You practiced Pac-Man or Dig Dug until you claimed the high score at your favorite bar or arcade. Your competitors were a long list of three-character names like DAN or JON, or ASS. The records were mercurial, only existing within the hard drives of physical machines and always subject to the dreaded reset button. 40 years later, the E-sports industry is worth about $700 million, and some are estimating that its value could increase to $1.5 billion by 2020.
For the uninitiated, E-sports is a complex field, defined by an ever-expanding list of games and genres. For ease of description though, it can be broken up into four major categories: Strategy Games (both real-time and action-real-time), sports games, first-person-shooters, and fighting games. Strategy games such as DOTA, League of Legends and Starcraft, pull the biggest prize pools in all of E-sports, with some tournament winners netting as much as $10 million. Shooters, such as Halo and Call of Duty have the next biggest prize pools and have garnered the most mainstream popularity in American markets. Fighting games, once the pinnacle of competitive gaming have fallen off in recent years. That being said, the winner of The Mortal Combat Finals still nets around $200,000 in prize money. These three types of games, while constantly evolving graphically, haven't really evolved much in terms of basic game mechanics since the early aughts. Sports games on the other hand, are constantly changing.
While cultural mainstays like EA's FIFA and Madden series, as well as 2K's NBA series, have remained relatively stagnate, producing similar but slightly improved simulations each year, there is one game in particular that has drastically changed the dynamic of team-based E-sports: Rocket League. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Rocket League is a game in which players play soccer in a giant arena. The catch is, instead of controlling a person, players drive cars fitted with rocket thrusters, allowing them to fly through the air. If it sounds ridiculous, it's because it is. Even with its absurd premise, soccer with flying cars, Rocket League has taken the world of gaming by storm over the past few years.
What's interesting about the game, particularly in regard to its popularity, is that unlike most games released today, Rocket League has a huge learning curve. It's such a difficult game that it can take new players several weeks of constant practice to learn how to effectively control their car. And it can take several months before they're adept at flying. Predictably, this has produced some pretty strong opinions on the game. It seems that you either love the game, or despise it. There isn't much middle ground. Other games take a ton of practice to become tournament ready. Rocket League takes a ton of practice to become competent.
Because it has no root in reality, Rocket League is a game that's constantly evolving within itself. Players are routinely changing their playing styles and defensive schemes in a way that bear a startling resemblance to (for lack of a better word) real sports. In theory, the game is simple, just get the ball in the net. But the dynamic way in which players control every facet of their car's movement, allows for constant innovation in a way that's completely unprecedented in the world of video games. Obviously, all professional gamers have to practice and hone their skills, but there are few games in which the landscape changes so rapidly, especially without any backend input from the game's designers. This is no mere simulation, the game has taken on a life of its own.
Another thing that differentiates Rocket League from other games, is that it's one of the first true spectator E-sports. While plenty of professional gamers all across the world have Twitch streams and fanbases–the DOTA world championship is actually held in Key Arena in Seattle–Rocket League is easy to understand at a glance. Most other video game spectators are devout players of whatever game they're tuning in to watch. Rocket League, partially due to its in-game live stream of professional matches, provides an ease of access for players of all skill levels, even casual players who aren't particularly invested in Rocket League's culture.
The world championship series, featuring top teams from the U.S., Europe and Oceania, just concluded this weekend with team Gale Force taking home the $55,000 grand prize. While the purse is relatively small compared to other gaming tournaments, the RLCS had a live viewership of about 200,000 people, showcasing the game's rapidly growing popularity.
Rocket League designers, Psyonix, see the game, which is available on Xbox, PS4, and PC (via Steam), not as an individual game but as a platform within itself. Their goal, which would change the fabric of online gaming as we know it, is to create game that bridges the consoles and allows for cross-platform play. This idea, especially if other games were to follow suit, essentially makes the console wars that gamers know all too well, a moot conflict. Playing on a universal server, the choice between Xbox One and PS4 becomes one based on preference for one type of controller over another. With a growing fanbase, a brilliant system that allows for the natural development of different playing styles, and a easily understandable concept, Rocket League has made the divide between "real" sport and E-sport a whole lot smaller. Innovative games like this, which give players a unique amount of control over gameplay, seem to be the future of E-sports and quiet possibly the thing that (rocket) thrusts them into the mainstream.
POPDUST Picks | Week 10:
LOCK of the Week:
Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found in Pop Dust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine.
Find Matt at his website and on Twitter: @mattclibanoff
POP⚡ DUST | Read More…
THE OPTION | The Stafford Effect
THE OPTION | Catalan Independence and What It Means for Barcelona Soccer
THE OPTION | Philadelphia and the Big Maybe