It’s a game of skill, precision and reflexes. It’s also been described as rocket-powered cars playing soccer.
It’s the video game Rocket League, and three Cal Poly students are preparing to face off against other universities for $50,000 in college scholarships.
In Rocket League, players accelerate, flip and fly their cars around an arena, looking to launch an enlarged soccer ball into the opponent’s goal while protecting their own net. The team with the most points after five minutes wins. If the score is tied, the game is decided in sudden death overtime.
The Cal Poly Rocket League club is dominating the competition. The team is headed to the National Championship of the Collegiate Rocket League (CRL) after going undefeated in Western Conference play. This performance was expected, according to physics sophomore and team captain Michael “43” Menhennet.
“We consider ourselves the best,” Menhennet said. “We shouldn’t be losing to anyone.”
Menhennet formed the team last spring. At the time, there were no prizes to win.
“At first, it was just playing for the school and for fun,” Menhennet said.
At the time, Menhennet was joined by biology sophomore Aseem “Stay-at-Home Savage” Jain.
“We mostly played it for fun but now … [we] can pay for college from it,” Jain said.
Taking first place at the CRL National Championship would earn each player $5,000. These heightened stakes brought more competition to the arena. More than 400 teams from colleges across North America competed in an open qualifier for the first season of the CRL. Cal Poly’s two teams ranked in the top eight of the west, advancing to league play.
Esports is a fast-growing industry and more opportunities to compete are emerging for collegiate players. The team is part of the Cal Poly Esports Club, which manages teams in many other Esports. While the hope is that Esports at Cal Poly will eventually be supported by the school — similarly to UC Irvine’s program with athletic scholarships for players and a dedicated Esports arena — Cal Poly Rocket League team’s focus is to win a title first.
“We’d like a sponsor for things like jerseys and equipment, but mostly the goal is for us to win,” Menhennet said.
Becoming the best in the west
Rocket League may be a simple game to understand, but it requires many hours of practice. On average, each Cal Poly player logs 16.5 hours of Rocket League a week. It takes training for a player to learn how to shoot the ball precisely, position properly and handle their mistakes. The amount of time the team has put into becoming some of the best Rocket League players is what has led them to dominate in the CRL.
“It’s how many hours you can put into a game,” Jain said. “It’s way more of how much you can put your mind to it than the physical aspect.”
Since Rocket League is a fluid game with few stoppages in play, it’s important for the team to communicate properly.
“There are no real positions,” Menhennet said. “It’s all a rotation, we all have to do everything. Just relying on where each other are and knowing how we all play helps us.”
The Cal Poly roster was solidified with the addition of freshman Jack “Twice The Tang” Fargassi.
“I actually knew [Menhennet] online before I even knew I was going to Cal Poly,” Fargassi said.
The two had played Rocket League with and against each other online, and realized the potential for competing in the CRL. With three highly ranked players, the team developed good chemistry by playing together.
This roster has beaten every opponent they have faced in the CRL.
Beating the competition
Cal Poly was granted an automatic bye into the semifinals of the Regional Championship. The number one-seeded Cal Poly team only needed to take down the University of Arizona to qualify for the regional finals and for a spot at the National Championship.
“I think the [University of Arizona] game was where all the nerves were at,” Jain said. “So each game was continually tense.”
The number four-seeded Wildcats traded blows with the Mustangs, as the best-of-seven match was tied at 2-2. After going scoreless for most of the fifth game, Arizona scored a late goal to put Cal Poly down 0-1. The Mustangs quickly fired back, as Menhennet and Jain both scored within the same minute.
“That was a huge relief to see,” Fargassi said. “It was just instant
A 4-2 win put the Mustangs at match point. In game six, Fargassi scored in the final minute to eliminate Arizona with the 1-0 win.
Cal Poly went on to play Cal Poly Pomona in the regional finals.
“Against [Cal Poly Pomona], we had already secured the nationals spot, so that was just a big weight lifted off of our chests,” said Menhennett.
However, the match had a tense start. After going 2-2 in regulation, the first game went to overtime. The extra period was unusually long, extending the game by almost eight minutes.
“It adds a bit of stress, but when you get past a certain point you’re just auto-piloting,” Menhennet said.
After a nail-biting back-and-forth overtime, it was Menhennet that tipped the ball in for the game-winning goal.
“It was a feeling of relief and excitement,” Menhennet said.
The win for the Mustangs set the tone for the rest of the match. Cal Poly quickly won the next two games, bringing themselves one win away from taking first place in the conference.
In game four, the score remained tied at 1-1 after Menhennet came up with a last-second save to send the game to overtime. The team captain followed up the game-saving play with the game-winning goal just 12 seconds into overtime.
Looking ahead to nationals
As the number one seed from the Western Conference, Cal Poly joins seven other colleges in the double-elimination bracket. The team’s first match will be against Northeastern University, the number one seed from the Eastern Conference.
As the only other team to go undefeated in their conference, the Paws have given the Mustangs trouble in the past. It’s a rematch from the CRL Summer Series, where Northeastern edged out Cal Poly for the win. However, the new iteration of the Cal Poly team is more confident.
“That’s our match to win,” Jain said. “It’s kind of like coming back and proving we can beat them. [Northeastern University] is the team to beat.”
The CRL National Championships will kickoff Dec. 10. All matches will be broadcasted live.
“I expect a win,” Jain said. “I don’t expect it to be super easy, but I think we should clinch the number one spot.”