Column: Make “Rocket League” the first great American e-sport

"Rocket League" is a simple sport-oriented e-sport that might pave the way for the future of e-sports in America. (Screenshot via rocketleaguegame.com)

Did you know more worldwide viewers tuned in for the World Championship of multiplayer online battle arena video game “League of Legends” last year than Game Seven of the 2016 NBA Finals?

Yes, those Finals, in which potential future G.O.A.T. LeBron James messed around and dropped a triple-double to complete his hometown team’s comeback from three games to one against the greatest regular season team in NBA history.

Game Seven of the Finals drew 30.8 million viewers, while the “League” final drew 43 million.

E-sports are coming stateside, perhaps faster than some American sports fans would like to admit. They’re massive in Asia. Owners of professional sports franchises, particularly NBA owners, are buying stakes in e-sports teams on a seemingly monthly basis.

To smooth that transition, we’re going to need an e-sport to call our own, one that will bridge the gap between what we know as sports and the digital world of e-sports. As compelling as games like “League of Legends” and “Counter-Strike” are they likely won’t grab American viewers looking to dip their toes into this new world. What’s more American than claiming something as your own?

Let’s make that sport “Rocket League.”

“Rocket League” is a multiplayer sports/action game in which each player controls a rocket-powered RC car on an enclosed soccer field. In the main competitive game mode, two three-player teams compete to score more goals. The game’s key dynamic is the accumulation of fuel from boost pads, which allows players to fly into the air and hit aerial shots.

More simply, it’s soccer with cars. It’s incredible. Play one game and you’re hooked. It’s a brilliant concoction born out of the ‘easy to play, difficult to master’ mindset that makes so many great games great.

“Rocket League” already boasts a robust competitive scene, and it will grow further in 2017. There have been signature matches. There are signature players – Kronovi could be considered the game’s LeBron, playing high above the ground and filling up highlight reels while winning frequently.

If the goal is to convert traditional sports fans into e-sports followers, there is no better way to do so than starting with a game that resembles traditional sports. There are no magic powers or assault rifles involved in “Rocket League.” It’s a soccer game with a brilliant twist. It sits right in the fertile middle ground between simulating a real soccer match and taking the sport too far off the deep end.

“Rocket League” is easy to follow as a spectator sport. The game can be viewed from a variety of camera angles, either locked on a single player or centralized above the field and the action is not scattered in different places over a large map. You can turn on a game for the first time and quickly understand what’s going on, which can’t be said for “League,” “Counter-Strike” or many of the real-time strategy games that dominate the e-sports scene.

You’d watch a “Rocket League” game just as you’d watch a soccer game or a hockey game. Everyone knows how a sport with goals works.

We could easily provide all the trappings of a traditional sports broadcast. We could find commentators like Doc Emrick to provide excitement, while also knowing how to describe the game for new viewers. We could track simple statistics like goals, assists and saves to help show who the best players are. We could run highlight reels with the best plays to be scattered all over social media platforms.

Full disclosure: I don’t believe that selling the average American sports fan on e-sports is going to be easy and with some fans, it’s going to be impossible. There’s an unhealthy stigma against the culture, with many fans believing that the lack of full physical participation restricts the classification of e-sports as legitimate sports. Several esteemed members of the sports media, including Colin Cowherd, have denounced their status as sports.

We don’t have to sell it as a sport. Is ‘game’ not a suitable word? Poker broadcasts have enjoyed great success, even on ESPN, and poker requires far less physical participation than a high-level e-sport like “Rocket League.” The professional e-sport players are reacting to their digital surroundings and performing controller actions with remarkable speed and precision.

There are certainly channels out there that could provide acceptable broadcasts of “Rocket League” games, market them correctly and pull in an audience. It doesn’t have to be a traditional television channel – e-sports are generally streamed online anyway.

If e-sports are coming, let’s make a compromise. No popular game would be an easier sell than “Rocket League,” and from there we’ll expand. If you have a current generation gaming console, give it a try, and tell me it’s not perfect.

And maybe one day I’ll be writing a column about who the MVP of the “Rocket League” season should be.


Tyler Keating is associate sports editor for The Daily Campus, covering and men’s basketball. He can be reached via email at tyler.keating@uconn.edu. He tweets @tylerskeating.