people watching it?

When the Epic Games acquisition was first announced, there was a hope that the Fortnite maker’s deep pockets would help boost Rocket League with an attention-grabbing prize pool, but while prize money has grown, it is nowhere near enough to take notice in a world where The International is creeping closer to $50M. While its player base numbers are worthy of celebration, they do not approach the figures touted by the League of Legends and Counter-Strikes of the world.

With the recent announcement of a mobile version, Rocket League may see a new surge of interest, but historically if there are any substantial gameplay differences in a mobile port their esports ecosystems become separate entities. Perhaps Rocket League Sideswipe will become a relevant esports title, but that may have little impact on pushing the original to Tier One status.

However, there is one still largely untapped area of esports where all the factors that people have touted for years about Rocket League could make it a dominant force – scholastic esports.

Middle and high schools are going to take a long time to see widespread adoption of the major esports titles. Shooters are going to largely be a non-starter, and I imagine many parents have similar feelings to those of the International Olympic Committee that any game with “killing” as a core gameplay element will be a tough sell.

In that arena, a game with no violence and gameplay that’s easy to comprehend for an outsider is a slam dunk. It’s a real esport played by professional organizations, so there’s more of a path-to-pro than other “safe” options like sports simulations, the team nature and lack of Nintendo involvement makes it better for school clubs than Smash Bros., and parents can actually understand if their kid is winning a match. Rocket League is the perfect youth esport. We already see organizations like the YMCA selecting Rocket League in addition to traditional sports systems for their program, so making it a major national high school sport is a natural next step. 

Scholastic esports also create a perfect opportunity to cultivate the next generation of Rocket League fans and players. Most kids are first exposed to an activity in a club setting – if Mom says you have to join an afterschool activity, and Rocket League is one of the options, even if you wouldn’t normally play the game, chances are you’re now a dedicated Rocket League player.

Already, organizations like PlayVS offer Rocket League as one of their high school categories, but the game is always just one of a list. In this era where esports awareness is growing but hesitation surrounding violence is still so strong, Rocket League has the chance to be a leader in a developing niche of the esports space. It could be first into the middle school space, or the first esport aside from Pokemon to create a true Junior league — awarding general scholarship money to competitors. Imagine if the travel league infrastructure that is so big in softball and soccer invested in Rocket League as well. 

Everything people say to champion Rocket League as the esport that can break through pop culture barriers is 100% right, but those facts don’t seem to be moving the needle enough at the professional level. Instead, it’s time to focus on where those realities can have an even greater impact – the developing world of youth esports.

Editor’s note: updated to include cross-platform growth figure.


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