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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
But success alone doesn’t warrant a corporate bagging. Ideologies and monetization models must align, too.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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:
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.
Setting RL Esports Ablaze: The silent “extended RLCS offseason” burrows deeper than pro player burnout.
After the layoffs, Gibbs provided a rundown on how it affected backend RLCS management.
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.
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.
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.
Anyway, here’s the crowd I swept up from behind the curtain:
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.
Roles: Cross-marketing initiative for pulling Fortnite players into RL. Lead marketer for RL Sideswipe mobile app.
Roles: MENA regional marketing campaigns, Working with Saudi Esports Federation for annual events, locale-specialized marketing campaigns with football clubs.
Roles: Managing RL influencer relationships, drumming social hype strategies, and helping establish rollout practices.
Roles: Detect in-game cheat usage and deploy counter-measures. (Remember dispatching Nexto?) Deciphering and banning account hijacking. Catch fraudulent spending behaviors.
Roles: Recruiting employment in all roles, defining job roles, and weeding out excess candidates.
Roles: Backend server migration, credited for slicing server costs by 90% (60k to 6k/ month). Updated data flow to align with updated legal requirements.
Roles: Reporting risk analysis to stakeholders. Lead trainer for remote employees. Work with outsourced vendors. (Monetization strategies and changes.)
Roles: Check patch status implementation across platforms.
The writing on the wall spells two things:
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.
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.
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.]
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.