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Rocket League

Rocket League Esports Three Years Later

RLCS Season 1

Rocket League’s first World Championship was played just three years ago on August 6-7, 2016. Looking back and seeing how much the esport has changed feels strange given that three years really isn’t that long. This esport is still just a baby in the world of well established esports franchises, but it’s easy to forget that when considering Rocket League’s potential. Focusing on the game’s future makes it easy to take for granted how far the esport has come.

It’s a common thought that Rocket League is the easiest esport to watch and comprehend and that it can appeal easily to all audiences, so it could be the biggest esport in the world. But it isn’t. And three years ago, it certainly wasn’t. All the progress the esport has made in terms of viewership and org inclusion had to start somewhere, and the RLCS Season 1 World Championship was the perfect culmination of a tight-knit community taking its first step toward the mainstream.

The best way to look at this may be to remember the most important details instead of drowning in the hours of content. Many Rocket League fans who started to follow Rocket League did so because of the new waves of talent, courtesy of the likes of Mariano “Squishy” Arruda and Justin “JSTN” Morales. 

History and lore and are essential parts of any community, so here’s a look back at the what, who, where and when of Rocket League’s first World Championship.

What

You can’t just type in RLCS 1 on Liquipedia and look at League Play of the first RLCS season because the format was different than what Psyonix has established now. There were still four teams from NA and EU at the finals, but the route to get there was very different.

The regular season was split into two group stage qualifiers, and the four teams that performed the best across the two splits qualified for LAN. It was hard to determine which teams deserved to play in the game’s best league, so Twitch and Psyonix decided to give as many teams a chance as possible.

Instead of a round robin best of five League Play that the esport has used since Season 2, RLCS Season 1 had teams play all five games of a series against each other, and each win was worth points that counted toward making LAN. Instead of a 3-0 sweep there’d be a 5-0 sweep or a 4-1 win where the losing team only won game five. It’s the same approach Major League Baseball uses.

The lead-up to LAN was incredibly close, with Supersonic Avengers and Lucky Bounce barely missing out.

The World Championship was called the “RLCS International Finals” in RLCS Season 1, which makes more sense than calling it the Rocket League Championship Series World Championship.

Also a band played? Yeah, really. Some band called Hollywood Principle came and played a couple of songs. The lead singer wasn’t wearing shoes and the mic on the drums was way too loud. It was really strange, and is by far the weirdest part of watching the VOD three years later. Twitch chat was, predictably, frustrated by the ballad.

Rocket League was trying to be innovative, and when you swing for the fences, you’re going to bunt the ball of your own orbital bone a couple of times. Speaking of home runs, this much edgier, gamer-guy lead in was a lot cooler than the current one.

Kronovi’s iBUYPOWER team edged out Flipsid3 Tactics 4-2. Before the RLCS Cosmic Aftershock wrecked fools left and right with Gibbs, Kronovi and Kais “Sadjunior” Zehr. They disband before the RLCS, which worked out well for Kronovi.

Kro added Brandon “Lachinio” Lachin and Cody “Gambit” Dover for RLCS Season 1, but after the first split, they added Ted “0ver Zer0” Keil as a sub/replacement for Gambit. 0ver Zer0 more or less took over Gambit’s spot as the season went on. When it came to LAN, 0ver Zer0 got the nod. He won MVP for his performance and was among the first Rocket League world champions.

Don’t get it twisted, though – Kronovi was the best player in the world at that time. It wouldn’t last long, but Kronovi was the star of the esport, no questions asked. Francesco “Kuxir97” Cinquemani was the only one who could challenge him, and they met in the Grand Final.

RLCS Season 1
Kuxir97 – courtesy of WSOE

Flipsid3 lost to iBUYPOWER Cosmic in the first round, but won five straight series in the lower bracket to make it to the final. It was a pretty incredible lower bracket run, and Kuxir was playing out of his mind. They just didn’t have enough in the Grand Final and would have had to force a bracket reset anyway. It was Kronovi and iBUYPOWER’s day.

In-game crowd noise was still on, they used free cam a lot more and the aerial game was really limited to shooting high passes. No flip resets or air dribbles here, folks – just a whole lot of single jump aerials and clumsy ground play.

Another interesting thing when looking back is seeing how professional the broadcast was for its first live event. There were plenty of hiccups along the way (the walk-outs are all tremendously stiff and awkward, the music was weird), but the overall production was great for its first time.

Who:

Michael “Quinn Lobdell” Behrouzi was a pro player at this time! This short feature on him is just wonderful.

He looks so much older than his teammates, and considering Genesis’ performance (they lost in the second round of the loser’s bracket) it makes sense that he made the leap to casting. It is also incredibly on brand that he’d wear a flannel over his shirt to compete. 

Looking back at who was involved is definitely the most endearing part of watching the VOD. Seeing future gods like Garrett “GarrettG” Gordon and Pierre “Turbopolsa” Silfver as young teens is hilarious. If someone had floated the idea that those two would eventually be teammates, the community would have laughed that person out of the room. Three years later, it’s the truth.

