The USL is launching a 32-team Rocket League tournament to engage fans and create a fun competition while on-field matches are postponed amid the coronavirus pandemic.
It also represents the USL’s first league-level esports effort.
The tournament, which will be called the USL eCup, will begin on March 31 and continue through April 24. It will be a World Cup-style event with a group stage and knock-out rounds featuring 32 USL Championship and USL League One clubs who will each be represented by players, supporters, and team ambassadors such as famous fans or club owners.
The matches will be streamed on Twitch, with each club also selecting a charity benefiting their local communities that viewers can donate to during the broadcast.
As it became clear earlier this month that all leagues were going to need to postpone or delay games because of the growing threat of COVID-19, USL league executives began to discuss not only what the league was going to do during this interim in terms of digital and social content, but also what sort of fun competitions it could create for its clubs to compete in and its fans to enjoy.
That led to a discussion of an esports competition, said Ryan Madden, USL vice president of communications and public relations.
However, as most of the soccer world is now using EA Sports’ FIFA game in some form or fashion to engage fans while no matches are being played, USL decided it wanted to do something different. USL Championship and League One clubs are also not featured in the EA Sports game.
That led USL to Rocket League, which can be perhaps most easily be described as a typical game of soccer, but instead of players, rocket-powered cars hit a ball around an arena and try to score goals.
As USL staff further investigated using Rocket League as its esports platform for this effort, it reached out to game developer Psyonix – which happens to be a founding partner of USL Championship club San Diego Loyal SC, where the company is also based.
Rocket League does have an existing esports ecosystem, including a league and several tournaments. The game is also increasingly popular at the college and high school competitive esport levels thanks to its family-friendly yet frantic and fun style of play.
Madden said that while USL hopes its effort can engage those that are already playing the game, it is intended to target “the average soccer fan that perhaps hasn’t consumed esports before.” Many of the expected participants likely have not played the game before.
“It’s really about having fun and creating conversation while giving fans something new,” he said.
It also will serve as a vehicle to get USL and its clubs more engaged with esports as a fan development tool. USL will be launching its first Twitch account as a result, as will the 32 clubs that are participating. Madden said the league and its clubs have been having “a larger esports conversation” in recent years, and that was part of the motivation as well to launch this.
Currently, USL is not expecting to drive any substantial revenue from the tournament and is not expecting its clubs to need to spend any money to participate. In essence, matches can be played using either an Xbox or PS4 console, and the game costs roughly $20.
However, Madden said there are hopes that there may be potential sponsor tie-ins as the tournament advances, potentially for both the clubs as well as the league.
“Our sole mission for this tournament is to provide lightness and levity for USL supporters across the country. People have enough to worry about right now, so we just wanted to create an environment where supporters and fans could come together again, compete, and share a few laughs,” Madden said.