Rocket League’s second division, the Rival Series, is now one of the game’s most important assets. The league started as a solution to one of the game’s biggest problems; how do you take a player base of more than 50 million people and select the best 16 teams to compete in a seasonal format?
Since the Rival Series’ debut in Season 4, 42 players who have spent a season in the RLRS have gone on to play in the Championship Series. Some gained promotion, some sparked interest from bigger orgs and some earned promotion the season after being relegated.
Of the 24 players to feature in NA’s Season 7 League Play, 12 played in the Rival Series. Of the 24 in EU, 10 paid their dues in the second division. The Rival Series has become one of Psyonix’s most important fountains of talent both on the pitch and in the booth.
In Season 7’s epic G2 vs. Renault Vitality Grand Final, former Rival Series caster Joey “Jorby” Ahrens called the match, an honor previously reserved for announcers RL legends like James “Jamesbot” Villar, Callum “Shogun” Keir and Kevin “FindableCarpet” Brown.
Now that the game has matured “new” faces like Jorby, Michael “Achieves” Williams and Jack “Corelli” Collier are essential parts of each RLCS broadcast. The games they commentate feature league MVPS like Justin “JSTN” Morales and Yanis “Alpha54” Champenois who both cut their teeth in the Rival Series.
The thing is, it wasn’t always this way. The Rival Series’ first season (RLCS Season 4), was not the well-polished, professional display fans saw during Season 7. It was something much more magical.
The concept was simple. There were too many great Rocket League players, and not enough slots for them to play in. For high level Rocket League teams, everything came down to two RLCS Play-In tournaments a year. Before Seasons 2 and 3 of the RLCS, 48 teams gunned for just eight spots in NA and EU.
That means 36 teams from each region didn’t make it, and with nothing to play for after missing out on the RLCS, teams usually just disbanded. It led to a lot of turnover in the league as well. If an RLCS team struggled, they’d just disband and try to requalify. For a brand new esport hoping to establish stars and solid teams, the lack of continuity was troubling.
“The concept of the Rival Series spawned from the immediate needs of the Rocket League Esports ecosystem at the time,” Josh Watson, Senior Manager, Global Esports at Psyonix told TGH. “As the league matured it became apparent that requiring RLCS teams to qualify through an open qualifier every season was leading to roster instability; as well as adding uncertainty to the players and their organizations.”
Future RLCS staples like Mariano “Squishy” Arruda and Jordan “EyeIgnite” Stellon were just a couple of series short of making it to the RLCS, and had to wait six months to try again. Former RLCS squads couldn’t count on playing in the next season. All eight spots were up for grabs with each new season.
Something needed to change. These budding stars needed an official, Psyonix-backed environment where they could show off their potential, and interested esports orgs needed more than the promise of just one season before investing in Rocket League teams.
Psyonix and Twitch agreed. They enlisted the help of Rival Esports (formerly Pro Rivalry League), made a deal with Twitch and started to get things rolling. First they needed a studio.
The budget for the Rival Series was low. They explored a few options, and PRL’s founder and manager Murty “scheist” Shah suggested they could broadcast the second division series from his father’s house in Los Angeles. Psyonix and Twitch approved, and the house became the backdrop for the Rival Series’ debut season.
The Season 4 RLCS Play-In would reward 16 teams in NA and EU the chance to play in official competition. The top six made the RLCS, and the next eight made the Rival Series.
Now came the issue of hiring broadcasters. Many of the initial RLRS crew had worked with PRL/Rival Esports in the past, but some were just talented casters from the community. Rival Esports reached out and signed the casting group of Michael “Achieves” Williams, Jack “Corelli” Collier, Joey “Jorby” Ahrens, Travis “Subie_SmasH” Hale, Thomas “Tom Kelly” Kelly and Ryan “Unthink” Anderson with Daniel “Jebro” Littleton as the host.
“I don’t think there is ever going to be an esports production experience quite like what we ended up putting together,” Ryan “Unthink” Anderson said. “It was almost like hanging out at an esports frat house at a certain point.”
There were plenty of bumps along the way. The low budget meant making certain exceptions sacrifices that a typical esports broadcast wouldn’t have to consider.
The broadcast was carried out from the living room of Scheist’s home. Jebro and an analyst would sit at a desk on one side of the room, the production equipment and a big computer rig were laid out in the middle, and the “booth” where casters watched and commentated on the games sat on the other side of the room. The booth was just a desk and barstools in front of some curtains.
“The desk analysts and the casters could literally make eyesight with each other,” Unthink recalled.