In order to not be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of names and teams and to try and understand who really mattered at the time, perhaps the players are best digested in groups. The full teams and rosters are listed on Liquipedia.

There were three different groups of players at the original LAN. First is the bonafide stars who were at the absolute top of the game in RLCS Season 1. Second is the rising stars who ended up having long careers. The third is players who were really good at SARPBC but never really turned into stars in Rocket League before the new wave caught up.

Group 1: Cameron “Kronovi” Bills, Francesco “Kuxir97” Cinquemani, Remco “Remkoe” den Boer, Kais “Sadjunior” Zehri, Mark “Markydooda” Exton, Isaac “Turtle” App, Braden “Pluto” Schenetzki, Ted “0ver Zer0” Keil.

Kronovi, Kuxir97 and Remkoe were the only ones whose game has aged well and who have consistently stayed at the top of the meta extending out to Season 7. They’ve had their ups and downs, but these players have stayed in the RLCS and won majors. The rest of the group were insane at Rocket League, but the game just sort of passed them by.

RLCS Season 1
Mock-It EU – Courtesy of RLCS

These were the guys making great plays and consistently hitting aerials and things, but they were nowhere near the skill ceiling pros are at today. 0ver Zer0 came in as a sub for Gambit, pulled off a two touch air dribble and won MVP for the whole tournament. The gods of this era were not the mechanical masterminds that dominate today, but in comparison they were pretty insane. 

They were great players who had great careers, but they never found glory beyond the first couple of seasons despite being the best players from RLCS Season 1. It’s extremely hard to quantify just how good they were since the game is so different, but a lot of these players retired or sub for RLCS teams because they can’t hang.

(Pluto gets the slight nod over Espeon just because he made the World Championship in Season 3 and Espeon didn’t.)

Group 2: Garrett “GarrettG” Gordon, Jayson “Fireburner” Nunez, Marius “gReazymeister” Ranheim, Pierre “Turbopolsa” Silfver, Phillip “Paschy90” Paschmeyer, Jacob “Jacob” McDowell, Nicolai “Maestro” Bang, Brandon “Lachinio” Lachin.

This is the group that completely dismantled the first group after Season 3. GarrettG, Fireburner, Turbopolsa and Greazy are the only ones who made it to Season 7, and Greazy was in the Rival Series. Still, this group pushed the meta forward and made the game faster and more precise. Only three remain in the RLCS.

The way the Rocket League world talks about Yanis “Alpha54” Champenois and Kyle “Scrub Killa” Robertson is the same way that it used to talk about Jacob and Lachinio. They were so unpredictable and just knowing how to consistently hit air roll shots from weird angles and do a couple of flicks made them seem like unstoppable beasts.

Paschy flamed out but was a dominant force until Season 5. He also had a really unique eye for talent and always assembled talented rosters. Maestro also made a couple of RLCS runs and even played Season 7 with Vikings, but never reached his potential.

This group is a mixed bag because Turbo is the only one who went on to a win World Championship after Season 2. He, Garrett and Greazy are the only ones who are still at the top of the game. The rest had a few good seasons and then flamed out, pretty comparable to Group 1.

Group 3: Michael “M1k3Rules” Costello, Alexander “Sikii” Karelin, Dogukan “Dogu” Yilmaz, Jasper “Vogan” van Riet, Caleb “Moses” Nichols, Michael “Quinn Lobdell” Behrouzi, Adam “Espeon” Barth.

This group is the funniest group to remember. M1k3Rules won a World Championship in Season 2. How?

Everyone else retired soon after, hung on for a season or three or made the jump to broadcasting. The meta moved way too quickly for these guys and even though some still play today or had success in the Rival Series, none ever caught up to the meta.

With so many new mechanics and skills that flooded the game since then, it makes sense that some would be left behind. As the game became more optimized pros that couldn’t dedicate their life to this tiny esport couldn’t spend the time needed to keep up.

Group 4 (it’s literally just Jessie): Connor “Jessie” Lansink.

RLCS Season 1
Jessie at DreamHack: Leipzig 2018 – Courtesy of Jennika Ojala for DreamHack

Jessie was never on the same level as Group 2, but he’s become a meme like Gibbs has. He’s the unluckiest Rocket League player in the world, but he still managed to place top eight as a sub at DreamHack: Leipzig 2018 and still streams and subs for RLCS teams on the regular. He lives on as a legend and is still a highly regarded and mechanically skilled player despite not winning in the RLCS so he gets his own group.

The casters at this event were incredible. Getting Alex “Goldenboy” Mendez was a great grab and the original group of casters was great. Adam “Lawler” Thornton had the call of the most iconic moment of the tournament, so he’s kind of the voice of RLCS Season 1 in a way. 

The original group of casters enjoyed a special friendship much like the original Rival Series crew did, but there were some unprofessional moments and slip ups that have been ironed out over the last three years. Most importantly, they made the broadcast fun to watch and entertaining even three years later.

