Interview

Team Envy’s hastr0 and Ian on returning to Rocket League and the opportunity ahead

May 11, 2020 - 23:12
Rocketeers / Featured / Interviews / RLCS / Teams /

Team Envy was among the earliest major organizations to enter Rocket League back in June 2017, acquiring Northern Gaming’s newly crowned Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS) Season 3 champions.

Success didn’t follow that team under the Envy banner, however, with an unexpected roster change soon after, poor league play performance the following season, and then another roster swap. A 7th-8th place finish at the Season 5 World Championship preceded that team’s departure from Envy, which then left the esport entirely after the Gfinity UK Elite Series concluded later in 2018.

But Rocket League remained an alluring prospect for the Dallas-based organization. Last month, Envy reentered the scene by acquiring the former Ghost Gaming roster of Braxton “Allushin” Lagarec, Nick “mist” Costello, and Massimo “Atomic” Franceschi ahead of the North American Spring Series.

It’s a new roster and a new region for Envy Rocket League, plus with former Cloud9 manager Ian Huston—who oversaw C9’s own RLCS championship run—now at Envy, this promising young roster could make even more noise in the months ahead.

Following the signing, Rocketeers spoke with both Huston and Envy owner and CEO Mike “hastr0” Rufail about what pulled them back into Rocket League and why the esport is still an appealing opportunity in 2020.

Another shot

Team Envy is in a different place than it was back in mid-2017. The Envy Gaming organization itself is larger than ever and has received tens of millions of dollars in investment, but its two biggest teams don’t even rep the actual Envy brand.

Because of Activision Blizzard’s franchised league stipulations, Envy’s Overwatch League team is known as the Dallas Fuel, and its new Call of Duty League team is the Dallas Empire. According to hastr0, re-entering Rocket League was a chance to bring another exciting team to the Envy name.

“We thought that getting into Rocket League was one of our best options for a while, in terms of growing our Envy brand,” says hastr0. “We really needed to spark up the Envy brand a little bit more. We loved Rocket League in the past when we were involved, and just think the game is great and has a lot of legs in the future.”

Although the original Envy roster of Remco “Remkoe” den Boer, David “Deevo” Morrow, and Nicolai “Maestro” Bang (replaced by Marius “gReazymeister” Ranheim and later Jordan “EyeIgnite” Stellon) didn’t deliver the results hoped from newly-acquired champions, the organization still saw a lot of future potential in Rocket League.

“We’re traditionally in a lot of first-person shooter games, and we’ve won a lot of championships there, but Rocket League was just kind of something that was different and offered a fun, friendly environment,” says hastr0. “When you play Rocket League, it’s really competitive. The community that’s around it is really great and we wanted to reach back out to the fans that we used to have for Envy Rocket League back in the day.”

Huston joined Envy this past January as the organization’s Director of Player Management across all of the team brands. At Cloud9, he managed the Rocket League team alongside teams in other games, and his experience with the game (and the results that followed) helped push along Envy’s interest in returning.

Given the continued growth of the RLCS and the planned Olympics-backed Intel World Open competition this year (now postponed into 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic), Huston suggested that it was an ideal time for an organization to jump into the esport.

“Rocket League is trending in such a good direction,” says Huston. “It’s already been doing well for years, but with it coming into the Olympics with the Intel thing that was going to happen, it’s becoming bigger and bigger. I think getting into it at this point is a really good idea.”

Unlocking potential

Rather than pluck a championship team from the top of the ladder, Envy has opted for a younger team with significant potential.

With the addition of mist this past RLCS season, the Ghost Gaming roster—which had consistently landed in the middle of the North American pack the previous few seasons—parlayed a solid 5-4 regular season into a 3rd-4th place finish at the North American regional championship by taking out both Cloud9 and the Susquehanna Soniqs. If there had been a Season 9 World Championship, they would’ve been there.