During the first week of the Rival Series, the production team elected to use a boom mic on pole to get the audio for the casters. There weren’t enough headsets to go around, so they held the mic over them while they would cast. The mic had a very impressive range, and would pick up every sound in the room.
The living room had wooden floors that creaked when stepped on. During the broadcasts of the matches fans could hear casters and crew walking around the room. None of the broadcasters could wear shoes in the home, out of respect to the owner. They did all of the casting and production from their socks.
“We were up at like 1 a.m. the night before building the set and getting everything ready,” Subie_Smash said.
Shorter casters like Jorby and Achieves would have to stand on a box or some books to fit into the live shots with taller casters like Subie_SmasH.
When the match would begin and the feed would show the ingame action, the casters would get down close to the monitors at their feet to watch and talk about the game. One would get on a knee and use the controller to move the camera around, while the other would lean over his shoulder and talk into his ear as the match went on.
“There’s nothing better than feeling Jorby’s breath on your neck as he’s yelling in your ear about everything happening in the match,” Unthink said. “The best part would be, when the game would finish, we’d have to make this smooth transition back to standing up and hope that our ties were still in one place and that our hair was still in order. At one point people started calling Jorby ‘Lettuce Hair’ and my tie was messed up for half of the production.”
They made the best of the situation. Subie started bringing in his computer so there could be multiple spectators in the game.
“Jorby continually forgot his glasses, so he would literally be like cheek to cheek with me when we would cast together,” Subie_Smash said. “If we turned to look at each other we’d be giving each other an eskimo kiss. It was the greatest time to learn to be a caster. It was awesome.”
Sometimes the air-conditioning in the home would turn on and drown out the audio. Even the headsets would pick up the din, so they had to do the broadcast without A/C.
Other times players wouldn’t show up for their match on time and leave the casters to filibuster until their arrival. Unthink recalls specifically doing mounds of research about one player only to have the order of the days’ series mixed up right before turning his mic on and having to cast a series for a team he wasn’t prepared for.
Meanwhile the two cameras at the center of the room would shut off automatically every thirty minutes. Scheist would run over in his socks and shut the cameras off during breaks or transitions between the desk and the booth so they wouldn’t turn off while they were live.
Each of the casters pointed to Elliot “Quent” Ewing, the CEO of Rival Esports, as the unsung hero of the broadcast. Quent handled almost the entirety of the behind the scenes work himself, and came up with things like the fan voting graphics on the fly.
It was the type of grassroots, community-style broadcast that was so effective when starting the RLCS, but in a much different setting. Broadcasting the matches from a home gave the stream a very cozy feeling. With drapes as the backdrop, fans began to feel a sense of comfort and relaxation when they’d watch the Rival Series.
The first season of the RLRS will forever be one of the hallmark moments that dots the path on the way to new heights. The quirks and miscues led to an endearing romp through Rocket League for pros, fans and casters alike.
Witnessing the first season of the Rival Series was like watching the NBA in the 1960s. Everything felt clunky and stiff, but there was plenty of potential. These clunky moments led to a special connection among the casters. One that still carries on to this day.
The Giggle Twins.
That’s what the crew of casters used to call Jorby and Achieves. The name spawned from the duo’s affinity for late night conversations and unmistakable laughter.
“I slept in the room next to the studio, and I’d say it was a very college dorm vibe,” Jorby said. “It was nothing crazy. The two of us couldn’t sleep, so we just talked and laughed. It was a huge bonding moment.”
Jorby and Achieves were inseparable during that first season, and it makes a lot of sense. What do you get when you gather seven young men with a similar passion for video games and trap them in a house together for five straight weekends?
Hearing the casters talk about the first season of the Rival Series is like listening to your friends from high school talk about summer camp. Everyone is nostalgic, everyone made strides as an adult and everyone wishes they could go back.
“There was curveball after curveball after curveball,” Unthink said. “Heck, one team was disqualified halfway through the season for cheating. We had to keep it light. We had to have fun.”
While many of these casters had worked on broadcasts before and would go on to do greater things, the Rival Series was a dream come true. It was validation for all the hard work they had put in on smaller streams.
This group of casters had to ask Achieves to tie their ties for them upon arrival. Now they were working on an official, competitive broadcast of the game they loved.
“We have been extremely fortunate to be able to source casters and analysts directly from our community,” Josh Watson, Senior Manager, Global Esports at Psyonix told The Game Haus. “Almost all of our casters have been endemic to Rocket League, and as a result we feel that we have some of the most knowledgeable analysts in esports. When you bring members of the community to the analyst desk, they bring a level of passion and enthusiasm that cannot be matched; and we feel the sport is better because of it.”
