It was just under a year ago - 1st July – that Psyonix announced the tenth season of the Rocket League Championship Series would involve big, sweeping changes. Gone were the old leagues, with a single round-robin season culminating in a bi-annual global World Championship. Instead, there would now be three seasons in a year-long circuit, with each “split” culminating in its own LAN Major. COVID sadly put the kibosh on those plans, as each Major in turn became an online, regional event, but the rest of the format still played out as expected. With the season-ending RLCS X Championships – Psyonix's replacement for Worlds – taking place this week, I want to take a look back at some of the positives and negatives of the 2020-21 season – and some suggestions for the upcoming RLCS XI.
The new format meant that more games of Rocket League could be played, to the extent that the first regional of the Fall Split contained more matches than the entirety of season 9. Then on top of that you had the Grid, which provided regular action in the downtime – which meant that, throughout the year, there was almost always something to watch. More Rocket League games also meant more opportunities for the smaller teams to get practice in against the big sides – with no more gatekeeping in the form of promotion from the Rival Series.
There were complaints from the beginning that arguably the new format provided too much Rocket League to follow. Keeping up with the Swiss format in Fall, which saw 8 games take place simultaneously, was tough for fans; on top of which the Grid took place every single week.
The Spring Split, though, pushed these complaints to the fore – with pro players and coaches complaining that the compressed schedule (which saw every regional played over 4 consecutive days, with Grid matches usually taking place two days in a row as well) was not only hard work for them, but was actually causing certain players to get injuries. The Fall Split's balance between regionals and Grids proves it is possible – and Psyonix must make sure they learn this lesson before they hurt the players that power the esport again.
When you introduce more teams into the format, upsets become inevitable, and RLCS X proved as much. Who saw Team BDS winning even one regional, when they had only just achieved promotion from the Rival Series earlier in 2020? Who pegged Rogue joining the top 4 in North America? Did anyone predict that a team of young Spaniards called Cheese would not only win a regional but create their own new meta? Removing the bottleneck from promotion/relegation provides opportunities for teams to showcase their skills where it matters – on the server – and it's been fantastic to watch so many teams from all over the world take full advantage.
One downside of more matches was that not all of them could be shown on stream; especially during Fall, where there would be 32 games in a day and only 14 would be shown. But one of the stranger twists of the season was when after having every single game shown on stream during the Winter Split, with Psyonix running three official streams to make sure that happened, we went back to having certain games take place off stream in Spring. This meant that Endpoint’s final game of the season against Vitality - not to mention several other big upsets - were simply not shown, not even allowing orgs to stream their own games as was done for “day 0” of each Spring Regional. It is no surprise that this grated on fans, who want to be able to follow their teams.
In the same way that more matches meant more upsets, the addition of new teams also brought with it a variety of different winners. Despite Team BDS’ dominance in Europe, winning all three Majors and the majority of regionals, we still had 5 different regional winners over the season and 10 different finalists; while in NA early dominance from Spacestation was matched by Envy and NRG over the course of the season. (This doesn’t count The Grid, where the likes of Triple Trouble and The Peeps were also able to secure titles). There were plenty of upsets in OCE and SA as well, proving that more trophies does not have to mean pure dominance.
Alas, this is the big one. Psyonix took the decision to cancel the in-person World Championship two months ago, citing the ongoing instability caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was always going to be an unpopular decision, no matter how justified by the public health situation. They could have announced that they were giving every single Rocket League player a million dollars in cash, a Ferrari and a date with a supermodel of their choice, and everyone would still be frustrated that there was no Worlds. Progress with the vaccine rollout, particularly in Europe and the US, means that hopefully next season we will not have this problem any more – it has now been two years since the last Rocket League LAN, and fans are itching for a return.
The Grid was Psyonix’s “side competition”. Its aim was to give the top 16 teams in EU and NA a regular, mid-week competition, streamed by the orgs themselves, with its own prize money and its only impact on the main competition being seeding. It has been fantastic to see the “watch party” vibe of the games evolve throughout the season, as fans can follow their own team’s run. The addition of a central “Overtime” stream from Winter onwards was welcome, as this made other results easier to follow as well as capturing the casual fans.
That said, the Grid had a few weaknesses, not the least of which was its relationship with the main regionals. Several fans were confused as to what “Grid points” meant, why teams were playing in the Grid who had been eliminated from the regionals, and so on. This was largely addressed by the Spring Split format - which I hope returns - but for most of the year some fans were turned off by this confusion. The other was the complaint that the Grid meant there was simply an excess of Rocket League - an argument I found myself increasingly sympathetic to in the Spring Split, with its aforementioned scheduling difficulties.
Nevertheless on the whole I would argue The Grid has been a great addition to the esport - hopefully now that Psyonix have hit upon a great format, we can push on and make it a regular thing.
The addition of further regions into the RLCS has been called for for some time, not least because one of the best 1v1 players in the world - oKhaliD - plays for Sandrock Gaming in Saudi Arabia, where their only chance to compete is in third-party EU tournaments, where they are compromised by ping. The Middle East and Asia showmatches that form part of next week’s RLCS Championship action are seen by many as a positive sign - and potentially a harbinger of their inclusion within the circuit, which would be fantastic for all concerned.
The addition of the C-stream (Winter split) and the “day 0” streams (Spring Split) were both very positive as a way of showing more games than can be covered by a single, main stream. If the Fall Split Swiss format does return (which it should, as it was popular at the time), then Psyonix should consider using these innovations to show as many of the matches as possible, rather than returning to the Fall Split’s format of two streams with many games missing.
Regionals should go back to taking place over two weekends (Sat-Sun two weekends in a row) if at all possible. The later ones which took place over a single weekend (Thurs-Sun) not only resulted in a scheduling pile-up but also raised questions about player welfare and performance for those who had school and other commitments beforehand.
Finally, Psyonix should move heaven and earth to make sure the first LAN of next season can take place as planned. With other esports “opening up” this summer, there is the risk of Rocket League falling behind and seeming to be out of touch if online tournaments are pursued forever.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my first season of RLCS, even if it was unfortunate that Endpoint dropped out of the hunt for the top 6 in EU. It has been full of storylines, drama, upsets, and great Rocket League, backed by an excellent behind-the-scenes production from the esports staff. While I have made criticisms here, they do not drag down the overall experience - I simply hope that the lessons learned from some of this season’s mistakes can serve to improve the experience for fans around the world next season.