esports

It isn’t really fair to kick someone who just got ran over by a stampede of bulls, but this weekend, as the Collegiate Rocket League open qualifiers were set to commence, they were delayed and ultimately postponed.

Not exactly a great start for a league that should easily have the potential to be the face of collegiate esports for many schools. Maybe we should look back at just what is happening.

Let’s back up. Rocket League is a game where 2-4 people play football — er, soccer — using demolition derby cars strapped to space engine rockets. The high-flying, action-intensive game has gained widespread popularity, not just in professional esports but in clubs and varsity programs at all age ranges.

The game boasts an E for Everyone rating from the ESRB, which allows schools and administrators to easily grasp onto a game that all ages can appreciate.

I have seen teams started as young as middle school, and what few varsity esports programs exist have been quick to start out with Rocket League as their first sport (looking at you Missouri and the Big East).

It is also remarkably easy to organize and broadcast a tournament. The game supports cross-play (meaning you can play on PC or any of the major consoles), includes custom lobby support (you can play against anyone you want) and comes with an unbelievably good auto-follow observer system that allows for ESPN-quality broadcasting support without having to know ESPN-level camera operations.

With all of this going for it, you would think that running a tournament would be ridiculously simple. In fact, running and broadcasting a tournament is ridiculously simple. The sports communication team at Ball State discovered how simple it is to produce a show around Rocket League.

The University of Missouri, in preparation for this fall’s collegiate series, spun up a super simple weekly collegiate league for teams to prep for the season. And our very own teams spent much of last year and this summer participating in the Nashville Rocket League Series.

This all goes to show how esports does not have to be a massive spectacle all the time and how easy it can be to get a basic tournament series up and running.

All of this exposition leads us to the question: What in the wide world of esports happened this weekend?

For those not connected intimately to every collegiate esports game, the simple version goes like this: college Rocket League is played through a couple different organizations, the equivalent of playing for both the NCAA and for your local backyard league at the same time. But the primary and more “official” Rocket League tournament is called Collegiate Rocket League (CRL).

In the past, CRL was coordinated by Tespa, an organization that also hosts official tournaments for Overwatch, Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm. This year, CRL was not hosted by Tespa, but rather is being done internally by the Psyonix team (makers of Rocket League) and coordinated using a platform called FaceIt.

The fall 2019 league is divided into two regions and will consist of two open qualifiers in each region. The qualifiers are single elimination brackets, and eight teams from each qualifier would “earn” a spot in the CRL League Play.

From there, the league play will commence, and eventually the top eight teams from league will compete in a regional playoff. The top two teams from the playoff will face off in a championship bracket.

At stake in all of this, is the chance to split a $12,000 scholarship prize for winning the whole thing, and smaller scholarship prizes for lower placements. In addition, the league was going to award every team that wins a league game $200 for each win. Effectively giving scholarships to students for winning games in the league, if you made it that far.

This weekend was the first of the open qualifiers. Set to begin in the early afternoon on Sunday, students from hundreds of schools around the country gathered around their computers waiting for their matchup times and hoping to win a spot in the tiny league.

The eastern qualifiers had 298 teams and the western qualifiers had 164 teams. There wasn’t any kind of limit on number of teams per school — for instance, UT fielded four different teams. And maybe that is where they went wrong.

It is crazy to think that any platform could coordinate a 300-team opening round, but why would you even bother? The odds were already stacked against everyone in the eastern region. Not only does east have twice as many teams, there are also twice as many possible institutions.

People attack college football for a four-team playoff, and I can see why. This system was basically setup for most institutions to fail. And now imagine that it wasn’t just that four teams make the playoffs, but only four teams get to play in the season in the first place.

I’m not sure why they chose to only have two regions. I don’t know why they chose to allow multiple teams per school. We won’t know if the size of it is why it crashed on opening weekend. I can’t imagine what life is like at Mizzou where those players are already on scholarship for Rocket League.

What if they didn’t make it past the first round? Imagine looking around and saying, thanks for the scholarship, but we aren’t good enough to actually play this year. We don’t even know if there will be a spring season. We don’t know.

It’s a problem in esports, and as the scene becomes larger and larger on college campuses, it is going to be necessary for the organizations to start deciding whether we should wait around for someone to host these “official” leagues or start to band together and do it ourselves. Time will tell.

UTK Esports is a student organization at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, interested in competing in and promoting collegiate and professional esports. If you have questions or would like to join and compete, please reach out to us at esports@utk.edu, or follow us on Twitter @utkesports.

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