If you've been a fan of Rocket League, like I have over the years or if you have been a fan of the RLCS over the years, you have probably been rather bullish on Rocket League as a tier 1 esport. While the game has stalled the past two seasons (in terms of growth) the game has a unique universal appeal that shooters and MOBAs lack, due to its similarity to soccer and high skill ceiling. With Psyonix being acquired by Epic Games and Rocket League being a part of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Rocket League appears to be on the up. Franchising has been a hot topic lately and seems to be the latest craze within esports, as Call of Duty have recently announced the Call of Duty League ahead of Modern Warfare, complete with franchise teams.
Psyonix have been very honest and open about their thoughts on franchising: “We’ve been evaluating that for a while now and whether or not we do it is still a question for another time, but it’s definitely something we’ve talked about,” said Dunham. “It’s something the organisations have been interested in, but there’s no outright evidence that says that is the only way to go.” Psyonix has done a great job of growing their game to appeal to a big audience as possible, but franchising is not where Rocket League should go.
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The Benefit Of An Open Circuit
Currently, Rocket League has three official tiers of competition. The highest is the RLCS, where the best of the best play for the chance to represent one of the four regions (NA, EU, OCE, and SAM) at the biannual World Championship. Right below it is the Rocket League Rival Series (RLRS), where up and coming professional players can show their skills, giving them a chance to make it in the RLCS at the end of season relegation tournament. The third tier is the NA only Collegiate Rocket League series, where collegiate programs fight for scholarship money and the chance to win the Collegiate Rocket League National Championship. Often players from the CRL make it as subs onto RLCS teams or as members of RLRS teams from the CRL.
The reason why this ecosystem has remained rather healthy is that it allows for a flow of good talent upward without creating artificial gates. While franchised leagues have academy teams (OWL and LCS) these academy teams have the problem that there are too few to truly judge whether a region like North America is getting the best possible talent to compete. The open-circuit nature of Rocket League also sees lower level teams be able to play higher level teams at both LAN environments (like the DreamHack Pro Circuit Series) and in the relegation tournaments. The ability to take down the best in the world creates aspiration for a team at the RLRS level, who can aspire to become World Champions, without hoping they are picked to be on a top team.
The open-circuit means that you will not give too much power to friend circles, where you end up with mediocre players on rosters because they happen to have the right friends. Is the open circuit perfect? God no. Open circuits create a lot of risk for investors (such as team organizations) or for players who don't make it to the top; but they also create the best storylines and competition because of that inherent risk/reward.
Pros/Cons Of Franchising
Honestly, I would not hate for the RLCS to be franchised, but it would have to be extremely different from the methods of franchising implemented by other esports. Franchising has a lot of pros for the long-term health of Rocket League. It would create more revenue for orgs, competing in Rocket League, and would give players much needed financial stability. For a lot of players, being an esports pro is still not a full-time gig, due to the lack of big paydays in Rocket League. Franchising would bring that financial security for players and would also add revenue sharing for orgs who need the return on investment.
Franchising would likely mean we would have 10 top tier organisations fully invested into the NA RLCS, EU RLCS, but how would Oceania and South America function? Psyonix has yet to actually create RLCS equivalents in those regions, only letting regional tournament operators run qualifying leagues for Worlds. Having franchising would be great for the regions that are franchised, but it would create an even bigger disparity because they would have better options to pay the smaller regional talents and suck their best players into the better regions.
Franchising would likely mean the death of the DreamHack Pro Circuit, as we know it and play between RLCS and RLRS teams, would diminish drastically because there would be no more relegation series. Franchising would probably turn the RLRS into an academy like program, but how that would play out is to be seen. Academy leagues, in my opinion, are not worth it for teams in Rocket League because having a six man roster is kind of useless in a game like Rocket League vs having an expanding roster in a MOBA or OW where certain players fit certain roles better. Franchising would have to be executed with a unique touch to keep the RL fanbase happy and to keep the appearance of an open circuit in order to truly grow the game. Keeping, but expanding the DreamHack Pro Circuit and allowing franchised teams to play in online tournaments would keep the lower end of the scene healthy.
Psyonix' Optimal Path
Personally, I feel Rocket Leauge is not ready for franchising. The viewership numbers aren't there and the game has only just launched in China. Psyonix should stick to nurturing their baby with as much money from Epic as possible; because there is a lot of ways they can increase interest in the game.
First, Psyonix should work with its partner DreamHack to expand the Pro Circuit by doubling the prize pool for each event and having it become an actual circuit. Currently, circuit just means that there are Rocket League events at different DreamHacks. Making them build toward a DreamHack Circuit Championship with points and additional prizing (a la Intel Grand Slam) would create something truly special.
Second, Psyonix should work on expanding its smaller regions to make it more worthwhile to go pro. Adding more "RLCS" regions to South America, Oceania, and eventually, Asia would go a long way into making the game grow. It would also require adding more spots to the World Championship, but that is a whole separate topic.
Third, it should make it more worthwhile for sponsors to invest in the RLCS. Adding a LAN for the RLCS regional championships (instead of having online regional championships) with a crowd even in a small studio (250 viewers) would go a long way into adding more substantiality to the league that is just an online qualifier for a big LAN twice a year. The more that Rocket League is played on a LAN environment the better. Also, increasing the ways sponsors can activate in game (think on the walls of the pitch or with special limited skins, etc) would go a long way to making the league more profitable and more popular. These steps would be more beneficial in the short term versus franchising in my opinion.