Is Free-to-Play Rocket League’s Silver Bullet?

You’ve got to hand it to Epic Games: they know how to create drama.

On May 7th, they tweeted out this teaser to their 3.65 million followers on Twitter:

There it was – right there beneath the Epic Games Store logo. Free Game. F2P.

The question was: which game was it going to be?

Inevitably, the Rocket League forums’ wheels began to turn. Would this be the moment that Rocket League followed CS:GO and made it onto the top table of esporting greatness?

In the end, it turned out that the (temporarily) free game was GTA 5, followed by Civilisation VI. Fans of Rocket League would have to wait a little while longer for their big day to come.

But how likely is it that Rocket League is about to go free-to-play? And will it really be the silver bullet that everyone expects it to be?

The Hints of a Suggestion

Rumours of Rocket League’s going free-to-play have rumbled on ever since the game’s founders, Psyonix, were bought out by Epic Games last year.

According to the received wisdom, Epic were big enough to be able to make Rocket League free-to-play and, given the nature of the game, it would lend itself perfectly to a large-scale roll-out. Everything about it seemed to make perfect sense.

From there on, everything that has transpired has appeared to confirm this eventual trajectory.

First, came news of a migration from Steam, the games platform, to Epic’s own store. This was seen by many as the initial step in making the game free-to-play.

The move over to the Epic Games Store was promised to happen in late 2019, which, as of June 2020, there has not been any apparent progress.

Following this, Psyonix have spent the intervening period ironing out potentially problematic aspects of the in-game monetisation—bringing the loot box system into closer alignment to Fortnite’s, another free-to-play game, removing randomised crates altogether, and making hints at some sort of Rocket Pass payment system.

All of these would suggest that the transition of Rocket League into a free-to-play entity is only a matter of time.

Free to Fly

But what impact would going free-to-play have on Rocket League?

It’s hard to ignore the evidence that going free-to-play is fundamental to any game making it to the big time.

In a recent article on Twinfinite, Alex Gibson listed the most popular online games per peak concurrent players. The top ten came in as follows:

  1. Fortnite – 10 Million
  2. League of Legends – 8 Million
  3. Crossfire – 8 Million
  4. Apex Legends – 2 Million
  5. Minecraft – 1.4 Million+
  6. PUBG – 1,091,897
  7. Dota 2 – 1,033,925
  8. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive – 764,468
  9. Destiny 2 – 292,000
  10. Grand Theft Auto V – 191,000

The one thing that unites all of these games? They are either completely free-to-play or have had free-to-play versions available at one point or another.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is the darling of the free-to-play arguers. The game went free-to-play in December 2018 after it had faced a lull in players, going as low as 420,261 concurrent players in June of that year.

Less than two years later, the game has broken the million-player barrier with an all-time peak achieved in April of 1,305,714. That’s a growth rate of over 300% in 18 months.

To give you a sense of where Rocket League fits in, the game has a peak concurrent player record on Steam of 102,684 (achieved in April 2016).

At present, Rocket League is hovering around 100,000 concurrent players, boosted as it is by the lockdown surge. A 300% surge would see the game picking up to around 300,000 concurrent players, enough to creep into the top ten of the most played online games in 2020.

What is Stopping Them?

With all this in mind—the Epic buyout, the in-game improvements, the capacity that Rocket League has to become a popular game with all demographics, the impact on concurrent players that going free-to-play would have—it seems incredible that Rocket League remains a pay-to-play game in 2020.

As we have argued elsewhere, Psyonix have made a name for themselves by being steady and reliable. However, with the global economy in a more precarious situation than ever before and the online game industry booming, now may be the time for them to adopt a more ambitious approach.

Rocket League has already seen an uptick in concurrent players during the coronavirus lockdown. The inevitable next step is the move to make the game free-to-play. From that point, the sky is the limit.


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