What Happened to Psyonix?
(From Laughter-Filled Chats to Stern Silence)

Back in 2017, Devin Conners stormed the frontlines of community inquiries with fierce finesse and precision. His comedic touch somehow spilled into every Rocket League discussion on the internet. Reddit threads barraged him with inside jokes. Community members playfully misspelled his name. They tugged at his beliefs in using demo strats, and uploaded screenshots of obliterating his RL rank.

A collage of Psyonix Devin's top voted Reddit comments, including his shadow drop "Pigeon Man" title, a joke about rifling through anti-demo complaints, his introduction thread, and feedback on community designs.

Devin upheld a heroic role. In the golden days, with enough outcry, Devin bridged the gap between Psyonix and the Rocket League community. He helped us enact tangible change.

Developer interviews fueled the games’ competitive spirit. Corey Davis even read a chapter of someone’s whacky Rocket League fan-fic.

Then, somewhere along the line, the RL landscape crumbled into a wasteland of silence.

Now we see greedy price upticks, a helpless bug support team, and complete feature removals. What happened?

Jeremy Dunham quote from an interview with Ben Sillis in 2017: "I just never want to lose sight of our promise to our community ourselves, which is to make Rocket League as cool as we can, consistently. As long as we do that we sleep comfortably."

Look, posts like these always lack concrete data and science. So I’m taking a leap of faith and presenting hard numbers. You’ve already heard millions of blind, underpaid Kotaku voices and cranky forum warriors shouting into overcast skies.

We’ll swim through Psyonix’s change in leadership, and the European attack on virtual gambling. Then, we’ll sign off with a deep dive into the 2023 layoffs that compounded pressing communication issues.

The Epic Games Buyout - What Were They Seeking?

Psyonix still runs Rocket League, but they’ve devolved into a child company for a larger entity.

Epic purchased Psyonix on May 1st, 2019 for a rumored 250 million USD. Psyonix wasn’t Epic’s only major investment. Epic acquired 15 companies spanning from 2019-2022.

Epic Acquisition List From 2019-2022 starting by most recent: 1) Bandcamp, announced 3/2/22 2) Harmonix Music Systems, announced 11/23/21 3) ArtStation, announced 4/30/21 4) Capturing Reality, announced 3/9/21 5) Tonic Games Group, announced 3/2/21 6) RAD Game Tools, announced 1/7/21 7) Hypersense, announced 11/18/20 8) SuperAwesome, announced 9/25/20 9) Cubic Motion, announced 3/12/20 10) Quixel, announced 11/12/19 11) Houseparty, announced 6/12/19 12) Twinmotion, announced 5/14/19 13) Psyonix, announced 5/1/19 14) Agog Labs, announced 1/24/19 15) 3Lateral, announced 1/23/19

There’s no denying slippery ownership shifts company priorities. But what were Epic’s motives for snatching Psyonix? For starters, Rocket League thrived through 2019:

Top graph: Most Popular video games of 2019 by total percentage of gamers who played: Call of duty: 36% Grand Theft Auto: 34% Fortnite: 31% Smash Bros: 27% Pokemon Go: 27% Skyrim: 21% Halo: 21% Overwatch: 20% League of Legends: 17% Destiny: 16% Rocket League: 15% Counterstrike: 12% Starcraft: 12% Hearthstone: 10% Soul Calibur: 9% Bottom chart: The 10 Most Played Video Games of 2019 by total twitch stream time: Fortnite 3,802,500,000 days World of Warcraft 2,083,333,333 days Overwatch 558,138,888 days GTA 5 266,416,666 days Witcher 3 124,833,333 days CoD Modern Warfare 100,000,000 days Fallout 4 42,160,000 days Assassin’s Creed Odyssey 32,987,500 days Rocket League 17,361,111 days FIFA ‘20 4,375,000 days

But success alone doesn’t warrant a corporate bagging. Ideologies and monetization models must align, too.

