How BLAST’s Rocket League deal provides a window into an alternate future for esports
As of January 4, the Danish esports company BLAST has partnered with Epic Games to become the official operator of “Rocket League” esports. Epic’s choice to work with BLAST over the Saudi-Arabian-owned league operator ESL/FACEIT Group took many in the competitive gaming industry by surprise — and suggested that Saudi Arabia’s $38 billion investment in esports might not result in a full takeover of the industry, as many once believed.
BLAST began as a “Counter-Strike” tournament operator, but it has produced “Fortnite” events for Epic since 2021, managing the entirety of Epic’s Fortnite Champion Series (FNCS) in 2022 and 2023. As part of this month’s “Rocket League” deal, the company will administer all event production, sales, operations and marketing for the Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS), as well as manage the commercial rights to both the game and its esports competitions.
“We work in a lot of traditionally non-brand-friendly games, and managed to develop great commercial partnerships and programs,” said BLAST chief business officer Leo Matlock. “So to have one where perhaps some of those barriers aren’t there is great.”
Both BLAST and Epic Games representatives declined to elaborate on the specific duration or financial details of the partnership, but confirmed that the agreement was a multi-year deal.
“For RLCS, we’re absolutely focused on looking at the inventory they had and maximizing it — but we don’t want to stagnate,” said Matlock, who told Digiday that BLAST will gain access to both in-game inventory such as banners and and flags and out-of-game inventory including event naming rights. “The point of this being multi-year is that we can try, we can listen, we can learn, we can adapt, we can improve. The kinds of things that people have seen before, we’ll definitely be looking to recreate. But we’re also here to see how we can make that proposition more compelling for brands.”
A change of plans
BLAST secured the “Rocket League” deal just before the beginning of the 2023 holidays. For Epic Games, this decision represented a bit of a pivot. The publisher had previously partnered with the Germany-based ESL/FACEIT Group, another esports company, to manage “Rocket League” events, and the two companies had been in meetings for months to determine their relationship in 2024. Those involved in the negotiations at EFG told Digiday that they were confident that their bid would win out.
“We have really enjoyed working with the ‘Rocket League’ community; I think we’ve done incredible work across the RLCS this year,” said EFG co-CEO Craig Levine. “We’re proud of what we’ve done, and disappointed not to have the chance to build off that in the future. Obviously, it’s Epic’s decision for why they chose that.”
Although Epic Games representatives declined to share more details regarding the company’s decision to ultimately go with BLAST, Matlock said that his company’s long-standing relationship with Epic helped it lay the groundwork for the deal. But other relevant factors likely factored into the deal as well, given EFG had similarly collaborated with Epic in the past, and both EFG and BLAST had already demonstrated a clear ability to operate successful esports events.
Avoiding fan blowback
One such potential wrinkle in the EFG–Epic fabric was the relationship between EFG and the Saudi Arabian government. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund acquired EFG in January 2022, and it has since invested billions of dollars to help propel EFG into becoming the largest league and tournament operator in the industry. However, Saudi Arabia’s spotty human rights record has led some elements of the gaming and esports community to push back against the country’s involvement, resulting in protests such as those surrounding Riot Games’ abortive 2020 partnership with the Saudi city Neom, which pushed Riot to terminate the partnership less than a day after announcing it.
“That was definitely a sentiment that we felt that we were very in tune with two years ago, when we first announced our partnership with [PIF subsidiary] Savvy Games Group,” Levine said. “I think when you fast forward to where we are today, and you reflect on the industry from the business side, a lot of that has subsided. I think there’s been a greater understanding of the country, the culture, their ambition and ultimately the transformation that they’re in.”
Given Epic Games’ penchant for making moral stands against giants such as Apple in the past — and its status as a privately owned company that doesn’t have to answer to investors — it’s possible that avoiding potential fan blowback was another reason behind Epic’s decision to partner with BLAST for the RLCS. BLAST’s positioning as a challenger to the growing hegemon that is EFG could prove beneficial to the former company as it looks to establish itself as an alternative path forward for publishers and esports teams.
“Maybe it’s the Saudi thing,” said Jamie Wootton, head of esports at the agency AFK, who has helped negotiate “Rocket League” focused sponsorships for top players and teams. “At the same time, they obviously granted the Saudis the license to run ‘Rocket League’ tournaments at Gamers8 for the last couple of years.”
Levine stressed that his company operates more or less entirely independently from its owners at the PIF; over the last year, esports publishers have taken note, awarding EFG contracts such as the operation of “Call of Duty’s” path-to-pro events.
“EFG is now a stable, long-term, predictable partner for them,” Levine said. “When there’s funding requests and uncertainty, I think publishers are apprehensive to create long-term commitments.”
As for the teams and players who make up the “Rocket League” esports scene, they’re just happy to be competing after months of uncertainty surrounding the game’s competitive future, which began after last year’s layoffs at Epic hit the company’s “Rocket League” team particularly hard. As far as the players are concerned, the name of the company that runs their league is less important than the fact that it exists at all.
“You know, I liked what ESL did for a while — but changing an organizer is never bad, it’s not entirely wrong,” said top “Rocket League” pro and Red Bull player Joseph “noly” Kidd. “I’m optimistic to see what they can do for events. I’m hopeful.”
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