NA’s New #2: ExplosiveGyro talks toppling giants in Pittsburgh Knights’ breakout RLCS season

November 23, 2019 - 19:01
Rocketeers / Interviews / RLCS / Teams /

North America’s “Big 3” in Rocket League is no more. For four seasons, the top trio of NRG, Cloud9, and G2 Esports ruling largely unabated, with other teams like Evil Geniuses and Ghost only occasionally challenging that status quo.

But now, only NRG remains at the top, leading Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS) Season 8 league play and winning its third-straight regional title following a roster change that brought in EU star and three-time World Champion Pierre “Turbopolsa” Silfver. And Cloud9 and G2? They landed at #7 and #8 in the league play standings, respectively, and will fight for their RLCS lives in the upcoming promotion tournament.

“Don’t sleep on The Peeps” was the catchy refrain around the bubble team, and it might’ve proved a punishing lesson for NA’s giants over the last few months. The Peeps won the last promotion tournament to make the RLCS from the Rival Series, and then took DreamHack Montreal in an upset win over G2. Soon after, they announced their signing to the Pittsburgh Knights… and then they beat both Cloud9 and G2 in RLCS Season 8.

ExplosiveGyro at DreamHack Montreal | Credit: DreamHack/Stephanie “Vexanie” Lindgren

The Knights’ explosive rise has been marked by an aggressive playstyle and surprising confidence from the rookies, who have helped force a changing of the guard alongside pals in Spacestation Gaming and eUnited. And now they’re all heading to the RLCS World Championship in Madrid.

Rocketeers spoke with the Knights’ Jirair “ExplosiveGyro” Papazian about the whirlwind last few months, taking out two of NA’s icons, and leading the next generation of RLCS stars.

Losing a Peep

Of all of the incredible things that have happened to the Knights over the last few months, ExplosiveGyro says it’s the first of those events—making it to the RLCS in the first place—that was most unbelievable. But then things quickly changed soon after for The Peeps, with Tshaka “Arsenal” Lateef Taylor Jr. leaving to join Spacestation Gaming instead.

“We had to reverse sweep just to get Top 2 to try to make RLCS, which is crazy to me. Once we made it and Arsenal left us, we really didn’t know what to do,” Gyro admits. “We tried out three people and none of them worked. Once we tried out Mist, we knew he was insane and he was one of our best options, so we just stuck with him and we tried to figure things out. And then we just went to DreamHack and we won. We all just played out of our minds there.”

According to Gyro, Arsenal had butted heads with Knights member Slater “Retals” Thomas. “He would always get into arguments with Retals,” says Gyro, who suggests that “small jokes” they all had with each other might not have sat right with everyone. “Maybe there was more to it. I don’t know,” he adds. However, he also believes that Arsenal wanted to play with his close friend Caden “Sypical” Pellegrin on Spacestation.

Ultimately, the Knights and SSG players are all still pals, says Gyro, and both sides have seen significant success following the roster changes. Nick “mist” Costello had also been promoted to the RLCS with Birds and was a longtime friend of the Knights, and Gyro says it was an easy fit to bring him over to fill the gap after Arsenal departed. Ultimately, Gyro thinks that it made the difference in winning DreamHack Montreal.

“I feel like if we had Arsenal, we wouldn’t have won DreamHack,” he says. “I just think Mist, he can 1v3 and do some amazing shots on his own, like the zero-second goal. At DreamHack, it was on the second stream, but Mist pretty much just popped off in the Ghost series to even give us the win to keep us in DreamHack. Mist is easy to play with, and he’s really good all around.”

Breaking up the Big 3

Winning DreamHack Montreal gave the Knights the confidence that they could hang at the top level with significantly more experienced teams. “We knew going into [the finals] that we could beat G2,” says Gyro, “and then once we actually won the whole thing, we were like: If we can win against all these teams, if we play well, then we can beat any team.”

The Knights carried that confidence into RLCS Season 8, making their first statement win in Week 2 with a stunning reverse-sweep of Cloud9. Although held scoreless in the first two games, the Knights roared back with blowout wins, outscoring Cloud9 by 10 goals across those last three games.

Retals talked a big game afterwards on Twitter, taunting G2 before the next week’s match… and then the Knights delivered on the trash talk, sweeping the RLCS Season 7 runner-up in Week 3. The Knights firmly established themselves as NA’s upstart giant-killers this season.

“With that confidence to beat Cloud9, who was Top 2 or Top 3 in NA at the time, we were just like: We got G2. We always beat G2, and now with the confidence to beat Cloud9, we can beat G2,” says Gyro. “And then we just played really well against G2 and swept them. G2 didn’t play bad against us, I think we just played a bit better than them. It was a close series.”