Epic's 2018 plea to Sony for Cross-play: "We love working with PlayStation, and we want this to be a win/win. The longer this drags out, it will be less so. I can't think of a scenario where Epic doesn't get what we want - that possibility went out the door when Fortnite became the biggest game on PlayStation. Here is what I propose: 1. We give you the data you're asking for and the marketing data ask. 2. Epic deeply integrates Sony's eSports API into UE4 as an engine-level feature. We market and advertise it as a 1st class citizen of the engine. (Maybe E3 announcement?) And we support it in Fortnite. 3. We announce crossplay in conjunction with Sony. Epic goes out of its way to make Sony look like heroes. You get to pick the when/where/how. 4. Epic brands its E3 presence with PlayStation. We're planning a 100 player celebrity Pro-Am with a huge after-party. Budget's I've seen are huge, and it will be the biggest event at E3. (Maybe we announce it with all the celebs on stage? New partnership++) 5. Epic's willing to explore more items - maybe we commit to a game at the launch of your next VR platform? 6. PS Plus - Maybe we do something extra special for a month? Offer a unique character, or something highly valuable to drive PS Plus adoption rate even more. 7. Epic extends the Sony company-wide UE4 license. I don't think I've mentioned this before, but your license to use UE4 expires in May 2019. That license has some of the best terms we've ever offered for UE4. Let's make this a huge win for us all. Epi'cs not changing it's mind on the issue, so let's just agree on it now." Joe Kreiner, Business Development, Unreal Engine, Epic Games VP

If someone forced me to draw a line in the sand, I’d pick the day Rocket League went free-to-play as the day Epic throttled public communication. 

But, if I’m being honest, 2018 already showed signs of trailing discourse – well before the Epic Games takeover. Psyonix still spoke, but words resonated with less clarity. Updates spread further apart, too.

Customer Support Merged into A Larger Entity

These days, if you drop a Rocket League support ticket, you’ll run it through Epic Games support. They’ll circle you around and redirect complaints elsewhere, lose track of the case number, and slam you with one of those “How did we do?” Email surveys.

Customer disconnect is a prevalent theme in all corporate buyouts. Big companies overstuff their plates; and, as they streamline old systems, employee expertise becomes a mound of beached sand caught in an endless attrition against relentless waves of seawater.

In live-service gaming, teams in charge of bug fixes and customer support tickets shelve a heavier, wider workload and never truly catch up.

Epic Games Lives in Tencent’s Back Pocket

Let’s chat about the Chinese mega-conglomerate, Tencent.

I think most gamers know Tencent carries a big hand in the modern Epic Games model, but I’d like to point out the severity. 

In June 2012, Tencent privately purchased a 48.4% market share of Epic Games. It cost them $330 million in 2012-bucks. Epic’s CEO, Tim Sweeney, sold this chunk to learn their insider insights into live-service gaming. 

Image of Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games
Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney

This isn’t uncommon. Tencent owns large chunks of many publishers involved in eSports.

They own the entirety of League of Legends’ Riot Games. Dark Souls fanboys might be disappointed to hear Tencent owns over 16% of FromSoftware. And, let’s not forget our old pal Ubisoft… among many, many others.

In the case of Epic, it means the board of directors sacrifices 2 chairs to the corporate titan Tencent. When you factor in companies like Google threaten to take over the company when you look at them wrong, which Epic has, it becomes apparent that executives can’t find time to tinker with their formulaic approach to public outcry and customer feedback.

How Crate Removal Affected RL Returns

Rocket League banished crates on December 4th, 2019.

When loot crates absorbed their first wave of government ban hammers, they were projected as a $50 billion market. Between 2010 and 2019, loot boxes witnessed a whopping 67% growth in presence across the gaming industry.

Now, outlawing virtual gambling on platforms populated by children benefits humanity. Studies suggest kids exposed to loot boxes triple their chances of becoming gambling addicts in their later years. But Epic Games backed down early, due to their high-profile cash cow, Fortnite, generating lawsuits from an angry mob of parents. The case cost Epic $78.3 million in virtual currency settlements in the U.S. alone.

Granted, that lacks the gravity of an actual payout, but Epic Games skated out of the rink before it generated unscalable problems.

Swapping monetization models introduced monumental community backlash that never fully petered out.

Epic keeps their numbers under wraps. However, Metrics from psychological studies and industry reports paint a clear picture.

Losing 9% of a 0.1% demographic could damage a gaming ecosystem. However, on July 21, 2020, Epic announced RL’s transition to a free-to-play model. The update rolled out on September 23rd. The community approved the decision with vigor. More than that, many criticized its late arrival as an Epic failure. 

Shameless pun intended. 

Why? Because rumors scurried around the web about the game dying. Despite being false, Epic Games chose the path of silence to keep gossip churning. They also introduced the long-sought-after cross-platform progression in their transition to help sweeten the deal.

The free-to-play model skyrocketed the active player count. Steam metrics alone reveal a growth spurt from 70,000 monthly users to 140,000 overnight. Mind you, that’s the least populated platform, and during a time when acquiring new game copies on Steam became impossible. In total, September 2020 saw 81.3 million active players.

