The crowd rose in volume as the seconds counted down. Everyone in the building was on their feet to cheer on the underdogs who were about to take down a dynasty in epic fashion.
“TEN… NINE… EIGHT…”
As the crowd counted down the seconds I couldn’t help but scream out the numbers with the supporters.
“SEVEN… SIX… FIVE…”
The players below us stopped playing and took a moment to soak in a moment that few in life get to enjoy. They hugged their teammates.
“FOUR… THREE… TWO… ONE!”
The crowd’s intensity rose as the clock wound down, and once it struck zero, I saw confetti begin to stream down from the rafters. The underdogs had done it, perhaps the biggest upset in the history of the sport, and in the grand finals, in front of a live audience and over 150,000 viewers watching at home.
I couldn’t believe it. North American squad Cloud 9 had upset two-time defending world champion Team Dignitas to bring the Rocket League World Championship back to North America.
Rocket League, released in July 2015, is a video game where players control cars and play soccer with them. Players can jump and use boost to maneuver the playing field and hit the ball toward the opponents’ goal.
The community around Rocket League is one of the strongest in all of esports. And more than three years later, continues to deliver on the brand slogan: “The World’s Most Exciting Esport.”
I’ve been an avid Rocket League player since the game released, and have followed the competitive scene for just as long. When I found out the World Championship was going to be in Las Vegas, I knew I had to experience it live.
Last year’s finals were held in London, and despite watching the broadcast, I had no idea what to expect.
As my party and I made our way to our seats, I noticed a huge gathering of stereotypical nerds in the lobby of the arena. They were all gathered for a meet and greet with the announcers and a few players who didn’t make the grand finals.
I laughed when I saw one kid, about 15-years-old, shyly ask a commentator to autograph his PS4 controller.
I’m not making this up.
A kid really asked this dude who only matters within the context of Rocket League to AUTOGRAPH a controller. Coming from someone who follows the game, this was a little extra.
We sat down in the third row and were disappointed by how empty the crowd was. Only two sections were completely filled, and four sections were half full. Orleans Arena seats 9,500, and I’d estimate less than half of those seats were full.
There was a big stage set up on the floor with three gigantic gamer chairs and high tech looking computers on each side of a massive Rocket League ball.
The event began like any proper sporting event would: a bunch of guys sitting around a desk with headsets on speculating about what would happen during the games of the day.
They announced the first match up, and threw it to a sideline reporter (yes, there are sideline reporters) who introduced the first team: Evil Geniuses.
At the start of each match, a tunnel leading to the stage filled with smoke as dubstep resounded through the stadium. Meanwhile, the participants awkwardly walked through the smoke to their gamer thrones.
It was ridiculous, but the crowd loved it.
I craned my neck to look at the humongous jumbotron that spanned the length of the stage at center court. Watching esports is like watching a movie in theaters, the best seats are actually farther from the screen, something I was unaware of as an esports virgin.
As the match commenced and the first goal was scored, a clearly choreographed cheer arose from the crowd. This was a continuous theme throughout the tournament; at any moment, the crowd was ready with a unique chant.
It was actually pretty cool. It almost felt like attending any other sporting event.
The playoffs are formatted as a five game series. Each series was from day one went to the deciding fifth game, and continued to go crazy each time a goal was scored or a nice play was made.
Cloud 9 lost its first series to We Dem Girlz (yes, they really chose that name for themselves) and fell to the losers bracket (also We Dem Girlz is a team of dudes who were the only team that didn’t get picked up by an esports org during the season).
On day two, I realized that while some people had jerseys depicting a particular esports organization, no one really cheered for any specific team. Everyone politely claps after a goal, and only lost their minds when a spectacular play occurred.
The only exception to that rule was the all powerful Team Dignitas, who was unceremoniously booed in every appearance.
That day, members of the professional team Evil Geniuses, CorruptedG and Chicago, sat next to us in the crowd.
You know, just chilling and watching the games.
Imagine if an NBA player casually sat in the stands with fans after being subbed out to chat it up before going back in. Esports people kind of know that everyone there is a huge nerd, so even the athletes act like regular people.
Later that day, I saw Kaydop and ViolentPanda45 at a snack station buying hot dogs. The two best players on Team Dignitas were just grabbing a snack.
The equivalent would be seeing Kevin Durant and Steph Curry grabbing some nachos before a game. Esports is a different animal.
Dignitas won their way to the final, and Cloud 9 had to win six consecutive series to reach the final on day three.
For context’s sake, the World Championship had only been won by a North American team once, which occurred in the inaugural season. Coming into season six, European squads had won the last four world championships, with Dignitas winning the last two.
Cloud 9 was coming for the loser’s bracket, so they had to win two straight best-of-seven series to even make it to the grand finals. When Cloud 9 was introduced, the crowd roared their approval. For the first time all weekend, I felt like there was a team the crowd was fully behind.
In the first series, Cloud 9 clobbered Dignitas four games to one. I was on the edge of my seat, as it seemed inevitable that Dignitas would come back, but they didn’t.
Series two began and Cloud 9 won the first two games. The crowd collectively realized that Cloud 9 might just pull off the upset.
Then this happened:
Remember when you did a FLIP RESET IN THE GRAND FINALS?
We do. #LANVegas
— Rocket League Esports (@RLEsports) November 12, 2018
Here’s what the crowd looked like live:
Cloud 9’s SquishyMuffinz pulled off the game’s most difficult trick in the grand finals. Listen to the crowd. Listen to how they react as the ball comes across the goal line.
Cloud 9 won the next two of three, providing excitement the entire way.
I came into the event as a skeptic, but it ended up being perhaps the most exciting sporting event I’ve ever attended live.
As the confetti descended on the champions and the losers wallowed in shame, I couldn’t help but wonder: is this the future of sports? It very well may be.
No one I saw at the event was older than 30, and many of the attendees couldn’t have been out of high school yet, so esports could have more success hitting home with millennials and Generation Z-ers than sports like baseball and football have.
Anyone at any moment can go on Twitch and watch the entire broadcast from the three day event completely legally and free of charge without a cable subscription. Rocket League has fantasy leagues that fans can play in.
The event was treated like a regular sports broadcast with talking heads and instant replays to boot. The crowd is more passionate than any Clippers fan will ever be, and Rocket League is only in its third year of existence.
After spending a weekend with esports, I think it has the perfect niche community needed to build something that can last.
It may just be time to grab a SquishyMuffinz jersey.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photos/videos by: Connor Sanders