Riding on rocket fuel - Rocket League and esports

X Games will host a $75,000 FACEIT Rocket League event in Minneapolis next month as a part of its annual action sports competition and arts and entertainment festival. Psyonix

Ever since its inception, esports has seen games usher crowds into auditoriums, studios, and later, stadiums. As time went by, more games succeeded in esports, and more people tuned in. We have witnessed the evolution of first-person shooters (from Quake to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive), real-time strategy games (from StarCraft to StarCraft II), MOBAs (from DOTA Allstars to League of Legends and Dota 2). Some drifted from concepts established by their predecessors and reshaped the genre, and others followed in the footsteps of their successful prequels. In 2015, Psyonix Studios released a game that shattered the mold altogether: Rocket League.

Rocket League's players use cars to put an oversized ball into an equally oversized goal, much as players score goals in soccer. Such a simple premise belies an art: how to control a rocket-fueled car on the ground and in the air, and how to properly hit the ball to execute passes or score. Over the course of seven months, the game gathered a dedicated player base and even gave birth to an esports scene. A scene that may be on the verge of breaking through.

Although it could be the bridge between sports and esports audiences, it has yet to experience the popularity that League of Legends, Dota 2, and other games have experienced before it.

But it is a nudge away, and the developers hold the keys to that event.

In the beginning, there were Super Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle Cars.

"I'm not a big fan of actual sports games like Madden or NHL, because you only have so much player ability. You don't have maximum control. In SARPBC, in a 2-on-2, you are [...] the foot of the player, and whatever you do is going to have the ball go to a certain direction for a pass or a shot. It's not like 'Press X to shoot.' It's really skill-based, so there's a lot to improve on as you play," said Randy "Gibbs" Gibbons, professional Rocket League player on Cosmic iBUYPOWER and one of the most recognizable players in the scene.

In 2000, a developer named Dave Hagewood founded Psyonix, a video game development studio that made (and still makes) extensive use of Unreal Engine and its iterations. Following the studio's first marquee contribution, Unreal Tournament 2004, developers experimented with the concept of giving vehicles more capabilities than an average vehicle had in video games at the time, specifically the concept of aerial control.

"That is, until Psyonix created a "soccer mode," a mode that proved so addictive, Hagewood later confessed that the developers "were having trouble getting people to focus on actually developing the game.""

Hagewood followed "an almost Tony Hawk system, with tricks and all" system, and the studio thought of building an extensive game with multiple game modes, ranging from destruction derby-type combat to obstacle course time trials, littered with boost pads - the latter which unintendedly allowed players to fly. The concept was there, but experiments had not yielded anything definitive.

That is, until Psyonix created a "soccer mode," a mode that proved so addictive, Hagewood later confessed that the developers "were having trouble getting people to focus on actually developing the game."

Suddenly, development shifted to what would be called "Super Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle Cars." It entailed building an engine that was as responsive to player movement and ball physics as possible. Hit angles mattered just as much as the speed at which the car collided with the ball (and with other cars at times). The game reacted to actions and let physics decide what happened next, rather than forcing a car into an animation, as is the case in sport simulations.

Psyonix had established a formula for success in 2007, but the chances of an indie game breaking through were slim at the time. In addition, publishing such an unorthodox game was a quandary of its own. "Even though we looked at it, and we thought it was the strangest game to be pitching to publishers or trying to get Sony and Microsoft to pick up on their platforms," said Hagewood, "we needed to stick to the fact that this is so much fun." Their approach proved fruitful in 2007 as Sony distributed it on PlayStation 3.

In the same year, a young Gibbs had noticed the game's trailer on a blog, and he decided to give the game a chance -- a feat several others replicated on their way to one of the most addicting experiences they had at that time.

Gibbons cited the game's sport-like aspect as the deciding factor in his purchase of the game, but another factor compelled him to spend hours upon hours playing, to and become part of its community, and to emerge as one of the most prominent faces of its sequel, Rocket League; much as Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi used precise movements to shoot or pass the ball, so did SARPBC players.

But the game was not without flaws; Gibbons also recalled some of its frustrating aspects: relatively clunky car controls and latency issues that produced unexpected effects, occasionally derailing the experience. "You could hand-brake and turn around extremely quickly, even quicker than you can now. Plus, in the first game, it was peer-to-peer hosting for the online, so lag was a big factor compared to now with dedicated servers," he explained.

Unbeknownst to all, Psyonix was paving the way for a sequel to SARPBC. However, the studio needed to survive until the opportunity presented itself, and that they did by collaborating on blockbuster projects such as Mass Effect 3 and XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

In the meantime, they attentively fixed issues as they cropped up, heavily improving matchmaking and lag issues over the years. Those fixes proved crucial to the success of the game's award-winning sequel: Rocket League.

Rocket League Launches, Esports Scene Starts Strong

"Rocket League was the culmination of five, six years of community feedback, plus our own advanced ideas," said Jeremy Dunham, vice president of Psyonix Studios.

There would be no obscurity for the indie studio in July 2015, as its $2 million development project landed into PlayStation 4 (for free during the first week) and on PC via Steam, the most popular distribution platform around. The communities played with one another, as they benefited from cross-platform play.