Rocket League active player count history month by month. The chart on the left is steam users exclusively, and the chart on the right shows the full RL player base.

Rocket League’s current peak monthly users is 99.5 million, a record set in July 2021. I’d say Epic bounced back.

And they achieved it by ignoring complaints.

How Epic Games’ Mass Layoffs of 2023 Affected Psyonix

On September 28th, 2023, Epic Games laid off 16% of their staff. By now, every journalist and their estranged, deceased cousin regurgitated Tim’s Email. But nobody’s unveiled how those layoffs impacted Psyonix. Not until now, at least.

Save your applause for someone more deserving… I’m an ordinary sleep-deprived caffeine fiend who finds solace in information preservation. But, yes, I’ve found the sauce. Let’s dig in.

While Psyonix didn’t get nuked as hard as the Fall Guys studio Mediatonic, there’s a clear cost cut geared toward community outreach and marketing.

I’ll start with the most visible gashes:

Ted Gabbard Tweet: "My friends, I regret to tell you all I was caught up in the layoffs today at Epic Games/Psyonix. Thank you to everyone in the Rocket League community. The people I've met during my time here have made my experience so worthwhile."

The Dwindling Communication Team: Community specialists Ted Gabbard (Psyonix Ted) and Sofia Lillo fell in the layoffs. While communication between players and company roadmaps hasn’t looked stellar in recent years, these two tabled the most public information. They addressed widespread complaints across social media.

Psyonix Sofi tweets about being laid off from Epic Games.

Setting RL Esports Ablaze: The silent “extended RLCS offseason” burrows deeper than pro player burnout.

ApparentlyJack threatens to convert to variety streaming due to RLCS communication issues, trading removal, and constant bad news.

After the layoffs, Randy “Gibbs” Gibbons, provided a rundown on how it affected backend RLCS management.

Considering his pedigree as a former pro alongside Kronovi in Cosmic Aftershock, his involvement as a caster and analyst for every season of competitive Rocket League, and his recent promotion to RLCS Talent Lead – he’s as credible as a source gets.

The RLCS production management squad dwindled to 3 people. They diced two employees:

Jake Friedman – Jake ran eSports product approval and communicated with players about seasonal/tournament formatting.

Jake Friedman tweet: "I'm proud to say I've had a hand in RLEsports spanning back to RLCS Season 4 as an Open Qualifier Match Admin, leading up to today as an Esports Product Manager. But, along with many other amazing folks at Epic Games, I was laid off today."

Chlo Jones –  Chlo corralled viewers. She directed RLCS marketing and social media. She wrote the blog posts and the silly production skits. She was also the talent and channel manager. She sorted crew members during events, helped casters chat up teams, and resolved external org conflicts.

South American RLCS players still unpaid from split event over four months later.

Now imagine running a league like the NFL with three people – except your teams are scattered across the planet and most of your players are 17 years old.

It doesn’t work, right? 

So, Epic chopped three members from the Fortnite team and merged both groups. Needless to say, they host two glaringly different games. Everyone involved needs to devise unfamiliar trade tricks. Adapt or die.

Before bouncing off of Esports, I want to fast-forward to January 15th, 2024. That’s when we saw casters and commentators pouring into the RLCS casualty pool. 30% of the front end spent the entire off-season waiting patiently to discover no new contract awaited their signature. The layoffs sidelined Achieves, Corelli, Jorby, Spaceman, Subie, and Turtle. 

Some of these guys found quick fairytale endings. Achieves landed a coaching gig, Corelli and Jorby cast for independant org streams.

This wave impacted fans like a runaway freight train. Psyonix scooped up their casting talent from somewhere special. These guys were our earliest community leaders. They organized, broadcasted, and commentated public RL tournaments long before the developers even considered nosediving into Esports.

Anyway, the September layoffs hit the backend like a restless tornado, too. Here’s the crowd I swept up from behind the curtain:

Allyson Szramek – Senior Marketing Manager

Roles: Brand management, outreach for Rocket League Licensing deals, coordinating marketing strategies for Rocket Pass seasons, in-game events, and timing hot-ticket item shop rollouts. 

Gabriel Peter Baltazar: Associate Marketing Manager

Roles: Cross-marketing initiative for pulling Fortnite players into RL. Lead marketer for RL Sideswipe mobile app.

Islam Ibrahim: MENA Marketing Specialist

Roles: MENA regional marketing campaigns, Working with Saudi Esports Federation for annual events, locale-specialized marketing campaigns with football clubs.

