During the first week of Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS) Season 9 league play, eUnited put up a commanding 3-0 sweep against the former champs Cloud9, earning Jackson “ayjacks” Carter the North American Player of the Week honors.
Two days later, the Rocket League Esports Twitter account shared a highlight of ayjacks in the midst of another 3-0 sweep—only this time, he was playing for Louisiana State University (LSU) and putting the hurt on the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) in Psyonix’s own official Collegiate Rocket League (CRL).
For the first time, there are active RLCS professional players competing in the CRL, and ayjacks isn’t alone: Ghost Gaming player Braxton “Allushin” Lagarec is also playing for the University of Ottawa this season. It struck me as odd when I saw Twitter highlights circulating for both of those players, and based on some of the tweet replies to the aforementioned ayjacks clip, I’m not alone in thinking that something is off about this scenario. Current professional players shouldn’t be competing against college teams in official leagues.
.@ayjacksrl displays a dominating performance to take the win 3-0 over UTA.
— Rocket League Esports (@RLEsports) February 11, 2020
In traditional sports, there’s a clear stratification between collegiate and professional sports. In fact, the former is typically used to funnel top talent into the latter, especially in basketball and football, where collegiate standouts are effectively “promoted” into the pros via the draft. That crisp delineation between collegiate and professional sports is established by the NCAA, the governing body of traditional college athletics.
The NCAA decided last year that it won’t oversee and regulate collegiate esports at this time, and given the organization’s oft-draconian rules about eligibility and compensation, and I’d argue that it’s for the best overall. Esports varies significantly from traditional sports in terms of structure, competitive opportunities, typical age levels, and forms of competition.
But the spirit of collegiate sports being a separate endeavor from pro leagues and, an opportunity for amateur players to compete for their schools outside of the pressures and incentives of professional leagues, is an important one that ought to be present in esports.
In part, it’s a matter of competitive integrity. While there’s optimism that some CRL players will continue to grow their skills and perhaps make it to the Rival Series and RLCS in time (maybe post-graduation), the overall quality of play in the league doesn’t match up to what we see at the top level in the RLCS. And that’s typically because CRL students are more focused on their studies: Rocket League is a hobby, a side activity, something they do for fun.
Collegiate esports is still a growing and evolving scene, with some schools offering scholarships and ample support for varsity programs, while others just have student-run esports clubs. Top-placing Collegiate Rocket League teams aren’t compensated with cash, but rather a modest sum of scholarship money for their efforts. That seems to skirt any potential issues that universities might have regarding compensation and eligibility, even without NCAA involvement, but it’s also a matter of collegiate spirit: these student athletes are awarded funds to help fuel their studies and related expenses, because it’s a school-related activity that exists alongside their pursuit of an education.
— College Carball Association (@CollegeCarball) February 19, 2020
RLCS players may not yet make the same kind of cash as top pros in longer-established esports like League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, but there’s still considerable money to be made at the highest level. They’re compensated by Psyonix for RLCS league play and earn additional money for making the regional championship and World Championship. In the case of both ayjacks and Allushin, they’re also paid a salary by their respective organizations, which may provide support in the form of coaching and other professional resources, as well.
There are expectations on their performance, but there’s also the support to make that happen. They’re paid money to cover their living expenses so that they can focus on the game and given consistent opportunities to play against the other top teams in the country and even the world. Outside of the official support provided by Psyonix and their organizations, pro players are also constantly scrimming with other top teams, and are part of a competitive high-level community in which they can continually learn, improve, and attempt to thrive.
Allowing those players to dip into the collegiate scene at the same time muddies the spirit of amateur-level collegiate play, and undermines the whole point of having a separate league for student athletes. Beyond a strict matter of skill and capabilities, they are simply not on the same level when it comes to support, resources, compensation, and expectations. It’s a whole different world, and when players agree to take part in a professional league and benefit from that entire framework, they shouldn’t also benefit from a league designed for the unique position and demands of student athletes.
Currently, the CRL rules and regulations don’t prohibit RLCS players from competing in the league, and I can’t blame ayjacks and Allushin for jumping upon a competitive opportunity that might help pay for their education. They are college students and they are Rocket League players—they just happen to be among the best Rocket League players in the world, and are compensated and recognized accordingly. There’s a lot more real money to be made in the RLCS than scholarship funds to be earned from collegiate play.
Dropping pro players onto a CRL roster doesn’t guarantee that they’ll win championships or scholarship money, but eventual results don’t affect the core principle here. Simply allowing current pros to stunt on amateur student opponents diminishes the intent and purpose of Collegiate Rocket League, and sets a bad precedent for collegiate esports as a whole. And if they do win scholarship money, what about the student teams without RLCS pros that are then deprived of those potential winnings? It’s not a level playing field for everyone.
This may not sit well with those players and their fans, their collegiate teammates, or supporters of those school teams. However, for the integrity and future of Collegiate Rocket League, it is essential that Psyonix sets a precedent within its competitive ecosystem and disallows active RLCS players from competing on CRL teams. Let the college players have their own league at their own collective level. There are already so many more opportunities for the pros.