They nearly repeated the feat with NRG in Week 4, taking the eventual NA champions to a fifth game and only losing by one goal, but the RLCS rookies couldn’t complete the Big 3 trifecta. At the regional championship, it wasn’t nearly as close: NRG won cleanly in four games in the grand finals, securing the NA title. The Knights took second after securing their trip to Madrid earlier in the day. Gyro suggests that they were tapped out after a long day… but also that NRG is nuts, to the surprise of absolutely no one.

“For regionals, we were really tired. We were playing for like eight hours straight, and NRG just came off of a win from [eUnited],” he says. “We felt like we played good game one and two against NRG, and after we lost both of the games, we just didn’t really feel like playing anymore. They just started popping off anyways, so it didn’t really matter in the end.”

At the World Championship, however, Gyro thinks the third time might be the charm against NRG, should they run into their rival on Rocket League’s biggest stage.

“At LAN, I feel like we’re a better team. I don’t know, it’s just our playstyle. Not just because of Montreal, but me and Retals played at Dallas, and we thought we played pretty well there too with Arsenal,” he says. “I think we’re a better LAN team, and I think NRG might struggle a bit more on LAN… but maybe with Turbo it will be different. We just really want to beat them at LAN.”

The next generation

With the changing tides in North America, NRG will be the region’s only returning team for Season 8 Worlds. Alongside those veteran stars are three teams that have never been there: the Knights, Spacestation Gaming, and eUnited. That’s nine new players taking the Worlds stage for the first time.

While that fact alone could make for unexpected outcomes and potentially juicy storylines, there’s also a lot of connective tissue between these teams. Besides roster moves that have taken place between them, they’re also part of a group of friends who came up in the Rocket League pro scene together, rising through 6mans, making it into the Rival Series, and finally entering the RLCS. Now they’ve all made Worlds together, too.

According to Gyro, these rosters have shared a Discord together for about a year and a half or more, and they sort of came together around bubble player Austin “Ostyn” Franklin. It’s exemplified in a meme image shared by Retals, which shows Ostyn as Master Splinter holding the hands of and guiding the young Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—before they became warriors.

Below that, the fully-grown Turtles are now larger and stronger than Splinter, and are now leading him—and the Turtles are listed as Retals, Arsenal, Sypical, and eUnited’s Raul “Roll Dizz” Diaz. ExplosiveGyro jokingly takes issue with his absence (“I don’t know why Arsenal’s on there and I’m not on there, because I was there before Arsenal”), but says that it represents the journey that they’ve all taken together.

“We’re all really good friends, no matter what happens, and Ostyn is the ‘old man’ of the group,” says Gyro. “He was like the master at the start—he was the really good player, and then we played with him a lot and now we got better than him. That’s why the Master Splinter picture is like that. We all love Ostyn and we’re all friends. It was really nice to see that all three teams made LAN at the same exact time.”

Ready for Worlds

Going into the RLCS Season 8 World Championship as the second North American seed, the Knights will have to see whether their aggressive playstyle holds up against the global competition. Asked what gives them the edge against established teams, Gyro suggests that they’re both skilled and aggravating.

“I think it’s just our ability to be annoying and know when to go at the same time,” he says. “We all talk a lot in comms and we all have the mechanical ability to solo play other players on our own. We give each other opportunities that open up demos and make the other team panic, and starve them of boost.”

Knights coach Julian “Moopy” Amador has been helping the team overcome some late-season issues that slowed their momentum a bit before the regional championship.

“We realized that we weren’t pushing up as much. We were playing a bit more passive, and Retals wouldn’t go for as many demos. I would go back more, and we just realized that I should be playing a bit more offensive and Mist should play comfortable in how he wanted,” says Gyro. “Moopy helped us with replay review, and we figured out what we were doing wrong and just started playing how we wanted to play. With making it to LAN, we’re all just really confident, and we’re all just playing really well because we have the confidence in ourselves.”

Gyro points to Team Reciprocity (“They’re looking really good”), NRG (“NRG is just NRG, so never count them out”), and Renault Vitality (“Vitality on Day 3 is crazy”) as their likely biggest threats in Madrid. He previously suggested confidence in potentially facing NRG again at Worlds, and thinks the Knights can fell international giants as well.

“I prefer playing European teams. The way they play, I feel like we know how to play against European teams more than NA,” says Gyro. “Because NA teams just rush, rush, rush—they go for crazy stuff and mechanical plays. Besides a few standout players from EU, they’re more controlled and slower in controlling the ball, and we can just take advantage of that, I think.”

Andrew is the Lead Editor of Rocketeers, and has been covering Rocket League esports since RLCS S1 for publications such as Red Bull Esports, Esports Insider, The Esports Observer, and Waypoint. He is also currently the Content Lead for The Esports Journal magazine and has written about games, gadgets, etc. for 100+ publications since 2006.