Many were passionate enough to leave full time jobs behind. Subie had to leave his wife at home for five consecutive weekends. This was not just a gig for these casters. It meant more.
“It was almost like validation,” Subie said. “All the hard work that I’d put into casting wasn’t for the reason of trying to be in the RLCS. I did it because I thought it was fun… My daughter was about three years old, me and my wife work, but this is my passion this is my hobby.”
“It was a big moment because I had done third party events, but this felt like I had injected myself into the RLCS ecosystem was a dream,” Jorby said.
“It was obviously an opportunity for the players, but it was also an opportunity for the up and coming talent,” Jamesbot said. “All these guys got their chance to put their skills on display with a co-caster in person and it was really cool to see.”
Each caster would fly in Thursday night (except Subie, who lived close enough to drive) and then stay over at the house. Friday they’d spend casting EU Rival Series action in the afternoon and then they’d cast NA’s game in the evening. They’d head back home on Saturday. Each broadcast went on for about eight hours across the two regions. For the group of inexperienced casters, the nights after the cameras went off were special.
“You’re with all these people you’ve never been in this type of setting before, and it was one of the most hilarious times of my life,” Jorby said. “It was a lot of fun to have that many guys all caught up in the same place chilling and being idiots.”
They’d often kick back by the pool and just talk. About anything. Sometimes they’d play each other 1v1 on the computer rig. Everyone would laugh and tell stories before heading off to bed. They’d bunk in their rooms and keep talking. Jamesbot recalls ordering a lot of postmates to the house.
“You could tell it was something special,” Jamesbot said.
Long Term Impacts
When the U.S. Men’s National soccer team missed the World Cup by losing to Trinidad & Tobago in 2017, U.S. soccer zealots voiced the need for more competitive soccer domestically. Major League Soccer does not have a promotion/relegation based model like the world’s elite European leagues do, and many pointed to the lack of competition it creates.
If a team is terrible in the MLS, it doesn’t matter. The owner of the team can flounder for 15 straight seasons, and their team will remain in the league. A team finishes at the bottom of the Premier League falls to the Championship, where they must battle it out with 19 other teams to try and return to their former standing. It creates an environment where owners and team officials constantly have to improve the team. If they don’t, their team will drop.
The issue with the MLS, and the issue with Rocket League, is that some owners/orgs refuse to enter the scene if their team will just be relegated. That leads to unsigned teams like Triple Trouble never finding stability and having to disband.
The flip side is that a team like Triple Trouble never would have made the top league without the healthy environment of competition that promotion/relegation creates.
Any team with ambition, work ethic and skill can make the Championship Series after just one Rival Series season. Fnatic, Out of Style, Savage!, Bread and Birds and the Beez all made the premier division after just one season in the second tier. Splyce, FlyQuest, The Peeps and Triple Trouble needed a season to get acclimated. Allegiance and Complexity both dropped but made it back up. All of these teams have capitalized on the second division, and the esport is better as a whole for it.
“When we introduced the Rival Series, we added the concept of active rosters and tournament spot retention. With these changes and the introduction of our ⅔ rule (which requires a team to keep ⅔ of their active roster to retain their spots in the next season), we have seen more roster stability.” Josh Watson
The 2/3 rule and spot retention were also huge steps forward for the esport. Knowing that six teams will remain in the league from one season to the next makes it much easier to follow the esport. It also keeps the pros on the top of their game, because they know that relegation could be around the corner.
“Having the Rival Series is a huge incentive to compete,” Jamesbot said. “Even if you just miss out there’s something to hold you over. If the Rival Series never existed, I think there would be a huge gap in skill between teams looking to get in and the teams that are in. Now we see RLRS teams beating RLCS at DreamHack events. The level of play wouldn’t be as high as it is now.”
The Rival Series also adds a sense of hope for up and coming players. It’s still incredibly difficult to qualify, but it doubles a future pro’s chances of playing in an official competition. So many players hung up the sticks because the RLCS spots were so difficult to attain.
Now Psyonix has to look at issues like expanding the RLCS and RLRS to allow for more teams. Maybe they’ll consider something entirely different after being acquired by Epic Games. The space for expansion and evolution is very enticing.
It never would have happened if not for that first Rival Series season. Between the casters and the pros, Rocket League has cultivated an enormous amount of talent by adding a second division. And it all started with the Giggle Twins.
Featured image courtesy of Rocket League Championship Series.
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