A new breed of SA gamers compete for biggest prize pool ever

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It offers the biggest prize pool in competitive esport in South Africa, yet it remains the best kept secret in gaming. 2023 will see 16 local teams comprised of 48 players compete in various tournaments throughout the year for their share of R 3 million.

Rocket League is a game that sees rocket powered cars playing soccer, and it has exploded globally. This niche game, which up until 16 months ago had a relatively small local following, now sees a $6 million-dollar annual prize pool for the world championship alone.

South Africa’s top players range in age between 15 and 22, with some high schools and even professional sports clubs now having dedicated esports divisions, and Rocket League teams of their own.

Yet the man spearheading the movement to promote the game in South Africa is neither a teenager nor a professional gamer.

What started as a casual leisure activity in 2015 now sees a 51-year-old from Johannesburg playing a significant role in growing the esport of Rocket League in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Ryan Hogarth, or “Greybeard” as he is known within the gaming fraternity, is passionate about the opportunities that Rocket League can afford South African gamers. “Rocket League is unique as a  gaming title: Non-violent, easy to understand and free to play on all gaming platforms. It’s engaging for both players and spectators. Those that ‘go pro’ are earning while they play, and developing skills which we hope will soon see them able to compete with the best in the world”.

Hogarth wants parents to be open to having conversations with their children about esports.

Far from being “too much screen time”, esports have evolved substantially over the last decade in South Africa. Schools and universities are also acknowledging the opportunities gaming can create, in terms of business opportunities and the ability to compete as digital athletes, with many schools now offering esports as an extracurricular activity.

“Competing in esports means becoming part of a thriving community and interacting with others who share a similar passion,” he says.

When the makers of Rocket League, game developer Psyonix, was acquired by Epic Games in 2019, it enabled many more resources to be directed at this competitive sports league globally. This included a mandate to focus on increasing its presence in Sub-Saharan Africa, enabling Rocket League to be the most publisher supported esport in South Africa.

“We are seeing teams rapidly professionalise, employing the services of coaches and even mental consultants to assist with the pressures of competing at the highest level,” Hogarth says. “The sub-Saharan region is the smallest in the Rocket League global community which means it has the highest potential for growth. Orlando Pirates recognised this potential and have had a Rocket League team since 2018. Most recently, US based esport organisation Limitless picked up the top team in the country and are investing in the future of the game in South Africa”.

All nine major tournaments in the year are broadcast by South Africans and with growing viewership on interactive livestreaming service Twitch, the opportunities are endless for players, esport organisations, broadcast talent and, importantly, brands. “With a demographic focused on 13 to 25 year olds, this esport is in the early stages of a wild rocket ride,” Hogarth says.