Where:

The RLCS International Finals were held in Los Angeles, California at Avalon Hollywood. This is perhaps the strangest part of things since the last two RLCS finals have been at bonafide sporting arenas and Season 5 at the Copper Box was the most intense atmosphere yet.

Avalon Hollywood is just a nightclub in LA that they got to put the event on. The set up feels really strange in hindsight. Instead of having the players sit in the middle of an arena and having the jumbotron above them, in RLCS Season 1 there was sort of just a screen at the front of the room and some chairs lined up.

The crowd was a bunch of young teens or children, so the night club vibe was strange. It was just a venue, but imagine hosting a major Smash tournament at some club in Miami. The venue should fit the audience that’s attending. 

Imagine a DreamHack event stuffed into a nightclub but with just eight teams and a musical interlude. It was weird.

RLCS Season 1
Courtesy of Psyonix

It made sense for Psyonix to stay close to their home base of San Diego. The first LAN at Avalon Hollywood seemed like a pilot episode for a fall sitcom. Psyonix wanted to do enough to stand out but still stick to the esports formula and have lots of lights and action.

There were definitely some incredible goals scored, but everything feels slow and frumpy in hindsight. There were loads of double commits, a lack of punishing double commits and a even stranger lack of spacing. Everyone seems bunched up and hesitant.

Most goals were scored on bounce shots, long shots or straight forward aerials. It didn’t take nearly as much to get it around challenging pros. Reading bounces off the back wall was much harder so players kind of just threw themselves at the ball and hoped to be in the right spot.

That isn’t to say it wasn’t high quality Rocket League, it was, but it barely holds a candle to the speed and precision that today’s players put on display.

Overall, it was a successful trial run that led into something greater. Psyonix learned from their mistakes and kept things moving forward. Three years ago Rocket League was relegated to a club in LA, and now they’re filling up stadiums with space for 10,000 people.

When:

RLCS Season 1 ended on August 7, 2016. Now the RLCS seasons are split into a kind of spring/fall format with odd numbers in the spring/early summer and even numbered seasons in the fall. Season 2 concluded just four months later in December, then Season 3 set the current model by finishing in June.

Rocket League released July 7, 2015, so there was already a competitive ecosystem up and running within a year of release. Putting together a competitive scene quickly and competently can be hard. 

Fortnite released two years later and already has an unreal prize pool, but Rocket League was the same kind of smash hit back in 2015. Psyonix just didn’t have the capital to create a bombastic esport with the same capital as Epic Games. Now they are a part of Epic. 

There’s not much else to say as to when, but here are some interesting tidbits:

  • The RLCS Season 1 final prize pool was $55,000 compared to $529,500 final prize pool in Season 7.
  • Original sponsors Mobil1, NZXT and Razer are all no longer official sponsors.
  • Mock-It had an NA and an EU team in RLCS Season 1. Sikii, Paschy90 and Turbopolsa were the first team to bow out and Dillon “rizzo” Rizzo, William “Low5ive” Copeland and Trevor “Insolences” Carmody did not make the International Finals.
  • iBUYPOWER were the only NA team to win more than one series at the International Finals. EU finished second, third, fourth and fifth.

Three years later, Rocket League has evolved and adapted in many ways. There are no more LANs at night clubs or bands on stage. Everything is a little more buttoned-up and a lot more well-funded.

The biggest difference, and perhaps the most intriguing omen for Rocket League’s future is the viewership numbers and quality of play. Championship Sunday of the International Finals had less than 20,000 average viewers on Twitch. Season 7’s championship Sunday averaged more than 100,000 and the Grand Final piqued at 202,559.

RLCS Season 1
Courtesy of Psyonix

As far as on-field action, if someone streamed these replays from a player’s perspective people would probably think it was Diamond or low champ level play. Pros pounded the ball into the corner over and over until someone messed up or they forced it around for a shot.

No one is wave dashing or holding power slide on recoveries. Aerials are slow and rarely ping off the corner of the hit box. Bunching and spacing has evolved a lot too. As the quality of hits have increased, the need to be close to the ball has lessened, so pros can camp out on walls and the backboard because their teammate might actually find them. In RLCS Season 1 everyone just drove on the ground and did single jump aerials to hit it toward the goal or the corner.

The skill ceiling has increased dramatically, and in RLCS Season 1 there was a lot left to be discovered. Wave dashes and fast aerials have literally changed the way the game is played with an emphasis on speed and momentum. In 2016, players were often driving around at regular speed and only using boost when they attacked the ball.

That’s very encouraging now to see that so much progress has been made, but at the same time it’s sort of intimidating because it seems that the game can’t get much faster or much more precise, but the pros are constantly pushing the game to its limit.

RLCS Season 1 was magical and its quirks and successes were exactly the foundation the game needed to move forward. Now its huge potential makes the game alluring to the mainstream and before we know it, Rocket League could be the biggest esport in the world. 

 

Featured image courtesy of Rocket League Championship Series.

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