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While Rocket League has a strong community, increased the ways organizations can monetize with in game items, and has tried to keep the game fresh for both players and viewers, the esports scene has seem to hit a Psyonix created ceiling. Unlike more mature franchises like League of Legends and Counter-Strike, Rocket League lacks the size, prize pool, and ecosystem to both attracted large orgs to invest in the game and enable players to have long, successful careers.
Yet, the game has all the hallmarks of a title built to last. The game still has a large, active player base, content creators on both YouTube and Twitch, and a core concept that is both addicting and fun to watch. So why hasn't Rocket League become a "tier 1" esport? There are several reasons for that.
RLCS is lacking
The top flight of Rocket League is where many in the grand champ ranks wish to end up one day. Playing on a professional team, earning a salary, and eventually playing at the World Championship to become one of the greatest of all time. Who wouldn't want that? While previously Psyonix had to go it alone with limited funds, they no longer have that excuse post Epic Games buyout.
What makes the RLCS particularly "lacking" compared to other esports you may ask? Well, for starters the prize pool. While no one is expecting The International level of money, the increase in prize pool for both the top flight tournament (Worlds) and the money spread out during League Play is modest at best. In order to create a scene that both feels professional and encourages investment from larger orgs that either may have pulled out (Fnatic, Team Envy, CLG) or are hesitant to invest (Team Liquid, eUnited) you need a financial incentive.
Psyonix has increased the prize pool steadily every season, but the World Championship should be a $1 million tournament in addition to at least $500,000 spread between the four regions per region for league play. Another increase should come in the Rival Series which should be increased to ensure that it does not feel like either a retirement home for washed pros or for only bubble pros and the occasional young star. That would be the first big, but relatively easy, step for Psyonix. Increasing the prize pool/earning potential would give pros more incentive to keep playing, and increasing the prize pool in RLRS would make sure the second tier of RL would increase the profile of the series so orgs would not feel embarrassed to either invest or spend a season in until they would be promoted again.
Would this be simply enough to improve the top/second flight of Rocket League worldwide? Of course not! So far, Rocket League only has two "official" leagues in the major regions of North America and Europe. I would like to see Psyonix start to create official leagues for South America and Oceania (eventually Asia as well). While having affiliated leagues is fine, the next logical step would be having official RLCS leagues in all of the regions.
RLCS needs to evolve
You should always learn from others when they do things right. One of the biggest issues facing esports in general is monetization, and one of the ways traditional sports makes a large chunk of their revenue is through ticket sales and merchandise/sponsorships. While RLCS has done an increasingly better job of finding large venues for Worlds, that is just one weekend.
The real money RLCS could be making is in having RLCS on LAN. Instead of an online season, play the games at a studio in front of an audience of 100-200 every week. You could start off slow with just NA and EU and eventually to the other regions as they develop, but this would provide a way for brands to be visible in front of fans, give opportunities for much more in ticket sales, and ensure high quality of play throughout the duration of league play.
The second would be having the RLCS season "playoffs" be actual LAN events in larger venues than the proposed league play arenas, but would not be the size of Worlds for obvious reasons (target 500 - 1000 seat arenas) yet would provide a much more meaningful finale to the end of the regional seasons. Imagine NRG winning Season 7 (of NA not Worlds haha) in front of fans on LAN vs online. I'm sure it would be much more meaningful both to the players and to their fans as they would break the curse of choking on LAN and would give them a lot of quality LAN practice against the best teams in the region.
Obviously, this is not free money. Putting on events is not cheap and orgs would have to house players near the League play studio, but this is no different than from the LCS or LEC which have been successful in gaining sponsorships, ticket sales, and driving up interest for their esport. With a new partner in ad sales (Turner), Psyonix would be able to improve the appeal of their product to sponsors, and improve the quality of games in the league which would more than likely drive up viewership online. These improvements would not only be necessary quality of life ones, but would also provide for much better storylines going into Worlds.
RLCS needs a better Worlds
While Worlds has only gotten bigger ever year, it has largely stayed static as a tournament. The biggest event of the year has fewer matches than a DreamHack, and the format even after revision is still in need of improvement. For a season's final, fans want to see the best of the best go at each other, not go out of a tournament after playing two best of fives (last place teams). The entire Worlds tournament does not have to be played in front of an audience because that would be extremely expensive and more than likely not profitable, but having a week for Worlds with the final four days being in front of an arena would be a marked improvement.
With a longer schedule you would have much more time for more games of course. I would propose four team seeded groups (drawing the extra teams out of Oceania and South America) that would feature double round robin play. The groups would feed the top two seeds into the upper bracket of the playoffs and the bottom two teams would be sent to a losers' bracket. This is similar to a format the Call of Duty World League utilizes for their events with great success and would provide the best storylines imaginable.
The point of a World's event is to have the biggest spectacle known to your game, and to have just a three-day event is unacceptable in 2019 for an esport gunning to be in the same tier as League of Legends or DOTA2. The addition of more days would of course come with some increased cost, but would make ad buys more valuable and therefore more costly which would increase Psyonix' earning potential.
RLCS needs a better game
Okay, the heading is a little too provocative. Rocket League as a base game is amazing because of how low the floor is to play the game but how high the ceiling is to compete. Much like real life soccer, Rocket League has wide mass appeal, and that has resulted in great sales across consoles/devices. Yet, the game has struggled to find a home on Twitch where outside of pro streamers like Cameron "Kronovi" Bill, viewership is nonexistent. Very few large streamers casually play Rocket League like they would casually play a game like Fortnite or League of Legends.
Why? Well Rocket League has remained the same game since it launched. Sure there are some new modes, the cars are customizable, and we have been blessed with some cool limited time events, but the game doesn't have the large casual community it should command for a tier one esport.
How do you fix that? Well changing the core game would be really dumb and more than likely not bring new players. A major update would draw interest, but it would have to require a lot of work on Psyonix' part to bring in new players or those who have given up on the game altogether. Some argue that making the game free to play would bring in new players, but we have seen several free weekends on Steam, Xbox, and of course if you own a PlayStation odds are you own Rocket League and those players are more than likely already accounted for.
It is next to impossible to know exactly what consumers will jump for in a game, Psyonix could do better to support both esports organizations and players with more in game items. The Esports store is really cool, but I would love to see Psyonix have a custom limited time (tradeable) skin for the winning team after every Worlds. It could be a Dominus/Octane skin with signatures of players and feature a distinct look that would be befitting of World champs.
More limited time events and fun ways to play the game would be welcome because the game unlike League of Legends does not change drastically based on what car (compared to champion in League) you play as. The experience is pretty vanilla, and there is only so much soccar one can take before either tilting or going to play something else. Epic Games has done an amazing job of evolving Fortnite as both a game and as an experience which has helped the title retain a large following and massive Twitch streaming numbers. For Psyonix that should be the goal, continually evolving the Rocket League experience and finding ways to both excite casual and hardcore players in order to grow as a game and an esport.