Adam Silverstein: Social Media Manager

Roles: Managing RL influencer relationships, drumming social hype strategies, and helping establish rollout practices.

Anirban Chatterjee – Security Options and Fraud Detection

Roles: Detect in-game cheat usage and deploy counter-measures. (Remember dispatching Nexto?) Deciphering and banning account hijacking. Catch fraudulent spending behaviors.

Marina Shamashevich: Senior Recruiter

Roles: Recruiting employment in all roles, defining job roles, and weeding out excess candidates. 

Technical Production Manager: Kyle Sherwood

Roles: Backend server migration, credited for slicing server costs by 90% (60k to 6k/ month). Updated data flow to align with updated legal requirements.

 

Test Lead: Todd Cauzza

Roles: Reporting risk analysis to stakeholders. Lead trainer for remote employees. Work with outsourced vendors. (Monetization strategies and changes.)

 

Senior Quality Assurance Analyst: Nicole Abney

Roles: Check patch status implementation across platforms.

 

LiveOps Tester: Justin Greene

Allyson Szramek was in charge of bringing licensing deals into Rocket League. Until being laid off Oct. 2023, she worked with Psyonix since 2017. She brought in the "Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Cars" bundles, Volkswagon and Porsche, among many others. She also ran their marketing campaigns and aligned these items with the RL brand.
  • 18 HR and employee engagement positions took the axe.
  • Around 40% of customer support roles disappeared overnight.

 

The writing on the wall spells two things: 

  1. The removal of trading allowed Epic to shave off customer support roles.
  2. Going forward, Epic expects content creators to carry the roles of community outreach. They’re gambling on our fantasies of “fame and legacy” to continue dishing out positive press and unearthing event schedules.

The cut positions tie into the broader Epic Games landscape. For example, Epic severed SuperAwesome – the company responsible for spinning kid-friendly marketing campaigns.

I could only access a third of the layoffs – since I’m sourcing a voluntary “looking-for-work” spreadsheet. I should also point out that some of the more… executive positions left their overall company impact ambiguous, hiding behind political equivocation and bland corporate jargon.

I guarantee Psyonix took a heavier hit than I’m quoting.

Corporate Conglomerates Are The Future of Industry

Corporations always leave a sour taste in our mouths, but it’s futile to dance around them.

Even in Esports, GameSquare, the parent company for Complexity purchased FaZe Clan to reduce overhead costs. They pounced on an opportunity when the FaZe brand was hindered by crypto scams and an RL team that never practiced. Sure, FaZe drops to 33% boardroom representation now, but the boys in charge still roam the shadows of the eSports scene.

I can point to G2 gobbling down V1, which is a crying shame because Version 1 had the most talented freelance decal artist on the scene.

But, you know the story. It’s business as usual.

Psyonix struck gold with Rocket League. News outlets praised it as the indie hit of the decade. The fandom forged the Rocket League Esports scene without company assistance.

Point is:

We can sit here bickering and moaning about the Epic Games buyout, but certain things float an air of inevitability. Corporate machines are cheap, efficient engines with unmatched abilities for de-compartmentalizing tasks. They can reap rewards on multiple fronts. A design feature on Fortnite or Rocket League can cross over between titles, appear as a developer tool in Unreal Engine 5, or stretch as far as a seemingly unrelated marketing wing located across the Atlantic.

Unfortunately for modern consumers, that translates to production teams too preoccupied to tell you squat. Corporate conglomerates only speak up when an irresistible cash payout stares them in the face like an innocuous deer glaring into a trucker’s high beams.

Then you’ll spot guerilla marketers for miles, spitting “Kachow!” in the most eloquent tone they can manifest.

On the bright side, Epic Games extended the longevity of Rocket League. They harbor the resources to breathe life into the game for centuries – if they choose. At the end of the day, a watered-down product beats a void.

I know the popular take is laying all the blame on Epic Games, but let’s not ignore the truth:

Psyonix listed itself in a penny auction at the end of 2019. Honestly, we’re lucky the company wound up in capable hands. In an ideal fantasyland, Psyonix CEO Dave Hagewood would’ve spilled the same love and devotion we see from the likes of Masahiro Sakurai. He would’ve signed out of his career with an awe-inspiring project akin to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. The crowd would rejoice, chanting “Everyone is here!” and spend eons gushing over his legacy.

Unfortunately, in the real world, peppy anime themes of “slaying demons with friendship and cheeky principles” are an exception, not a rule. Otherwise, we wouldn’t feel the overwhelming urge to scurry into the gaming world in the first place.