Gone were the days of peer-to-peer connection and clunky controls, and in came dedicated servers and intuitive handling, smoothening the experience for gamers around the world. The community's response to pre-release streams built such a buzz that Psyonix's expectations of 10,000 concurrent players upon the game's release were shattered: It was 150,000 in the first week.

More importantly, as streamers and YouTubers played it, they introduced their audiences to it. Take for example William "Low5ive" Copeland, a member of one of North America's finest squads, Mock-It eSports. "My roommate's a huge fan of the mega-streamer Lirik and saw him playing Rocket League on stream one day a couple weeks after release. My roommate thought it looked like blast and wanted to play it together. He never ended up buying it, but it was too late for me. I was hooked immediately."

Much like its predecessor, a competitive scene grew from day one -- but it would not be an underground movement, the likes that Gibbons had spearheaded in 2007.

The Electronic Sports League carved an early stake in the game's competitive landscape with a kickoff series that gathered over 20,000 concurrent viewers at its peak. Since then, it has remained an active part of the scene with the Go4RocketLeague circuit, composed of $75 weeklies and a monthly tournament that gathers the best teams of the weeks preceding it.

Major League Gaming was also an early player, tending to the higher end of professional play through invitational tournaments and pro draft series, yielding moments that helped cement Rocket League's potential as the next big thing in esports, provided exposure was there. MLG's arrival and departure -- subsequent to Activision Blizzard's acquisition -- marked significant eras in the game.

Click here for footage of the first MLG featuring the "Kyle Masc," a buzzer-beating play that combines aerial play and a rule within the game: As long as the ball is in the air, it is in play.

"From an esports point of view, the biggest thing ever is that spectators can understand what's going on even if they're not players, and that's very rare in video games." Psyonix CEO Dave Hagewood

A SARPBC veteran, Gibbons certainly remembers the impact ESL and MLG's foray into the game had on the scene and on his life. "When people started watching us win every ESL," he recalls, "it was a little weird. You start to have a fan base, which I was surprised by. Probably two months after Rocket League came out, I started to buckle down and do some helpful stuff on YouTube."

On top of that, tutorials and footage streamed by professionals helped newcomers such as William Copeland progress quickly into competitors themselves, much as educational sports training videos have done for basketball players seeking to improve their dribbling, shooting and other attributes.

Such footage allowed the scene to grow and endure through MLG's departure, but it was not the sole factor behind its survival. An organization named Rocket League Central picked up where MLG left off and organized the Rocket League Central Pro League, allowing pros to keep demonstrating unbelievable feats -- such as the following "air dribble" from Gambit.

To help keep track of the happenings around the scene, Rocket League Central founder Blake "CloudFuel" Tull partnered with highlight factory Rocket League Cinema and the people behind the main Rocket League portal, Rocket League Garage, in creating a platform akin to StarCraft's Team Liquid or an ESPN.com vertical, complete with stats and news coverage.

But what does it take for esports that are so close to sports to be an esports mainstray?

Will Rocket League take off?

"From an esports point of view, the biggest thing ever is that spectators can understand what's going on even if they're not players, and that's very rare in video games. To be able to bring somebody in that has a very basic knowledge of what the game is, and to watch it and say, 'Wow, that is spectacular! -- that reminds me of real sports,'" said Psyonix's CEO, Dave Hagewood

One of the primary elements for esports prominence is readability, and Rocket League stands where no esports title has been before: Not only are players able to distinguish high-level of play and mistakes, mainstream audiences can grasp the game's principles quickly.

The second step is about enticing newcomers to pick up the game, but with such a game, the process is as easy as purchasing it and running it for the first time. Gibbs elaborates further. "When you first play, you're like, 'As long as I hit the ball, I'm fine.' Then you're like, 'As long as you hit the ball towards the goal, you're fine.' Then you start going 'All right, let's pick corners' and start shooting for corners."

Steve "Shalthis" Perry has shoutcasted countless highlights of Rocket League since its release for ESL and Rocket League Central, and he explains the third step: the spectacle that is high-level play. "In really high-level play, you can see that not only do these players have the ability to take off, go to any height and know where the ball is going to be, but they understand the physics of the field so well that they can position themselves before the ball has even arrived in order to help deflect a shot, make a save, or whatever it might be."

Why hasn't it broken through yet? Blake Tull highlights the need for more promotion, while Perry notes the need for bigger prize pools, a factor that may help stabilize the ecosystem within the competitive scene and provide incentives for spending lengthy periods practicing the game.

Psyonix have yet to unveil their plans to support the game's scene, but Dave Hagewood stated that they would want "at least an event" over the year. Much like the rest of the scene, he sees Rocket League becoming a spectator sport for all ages.

"One of the biggest advantages we have as a game is that we have a very simple concept. Anyone can understand getting the ball into the goal ... and we don't have anything crazy going on, so parents and kids can actually watch together without having to worry about seeing something crazy," adds Hagewood. "We want people to think of Rocket League and esports synonymously. We think we can do a lot for esports in general in terms of esports itself; help make esports more of a thing."