Ghost encountered financial challenges this spring, however, and the team was hunting for a new home ahead of their eventual release. Huston had taken point on finding a new Rocket League team for Envy, and when the organization caught wind of the former Ghost roster’s availability, they worked to make the deal happen. According to hastr0, they see a lot of potential upside with this young roster.

“We think that they’re just the next phase of pro Rocket League,” says hastr0. “We’ve got really young players on the team; I think the average age is probably 18. We’re going to try to help these guys take their game to the next level. We’re really trying to help these guys advance. I think they’ve got a lot of potential, and maybe with a bigger organization, they can hone in a little bit more on their skills and unlock more potential.”

Huston also chimed in on the team’s potential: “I definitely think that the players have a very, very high skill ceiling,” he says. “They are young, and I think that with my background and the support that Team Envy provides, and just their work ethic from the players in the first place, I think this is a recipe to make the next wave of what could be a really, really good team.”

During a recent interview with former RLCS caster Adam “Lawler” Thornton, he told Rocketeers that the roster had a reputation for not taking scrims very seriously, and that they relied on their natural talent to succeed.

I asked Huston if that sort of mindset would be enough to satisfy Envy. He said that they had onboarded the roster with the same sort of approach as all other Envy teams, including scrim schedules and redundancy of team operations to assist them. However, he also suggested that the team’s reputation on that front could simply be a matter of them approaching scrims in a looser, more experimental fashion—not an indication of being immature or goofing around.

“I think they might have a bit of a reputation for not taking things seriously, but I think that can definitely be a misinterpretation of people exploring things,” says Huston. “It’s been common across games that people that explore and try to push things in scrims, that’s usually a really good thing and can be encouraged—because the Rocket League meta has been slightly changing here and there, as we’ve seen every season. I think this is probably just the next wave of innovation. They’re definitely outfitted with all the support and regiment, but we’re allowing them to experiment and see where their skill ceilings are.”

And they’ve been receptive to the additional structure provided by the organization, Huston adds: “Yes, they’re an absolute pleasure to work with.”

Rocketing to the top?

It’s a precarious time in the esports world to be signing a new team, especially given the fact that the RLCS Season 9 World Championship was canceled, the Intel World Open was postponed, and any other live events are likely many months away.

According to both hastr0 and Huston, Team Envy had an early and concerted response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They enacted additional precautions in the office at first before eventually sending employees home ahead of any federal, state, or county shelter-in-place orders. They also hired a private jet to fly Call of Duty and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive players into and out of Los Angeles for competitions, to avoid much of the mass exposure that comes with navigating airports.

That confident approach has extended into making a significant business commitment even during this uncertain time. Even with the entire esports industry forced to do online-only events for the time being, Envy didn’t shirk from the opportunity to sign an available RLCS squad and reenter the scene.

We’ve seen esports get a lot more mainstream exposure of late, especially when it comes to games based on traditional sports—like NBA 2K20 and F1 2019—snagging much more airtime on sports television networks.

Even Rocket League has benefitted from the moment, with the Spring Series broadcasting on ESPN and BBC Sport platforms, and ESPN Esports collaborating with Lawler for The Brawl Invitational. Rocket League has long been pegged as an esport with potentially enormous mainstream potential, given the non-violent gameplay and ease of understanding from even an unfamiliar audience, and hastr0 suggests that the sentiment is especially true right now.

“For me, the most interesting upside in Rocket League is just the fact that the esport has stabilized,” says hastr0. “It’s really got a good amount of people that still watch it, and it’s family-friendly enough to air on primetime network television.”

“During this time, as TV networks are starving with sports out of the mix, I think Rocket League has a ton of upside potential to be shown on linear television a lot more,” he adds. “For the mainstream audience that watches network television that doesn’t really focus on esports, we have a chance to expose esports to those people in a bigger way. Rocket League is probably one of the games at the forefront that’s able to do that.”

Andrew is the Lead Editor of Rocketeers, and has been covering Rocket League esports since RLCS S1 for publications such as Red Bull Esports, The Esports Observer, Waypoint, and GINX TV. He has also written about games, gadgets, etc. for 90+ publications since 2006.